Each day at the moment seems to introduce another obstacle to overcome, another little surprise to adjust ourselves to.
I’d been looking forward to going. The Summer has just carried on extending itself outside of its normal bounds. Although the leaves are starting to turn, the weather has still been fine. Long warm days and cool, clear nights. And we cling onto each day, not wanting and not able to think about the next day, the next week or the next month.
At moments it creates a type of magical thinking – this being in the moment. We don’t know what’s coming. We can’t plan for the future. So we set ourselves free in the present, inhabiting the moment, trying to live it as fully as we can in the same way that sometimes when I swim I’m so absorbed in those seconds, the palms splayed as wide as they’ll go, my arms extended at full stretch, reaching, reaching into the seemingly infinite dark blue, not wanting to let it pass.
And the cricket has continued too, the final Ashes test being unusually late. It has always been important to our family both bro and I crazy about it and Dad too – because he loves sport and because he’s always been such an enthusiast. I think about all those cricket matches we had – 11 years in a row – and friends of me, my brother and sister all sleeping over or camping in the garden. Mum making the tea and dad doing the barbeque afterwards: normally left too late so we ate in the dark but all of us drunk by then so it didn’t matter. Him always so interested in and welcoming to our friends.
What happened this last weekend? The sun shone. The cricket was played out over Test Match Special, as it has always done – the soundtrack to each Summer at home – but things have started to change.
How I will always remember Saturday mornings with mum and dad. For as long as they’ve been together they would listen to the radio and chat away to each other. Always so engaged with each other. When we were little my sister and I would get into bed with them and listen to whatever pop Radio 2 used to broadcast back then. I remember one of Dad’s favourites was ‘I don’t like Mondays’ by The Boomtown Rats. They were always into music. And they still are. Still now, each Saturday – after Dad hasn’t been able to sleep much because of his ‘head feeling full of stuff’ as he put it to me the day before yesterday – they lie there together both propped up on the headboard of the bed listening to ‘Sounds of the Sixties’. They sing along and guess the tunes.
The Saturday before last I woke up to the sound of lots of chatting and splashing. Dad was having a bath while Mum chatted to him, ready to give him a hand when he needed to get out of the bath. It had been years since I’d had the good luck to listen in on them. Their secret happiness. It made me so happy. I felt like a child again. But with every sweet moment like this is that awful question lingering in my mind:
‘Is this the last time that..?’
On Friday they were at the hospital when I pulled up the drive. They had gone to see the oncologist to make a decision about whether to pursue having treatment or not. What a conversation to have. My cousin, P, had been through this with her late husband and she had recommended ‘quality over quantity’ (of time). The treatment makes people so sick and feel so awful and all that waiting around in a hospital when he could be at home only to extend his life by another 3 months. Together they had said no. They would watch the cliff edge get closer and make the most of what little time they had left. I couldn’t be there on my own. I went for a swim at Thorpeness in the blazing sun.
When I got home, I was strangely buoyant, insanely upbeat, I think because of being back with them, not distant, alone, worrying and happy to be with him living for the moment before it’s too late. I think it’s also my way to try and keep them going. This is how it’s been and this how it will continue to be as long as we can.
Mum looked tired and tearful. She admitted ‘she’d been in self denial’ before but the meeting had suddenly put the situation into stark perspective. Dad seemed tired – he’s always tired now – but also stoical.
However we must crack on. What else is there to do? As I keep saying to myself:
‘He’s still here.’
‘We’ve still got him.’
I make the drinks: Whiskey or wine for dad. Spritzer for mum. Beer for me. And we sit and chat as we’ve always done. I get Dad onto the past because he’s better at talking about it. It seems like an auto response sometimes. He doesn’t even hesitate if say I’m going swimming at the beach I’ll tell him.
‘Fancy that’, he says, his sense of irony still in tact.
We watch the cricket highlights. It’s a welcome distraction and something we can talk about at length if he’s up to it. So often he isn’t now. On Friday and Saturday I noticed how tired he gets. He sleeps lots in the morning, afternoons and evenings.
I open the books I’ve bought him online. One has been recommended by someone in the village. It’s called ‘The Salt Path’ about someone diagnosed with a terminal illness who then decides to walk the South West Coast Path with his wife. Mum jokes how she doesn’t think they’ll be doing anything like that. He’s read a bit of it. The other is William Dalrymple’s history of the East India Company. It’s a huge, in depth hardback and he is polite and appreciative about it but I realise immediately he won’t read it.
We have dinner. Me at the head of the small table in the kitchen next to the Aga. Dad on my left and Mum on my right. The same way we’ve done for years when I’ve been home for weekends and holidays and when I lived at home doing my A levels at Suffolk College. We drink more and talk about the village or my classes or what’s happening at the cottage in Somerset, used now to the fact that Dad will never visit the cottage again, just like he’ll never drive again or even go walking like I do along the coast. If he’s thinking the same he doesn’t show it.
I drink too much. Partly to seize the moment with him – we’ve always loved drinking together – but partly to numb the pain.
On Saturday the weather is glorious again. The deck chairs are still outside the conservatory but for how much longer, I wonder. I sunbathe while he sleeps. Both lawns are looking uncared for. I’m supposed to be mowing them but he’s too tired to show me how to work the mower.
The sibs come over on Saturday and we keep the conversation going with dad offering the odd comment. Life carries on but he’s changing day by day.
On Sunday I go out with my old Suffolk buds and we go water skiing and kneel boarding. When I get back dad seems so much older, shuffling along stooped over being helped by mum. He has come outside to direct me how to mow the lawn, a job he did without thinking a month or two ago. It’s like he’s become 10 years older overnight. I look at her in her green skirt and him holding onto her. He’s always been the cornerstone of the family – the one with all the energy, the chat, the wit, the strength. And these things are ebbing away so obviously like trying to cup water in your hands and feeling it slip between your fingers.
I’ve mown the lawn and joke with dad about what a rough job I’ve made of it.
‘Don’t worry’, he says with real resignation. The tone in which he says it says so much. I mean, really how important is the lawn when…? I don’t want to say it or think about it. Not yet. And I wonder f he’s thinking the same. Also I think he doesn’t want me to be upset. He can see I’m trying.
I decide to stay the night on Sunday. It’s good luck that with my timetable this year I don’t have to be working Monday or Friday. We watch the cricket highlights. The final day of the series. England win easily and although there’s due to be another day of play, Australia lose their last 3 wickets quickly. It’s a sudden and anticlimactic end to a dramatic Summer. As always we watch the highlights. Dad is so still, watching. And all 3 of us silent, so aware this’ll be the last time he’ll watch the cricket. His last Summer. Our last Summer together. Mum stands beside his armchair and he holds his hand up to her. They stand there together watching the interviews with the captains, silently holding hands.