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Symbolic Forest

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Blog : Post Category : The Family : Page 1

Entrousered

In which I visit my tailor

Today was: funeral outfit shopping day. I don’t have anything suitable for funeral-wearing at all in the wardrobe; the only time I ever wear suits is for job interviews, and my job interview suit isn’t exactly funereal enough for the occasion. So, down to Debenhams on my lunchbreak to find something that vaguely fits me.

I found a pair of trousers of the right length, after trying what seemed like an excessive number of pairs. I found a few pairs of trousers of the right waist. Of course, the ones that were the right length weren’t among them: the ones that fitted my waist were either just that bit too long or just that bit too short to really suit. “Don’t bother ordering the right ones,” said the shop assistant, “they won’t get here in time if you need them for next week. Buy the long ones with the right waist and go to the tailor’s round the corner.” So I bought the trousers, and headed round a corner and down an alleyway to find that squeezed between a decent unisex hairdresser and a sex shop is: a tailor’s shop. Either I’ve never noticed it before, or it’s one of those shops that just appears by magic at just the right time to aid the protagonist in their quest. It’s a traditional sort of place, with no concessions to show, to ornament, to tidyness, just a big workbench, a cash register, and racks and racks of clothes being worked on. I go in, put the trousers on, the tailor pins them to the right length and says “when are you coming in to collect them?” He didn’t take my name, my number, my email address, just gave me a card with a number on it and a promise they would be done in plenty of time.

A death

So, it’s never a good sign when a hospital phones you at 2am, is it.

My dad was diagnosed with cancer a little bit over three years ago. No doubt it was growing inside him for a year or two before that, but three years ago was when it suddenly became symptomatic, when he woke up one morning to discover he was randomly bleeding from his nose and his mouth, because his blood had given up on the concept of clotting. Prostate cancer had already spread from his prostate through most of his skeleton, to the point that it was Definitely Not Curable. Manageable, though, so much so that he may well, they said, die of something else first.

At first when the phone rang, I thought it was my alarm. Then realised it was a landline number, from my old home town, some sort of switchboard number. I didn’t catch it before the phone stopped. Then, whoever it was immediately rang back a second time.

I’d last spoken to him a couple of weeks earlier, after he phoned to tell me that he’d been to his consultant again. That was that. Not worth taking any more chemotherapy. He was going to be keeping him on one of his current treatments: it might, if he was lucky, keep him alive until the end of the year. If it didn’t work, he probably had a few weeks left.

I answered the phone rather blearily, to a random woman with my old home town’s accent asking if it was me. I found I couldn’t really speak, because I had already guessed where she was calling from and why she was calling. “He’s very confused and very tachycardic. We think you should come to the hospital.”

My mum had phoned a few days earlier to tell me he’d been admitted. He was having trouble breathing, so they had rushed him in in an ambulance, on oxygen. His spleen was failing. “They said his spleen is dead,” in my mother’s words. Now, I know you can happily live without any spleen at all, if you have to have it pulled out for some reason, but when a cancer patient suddenly starts to have unconnected organs turn into big and entirely non-functional lumps of meat, you know it’s not going to be long before phrases like “multiple organ failure” make the rounds.

The hospital was four hours’ drive away. I sat down and had a cup of tea.

Driving through the night, I wondered quite how I was going to react. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my dad show any sort of emotion of any sort. The day of his mother’s funeral, or any of the days leading up to it that I was home for, he didn’t cry a single tear. After the funeral we went home for lunch, then went out to buy a new camera. I tell a lie: he could get angry, he could shout, he could withdraw into a fuming silent rage. I’ve never seen him be sad, though, or show any kind of tender emotion. The roads were quiet, at first, and I had plenty of time to think about it. By 6am I was overtaking long lines of trucks heading to the North Sea ports, all of us still over half an hour away from our destinations, and I was driving towards a faint smear of dirty orange dawn light. By the time I reached the hospital, worked out where to park, it was just about dawn.

Of course, being half asleep when I’d answered the phone, I hadn’t actually thought to ask where in the hospital he was. It’s a big place, although strangely smaller than it felt when I had to go there to have my teeth sorted as a child, but the oncology ward was a very, very long walk from the entrance. When I reached the doors I had to ring a few times before a nurse came to the door to let me in; and then they hadn’t heard of him.

