I’m on holiday. Well, I’m away from home and work, eating salad and fruit and beer comes in two sizes – large and small – so I guess that means I’m on holiday. I’m also away from my ‘other half’ as this is a holiday with my Mum.
It’s now about a year since me and himself got back off our last sunny holiday (free use of a flat in Sitges courtesy of one of his brothers – do I always sound skint when it comes to holidays?) to find that my Dad had been referred to hospital for chest x-rays. You know, just routine … Three months later and my Mum has to get used to being a widow.
This is Mum’s first holiday away since then. She’s had her downs and started back up on the up-slide again a couple of months ago, the urge to go away again being a part of that. But how to go away on your own? Answer – don’t. So, here I am, in Tenerife. I steered Mum through the changes at Manchester Airport, reminded her that in case of sudden loss of oxygen in the airplane cabin she was to see to her own oxygen mask before her child’s (she thought that was funny), explained that, no, airline seats hadn’t got wider, her bum was 2 sizes smaller than the last time she was on a plane.
Some compromises are being made. I wasn’t allowed to shave my head for the holiday … I now have 9mm blue hair instead. She wanted me to wear a dress, no jeans allowed at night … not sure what the genteel folk in this ’boutique’ hotel are going to make of the skull dress that joined a couple of others from Affleck’s Palace. Can’t quite believe it and at 45 I’m finally buying from Afflek’s. Still, we are in an adult only hotel so I’ve not confused/frightened any small children yet with my tattoos and no parents have had to explain that I am not a man in a vaguely embarrassed mutter (I know it’s sad, but it was always funny at the gym).
Going on holiday now is a little different to the way it used to be. Years ago I would decide which books to take and then dole out the reading time in the hope that I wouldn’t finish everything before the flight back. Now I have my netbook with me, masses of music, films and books on my e-reader and my first concern on getting anywhere new is finding out how good the wifi signal is in the rooms.
I also promised myself to make the most of the opportunity and to get over the current ‘hump’ with writing up this bloody albatross that is taking up a lot of the spare capacity in my head. Obviously, I’ve done nothing of the kind. First full day and all that, I thought I might try and sidle up to it and take it unawares.
I’ve been wondering how to phrase this post. In my head I have been writing it for days but have not been able to settle down to a keyboard and everything is still a bit jumbled. I should also point out that I am now having difficulty settling to anything.
Saturday 18th August we popped round to see my Dad. I hadn’t seen him for a couple of weeks thanks to a) a snotty cold and b) camping in Wales.
As he had been having chemo I had banned myself from his house as I didn’t want him to risk catching anything from me. Rather than see him I would call every day just to say ‘Hi’ and see how he was doing. That was a bit trickier in Wales as my mobile signal didn’t seem to reach the crinkly edges of the country but I found a payphone and could vaguely remember how to use it so we could still stay in touch.
Anyway 18th August and he was in good spirits and seemed relatively well (you know, considering the cancers).
19th August and he had great fun watching Man City win the first home game of the season courtesy of my brother.
28th August – dead.
What was that? About three months from diagnosis to mortuary. The chemo was doing it’s intended job of shrinking the lung tumour according to the review appointment on 22nd August. Unfortunately he had also picked up an infection and we were sent home with anti-biotics to get him on his feet again before starting another round of chemo. Three days later and he is rushed into hospital in a lot of pain. He is stabilised and we are told it was tarchycardia as a side effect of pneumonia. They will sort his heart rate, sort the pneumonia and he will be ok again.
Only, of course, he wasn’t.
The day after the fun with the ambulance, my brother got back from holiday and was able to see Dad for a short while before visiting hours finished. In the early hours of the following morning (27th, a Bank Holiday) my Mum got the call and we knew it was just a matter of time.
We sat. We waited. We took turns holding his hand. We watched his chest as he struggled for breath. Eventually my brother sent me home – he would do the night shift, I was to return in the morning so he could have a rest. There was no question of my Mum leaving.
That my phone rang before it was still fully light outside was enough to tell me what happened.
Two days later and most of everything official had been done. Under stress I can be a good organiser. I’ve been supportive for friends and family as I’ve rung round and given them the news and asked them to pass on where possible/appropriate. I’ve sat with my Mum and told her there was nothing she could have done. I’ve thanked everyone for their kind thoughts.
I have a hole in my chest where the cliff has collapsed but it could be worse. It was a shock that it was so quick. It was a relief that it was so quick.
I think he waited until he knew we were all there. He just wasn’t interested in going through the pain again and for putting us through the misery of watching him fade away to nothing. Wherever you are and however you die there is really no such thing as dying with dignity. In the end the nurses made sure he wasn’t in pain and he just stopped breathing.
I guess that was the best way to go. That is what I have to redraw my map of the world. I know I will still be sad in the future, I know that family events and anniversaries will be awful things but I have the benefit of knowing my Dad was still my Dad when his time came.
It has taken a while to think about this, how to say what needs to be said.
In the manner of current NHS guidelines for clear and open communication to patients my parents have been receiving copies of all letters sent from specialists back to my Dad’s GP.
