Watching someone you love die is not what I expected.
There is pain; and I expected that. Waves of deep sorrow wash over me at times and send my head into a tail spin.
There are also tears. Should the world ever need more oceans, I am the person to call on. The mere mention of my father by a well-meaning dog-walker, will immediately produce a seemingly endless stream of salty water that could, I’m sure, sustain a whole eco-system.
I wonder if you can dehydrate from crying too much?
There is also laughter; and I wasn’t really expecting that. Incredible moments of lighthearted relief, which oftentimes crescendo into wracking, noisy sobs, but sometimes leave us – the three ladies of the bedchamber – giggling despite the silent tears.
My dad is fading fast. We thought we might have a few months, to make memories and share moments together, but it turns out we were wrong.
My sister, Emma, my Aunt Sheila and I are currently spending our days in a fog of grief, each taking a turn to leave the house once a day for some fresh air, whilst the rest of the time we sit loyal and vigil at his bedside. We are the three ladies of the bedchamber. A privileged position of final intimacy. We watch his chest and listen to the rhythm of his breathing. Sensitive to the sound of any change. We stroke his head and hold his hands. We listen to stories my aunt tells of their childhood and watch as his face responds to the memories with a frown, a hint of a smile or a comical wag of his finger, the physical and emotional effort of any reaction evident in the strain in his beautiful face.
Was it only a few nights ago this 24/7 vigil started?
The dying become restless. This is something I now know.
His wanderings through the night, unsteady on his feet, a mere few sips of water are not enough to give him the sustenance or the strength needed.
“He can’t be left on his own,” my sister, a senior nurse in an ICU unit in St Thomas’, London, stated calmly. This was as the three of us helped him to stand and shuffled him towards the en-suite bathroom.
“You’re like a dead-weight, Stevie!” my aunt said, as we all took the strain of this 6′ man’s frame. “Oh God!” she looked aghast and we all chuckled. My aunt is a female version of her brother. She is his best friend, his partner in crime. Her nickname bestowed on her by her three brothers and sister was Nettles on account of her prickly nature.
She is like Emma in many ways and like my father in more.
“I’ll take the first shift,” Sheila said gallantly as we settled him back in bed. “I’ll sit and read my book to you Stevie,” she patted him on his hand. “I’ll no doubt bore you to death!”
Full of gaffs which cause a chuckle?
We have brought two armchairs up from the living room, one at either side of the bed with a space on the bed for the third. Through the night, we rotate every three hours and leave our bedroom doors ajar so we can be summoned easily should our patient require help in moving or he becomes agitated and unmanageable. We stumble around in the semi-gloom, crumpled pyjamas, crumpled faces, crumpled hearts. Staggering through the thick haze of shock that has descended.
We have invited both my sister’s large Labrador into the calm cocoon of the bedchamber, along with my father’s two devoted miniature schnauzers. We spend so long here, watching, waiting, weeping that it feels wrong to leave the canine grievers downstairs, secluded from the privileged position in the chamber.
We make for a curious band of grievers; one farting, stinky Labrador who loudly emits great wet-sounding puffs of hideous gas every hour from around 2pm each day. The two little dogs lie next to my dad. They settle close into him once they have had a sniff of his hands. Their loyalty reminds me of the story of Greyfriars Bobby – the Skye Terrier who lay on and guarded his master’s grave for 14 years until his own death back in 19th century Edinburgh. A story that touched me deeply as a child and caused me real anguish as I imagined the pain and confusion of that wee dog.
The bedchamber is a strangely comforting place. Each time I venture out – either with the dogs or to the shops – I feel exposed in my grief. Seeing life go on as normal, attempting to join in, however briefly each day seems to magnify my current terrifying reality; that life will never be the same.
This is without doubt, the hardest and most distressing thing I have ever gone through. Even my mother’s decline into the hell of aggressive, paranoia was nothing like this. I am baffled as to why the world has not stopped turning and why are the shops all opening. How is it that other people are still living normally?
Six years ago, I watched my father stand at his own mother’s deathbed. She looked to me like a corpse. Her skin almost translucent and stretched across her too-prominent cheekbones. Her mouth open in a seemingly constant state of alarm. Her hospital room was eerily quiet, other than the sound of her rattling breaths. Emma took command of the situation and started to provide comfort with the mouth swabs left in the corner of the room. I remember being pleasantly surprised at her competence. She quietly and expertly wetted our granny’s lips and tongue, easing what we imagined might be a terribly dry mouth.
My father patted her on the shoulder, talking to her, telling her we were there to see her. I think he was attempting to rouse her temporarily from her deep slumber. It didn’t work. She remained seemingly unaware of our presence. Her mouth dampened lovingly by one of her granddaughters whilst the other (me) stood by awkwardly.
It is one of our jobs now. The wetting of the mouth. Every two or three hours, we wet a small pink sponge on a stick and turn it around the inside of his mouth, as if we’re decorating his cheeks and tongue with a miniature roller. We talk to him as we work, easing the suffering he himself stated quite clearly he was worried about.
Was it only a week ago when the GP came to talk to him?