“Is he in A&E?”

“No, he’s an Oncology patient, and he was admitted on Sunday.”

She kindly led me to the nurses’ station and sat down at the computer, working down the list of wards until I spotted his name. And then another long walk, almost all the way back to the entrance and round another long set of stairs and corridors. I glided through the ward doors behind a nurse coming onto shift (hospitals are generally terrible at security) and found the nurses’ station. “Someone phoned about my father; he’s dangerously ill,” I said; they didn’t really need to ask who I was. “Oh!” they said instead, “you drove all that way straight here!”

He was in an isolation room at the far end of the ward. Not covered in tubes and probes as you might expect, other than an oxygen tube to his nose. He was almost naked, seemed to have thrown all the covers off the bed. Pale, almost hairless save a whiskery patch on each side of his chin, as if hairs had poured down from the corners of his mouth. He laid awkwardly, but he was awake, mumbling. My mother was there, and one of my uncles. I have a pair of uncles who are identical twins, and now I only see them occasionally every few years, it can be hard to work out which is which. I mentally started thinking to myself to avoid saying anything which might imply I thought I knew which uncle it was.

Dad’s eyes were dull, but he looked at me, and said something to me. “See, I said he would come to see you,” said my mother. He mumbled. Even unintelligible, he still had the same patterns of speech. He fumbled, moving his legs, trying to slip one out of the bed.

“Lie down and rest,” I said, like dealing with a sick child.

Mumbling: something about getting up. His breathing was forced, gasping, but strong and regular.

“No, you need to rest. You’re better here.” His skin was speckled with strange, fresh moles, some of them gory red lumps, like overactive birthmarks, standing proud from the skin by a quarter-inch or so. He was covered in bruises, including a large one roughly where, I suspected, the “dead” spleen would be, although I found out later that was just where all his medication had been injected. He started to pull at a sticky pad on his leg: it wasn’t actually being used, but looked as if it might have been for fastening a catheter tube down. “You can’t pull that off,” I said, “it says the glue is too strong. You need a special solvent.” It did indeed say “only remove with alcohol,” and I don’t think it meant “take shots so you don’t feel it.”

Mumbling: thirsty, maybe?

“Here’s your tea,” said my mother, passing him some very milky tea in a lidded plastic beaker. I knew when he had been admitted he had been nil-by-mouth; had that passed because it wasn’t necessary, or had that passed because he was on the way out anyway?

It felt like a long time, at the time, but writing this a few days later, my memory has compressed hours into a few flashes. My mother phoned the friend who gives her a lift to church every Thursday. “I’m in hospital,” she said, as if there wasn’t anyone else in the room. “They called me at 1am.” I wondered to what degree I was the second resort - how long had they waited between phoning each of us? I don’t trust my mother’s memory for facts.

He drifted away to sleep a little, but the nurses came to wash him and change his sheets, as they did at that time every morning. They asked us to leave the room, so we headed down to the deserted hospital restaurant, another very long walk away, down the same corridor that led towards the mortuary. I didn’t really want to eat, even though I had been starving whilst driving, so from the breakfast selection I asked for just a coffee, a sausage and a slice of black pudding. “Just that?” said the server, with a very puzzled look.

We sat by the window looking at the morning sky, and having relatively normal conversation. I tried not to wonder whether he would die whilst we were having breakfast, and instead wondered as to whether he would actually die today at all. This might be a false alarm; just a turn he had in the night.

He was still alive when we came up to the ward, in clean sheets, covered up now, still slumped sideways and vaguely half-awake. The nurses tried to rearrange his pillows, sit him upright, and he slowly drifted off to sleep. His breathing still the same: harsh, gasping, mouth open despite the oxygen tube by his nose. He slumped sideways again, and the nurses decided to leave him be. In his sleep, he dozily tried to pull the oxygen tube from his shoulder, but didn’t have the energy or the coordination.