Right upper zone mass-stage T2b, N2, M0 if NSCLC
Scared what any of that might mean my Mum asked if I could ‘translate’ it back into something approaching English for her before she told my Dad about the letter. (I know, I know, it’s his cancer not hers but that doesn’t stop her trying to take control of everything).
I did what most people would do nowadays – I Googled it. I thought I was getting quite good at working out TNM classifications, the calm and clinical discussions of the latitude and longitude of illness. I could even show her the figures for 5 year suvival rates. They were not good but at least it gave hopes that he would be able to see another football season through.
PET scan results came through next. They showed the folly of trying to play the odds game. The lung tumour may have been stage 2 (still operable) but his spleen showed up hot. At stage 4 they have said there is no point in trying to take the lung, my Dad wouldn’t survive the operation.
Three to six months they said. Three to fekking six months for a man who, even a month ago, didn’t know – or didn’t say – he was ill.
He had his first session of chemotherapy on Monday, his second will be tomorrow.
This isn’t a cure, this is just an attempt to slow things down. I’m not certain how much can be done. Now that he is in the care of the real specialists at The Christie they are being kind to him but they are being honest. The jargon has stopped and they are speaking to him in English.
He is too weak for the more aggressive forms of chemo. He will have three sessions and on the fourth week they will take a view on whether or not there has been any response to the treatment. If there has been no benefit then they will not put him through any more medical poisoning and all that will be left will be palliative care.
If he responds to the treatment, and the side effects are bearable, then they will continue for up to eight more weeks. At best, if all goes well, they think they might be able to buy him another three to six months.
As a family we are coping in different ways, none of them seem to be particularly good but I guess that that is quite normal. My parents have been here before. Specifically they have even been at The Christie before as my sister died of cancer in the mid sixties. This time around they have been sent away with leaflets packed full of advice and phone numbers and how to get support for all aspects of the illness and the grief that is to come.
I think that first time round they got nothing and have struggled with the effects of the grief ever since. In the sixties it may have all been stiff upper lip and keep calm and carry on left over from the war. That was the environment I was born into and I’ve never really been comfortable with emotions. The stats and the charts and the TNM I can get my head around. The thought of my Dad just not being there and, more importantly, the thought that he may suffer in the process, is something that I have no answer to.
My job has always been to fix things. I can’t fix this.
I’m not much of one for family. They are just there – like the Pennines or the seasons, or, if you live in Manchester – like the rain. There are different kinds of rain but you know you’ll always have one kind or the other and often closer than you would like. It’s a given.
Only soon it might not be. I got back of holiday a couple of weeks ago to be told my Dad had a cough (cue analogy to weathering and erosion or some such). Later this week we find out if/how the cancer can be treated and how long they think he’s got. There you go. Simple as that, part of the coastline crumbles into the sea.
So today is Father’s Day. Do I go along and tell him off for 60+ years of smoking and then having the gall to get ill? There can’t be anyone that doesn’t know the risks. I even grew up telling him that this would most likely happen. Always there – Dad and smoking. He wasn’t the only one. I remember Uncles and friends of the family all smoking (we must have all reeked of it but everyone else’s parents smoked so who was to notice?). I remember the party one year when they all decided to give up together.
And they all did. Except for my Dad.
We all are all made by our environment. Years of watching my Mum nag him helped me grow up to be someone who very specifically does not nag. I also do not tut. I also realised that there is next to no chance in changing a person. My Mum seemed to have wanted to stop Dad smoking ever since she met. At that was over 50 years ago you’d think she’d have got the hint before now. I’ve even known my Dad wind her up to an argument so he can go off and have a smoke in peace on holiday.
Current husband smokes. He smoked when I met him and I have never nagged him to stop. I haven’t even asked him to start smoking outside. He’s tried giving up a couple of times and I’ve been supportive but he always goes back to it. He might not smoke a lot, but he does smoke. (By coincidence my previous chap smoked cigars. I might not like it but I do seem to have ‘form’ with smokers.)
Last week I finally asked other half if he would consider the possibility of maybe giving up smoking for good. (You can see I was really forceful about it.) He’s still smoking. He tells me not to panic, not to upset myself as – after all – the final diagnosis has not been determined. His own Father died of a smoking related cancer. If nursing your own Dad doesn’t make you reconsider then I doubt if what your wife says will make much difference.
I’ve grown up expecting this, there’s nothing I can say or do that will stop it. And I’m so angry at my Dad but I cannot say “I told you so” because that does no one any good. I can’t tell him I’ll miss him, because we haven’t had the final word yet and we don’t know how long things will take. After years of waiting for it I’m trying to be the objective one but I still expect to fall apart when the time comes.
Father’s Day. The day we celebrate bad DIY (yes, that shelf did fall on my head), being shown up in public (dancing to Satisfaction by the Rolling Stones), putting your foot in it (“no, I only meant you were all in proportion”, “oh, so I’m fat all over, thanks Dad” – conversation on holiday some years ago) and having the sartorial elegance of socks and sandals with milk bottle white legs and baggy shorts when abroard. The day we also say “I love you” with a card, often sarcastic and either mentioning money or farting, because we are all too stupid to say it out loud.
This is my Mum and Dad and my brother at his wedding a few years ago. I can’t quite think what the scenery is going to look like when one of them is missing.