We were sitting in the back garden. A space so beautifully landscaped and nurtured by my parents over the past 16 years. A large garden with bright, voluptuous borders, several bird feeders constantly filled with specialist bird seed means the garden is always alive with the sound of hopeful birds chirruping and calling to each other – advertising my father’s generosity. Every evening we are treated to the sight of two very fat pigeons. They chase off the tiny sparrows, tits and thrushes and sit on the smart trellis, poking their fat heads into the bird house. Sweeping up – it occurred to me the other day – like me at a buffet. These two have clearly not advertised my father’s bird haven to their fellow pigeons. I wonder if obesity in pigeons is now a thing.
The GP came out through the conservatory door and sat with us on the patio. We were surrounded by the colourful, flowering pots my kids had helped my dad plant just a few weeks earlier.
Despite the tiredness of the chemo and pain from the cancer, he brought a barrow full of compost round from the shed and on to the patio where trays full of little green seedlings, he had spent weeks tending to in his green house were lined up. Green shoots now strong enough to withstand a Lanarkshire May night.
Mabel had been the only one left after the first ten minutes. The eldest two had grown tired of the patience needed to carefully dig a hole and transfer the delicate root from one tiny pot into a larger one. Watching my father interacting with his little granddaughter was something I took for granted at the time.
I watched the bees and butterflies dance and flit between the many full blooms behind my dad. “Have you got any questions?” Dr Milner asked him after she’d gone through his priorities in terms of symptom management. “Is there anything you’d like to talk through?”
“The only thing that worries him is having a dry mouth at the end,” Emma told me a short while later. She had had the bravery to sit with Dad throughout his meeting with the GP.
“He doesn’t want to feel thirsty.” She told me. “Doctor Milner recommended a cooking spray – apparently it’s better than the oral gel you get,” Emma said. “Or so she’d been told.”
So, off we went to arm ourselves with dry mouth gel and cooking spray.
“I’ll try it first,” Emma said as the three of us perched around my father’s deathbed a few days ago. (Or was it weeks ago? The days have rolled into one long hazy memory to be honest). Having not been too sure which cooking spray the doctor meant, and with my father no longer able to cope with an ice lolly, or sips of water, Sheila had popped up the high street and bought Low Cal – a low fat cooking spray – from the garage shop.
Emma read the ingredients first. “It all looks edible and fine,” she stated. We egged her on and as promised, she sprayed it into her mouth. Sheila and I watched and stifled our giggles as her face contorted in disgust as the greasy white liquid tortured her tastebuds.
“Well?” I asked.
“It’s okay. Let’s try it,” she said. Ever the optimist.
So, apologizing as I went, I sprayed Low Cal cooking spray into my father’s mouth and the three of us leaned in, waiting for a reaction. Any reaction. We weren’t disappointed. The grimace on my father’s face caused us all to laugh hysterically.
“Not nice, Dad?” I asked. He shook his head and frowned. His eyes opened wide briefly in disgust.
“The GP said she’d heard it was better than just water,” Emma laughed as she stroked his hand.
“GP’s are not always right, are they Dad?!” said I. His eyes widened in shock offence.
“I think we should revert to just water,” Emma said.
Dad nodded and pulled a funny face. We all laughed.
Even in his final days he was trying to bring others comfort, easing our pain through a comical eye roll, or a hand gesture to tell Sheila to stop talking.
There is such comfort in his strength.
My brother has been up several times over the past few weeks, juggling a new job with travelling 200 miles to satisfy his duties as loving son. His last goodbye with my father was just a few days ago. Dad was seemingly asleep, unresponsive but settled. Clive said his final goodbyes and went to leave the cocoon and comfort of the bedchamber, but my father roused himself! He tried to sit up, to reach out for his son one last time. A huge and exhausting effort required for his weak and failing body. It is a moment my brother will cherish. It is a moment he needed to help heal his broken heart.
There are many moments to cherish, really:
The days spent with my sister and Aunt, holed up in the bedchamber. Our only task each day to keep my father comfortable and safe.
Playing charades to try and decipher his last thoughts and wishes as my father lost the strength to speak.
I told him I loved him over and over and over again. We all did.
I asked him to haunt me as I’m just not ready to say goodbye. Emma looked aghast! “Don’t bloody haunt me, Dad!” she said.
And the last time we helped him stand up, he bent down and kissed me on the shoulder. A tender, beautiful moment that made me cling on to him for dear life. Wailing into his chest, praying and pleading for a miracle. That wasn’t a particularly beautiful moment, if I’m honest. But I will cherish that kiss forever.
And, the miracle didn’t happen.
I cannot quite believe that I am writing these words, but my wonderful, unique, kind, strong and selfless father passed away in the early hours of this morning. Our hearts are utterly broken and at the moment, it is difficult to see how we will ever get over this earth-shattering, sickening loss.
But we will.
Because it was one of the last things I promised him.
I promised him that we would look after Mum and I promised him we would all be okay. That we would be okay because of the wonderful father we have been so very privileged to have.
This afternoon, Emma, my brother and I went for a walk up the highest hill we could find. We got as close to heaven as we could. I screamed at the sky. At the dark, thunderous clouds.
I think he heard me.
I will miss him every day.