The consultant and the doctors arrived on their morning round: a garrulous Scottish chap in a red shirt, Mr McAdam. “I’m sorry we have to meet like this,” he said, and complimented me on my facial hair. “We had a very lucid conversation the other day,” he said, “and we agreed it would be wrong to take any further serious interventions. Just too much suffering. He was happy with that decision.” And he ran through the list of problems my dad was facing. A burst stomach, leading to a thrombus. An infarcted spleen. Liver failure due to an additional liver disease. He didn’t actually say “multiple organ failure,” but he didn’t need to.

I realised, which I don’t think the doctors did, that Dad’s breathing was getting noticeably weaker as the doctors were stood around him. He was still breathing, though, even though it was definitely more shallow, definitely longer between breaths. The doctors filed out, trying to strike a balance between the bustle of rounds and the sombre tone needed around the families of the dying.

We watched him breathing, slower, slower and weaker, because there was not much else to do or think about. “I thought he’d gone there,” said my mum, “but then he started again.” She leaned in to see more closely, and held his hand.

There were a few seconds between breaths. The breaths themselves were shallow, hard to hear, very different from the gasping of a few hours earlier. And then: I didn’t think I could hear or see any movement any more. Nothing, and more nothing. I slipped my phone out of my pocket, and took a photo of him: the phone made his skintone much healthier than reality did. “I think he’s gone,” I said. It was five to eleven in the morning.

A nurse passed the door, so I waved and beckoned her in. “We think he’s gone.”

She looked down at him, carefully. “I’ll call the doctors,” she said, “so they can pronounce. Do you want a cup of tea?” She went out, closing the door this time, and came back with tea, in the big mugs of the nurses, not the small mugs that visitors get; and some biscuits. We sat, dipping ginger nuts, the almost-certainly-dead corpse of my father in front of us. “I keep expecting him to jump up and say it’s all a joke,” said my mother.

It took over half an hour for the doctors to arrive; their job is to care for the living, after all. We stood outside the closed door of the room whilst they ran through whatever it is they do, working in a pair, I assume in case a lone doctor might be tempted to Shipmanise a still-living patient. “Do you want to go back and see him after they have done?” said a nurse. We went back inside the room; they didn’t appear to have moved him at all. Still slumped against the siderails of the bed, mouth still open, eyes still shut. His skin, getting on for an hour now after death, was white-pale and waxy-looking. I took another photo; the camera still tried to give him a normal human skintone.

“I don’t want to say goodbye,” said my mother, but we walked out of the room and closed the door behind us.

“The doctors will write up their notes,” said a nurse, “and you have to go to…ooh, I don’t know!” She shouted to another nurse: “Where do they get the certificate? Is it the cashier?”

“It used to be the cashier,” said the other nurse, “now it’s the bereavement office.” Well that should be obvious, I thought. “I’d go in the morning, it probably won’t be ready today. Give us a call first to check. I’ll give you a booklet.”

We walked back down the long, long corridor, holding our fresh copy of “Help for the bereaved: a practical guide for family and friends” Where the corridor joined the next, we had to squeeze past a folding screen which hadn’t been in our way before, and a sign that said “For Ward 3 Enquiries, ask at Ward 4″; and I realised, it was a death screen, to make sure that no random strangers saw my father being wheeled in his bed, slumped against the siderails, over to the lifts and down the long corridor down towards the restaurant and the mortuary. We walked out down the corridor, and I wondered what would happen next.

Imagination

In which we are sitting in a dangerous ocean

In one way, today was a completely unproductive day. But in another way, completely unproductive days are themselves a good thing, if you’ve managed to relax.

We did get out of the house, at least, to go to the shop to get various staples. When the children walk there, instead of taking the pushchair, it does turn a ten-minute trip to the shop into a rather longer adventure.

After we got back home, The Child Who Likes Fairies decided a large plastic box was a boat for rowing across he floor in - not unusual - but also asked me to take photos of her posing in it, which is new. When I had taken a few, she looked through them and decided which she thought was best. “Better. Like it me.”

Winter busking

Or, rain

Lots of wind and rain today, rain being blown hard, the sort of rain that seems to be in your face whichever direction you are travelling in.

Went into town with the kids to do various dull things, like go to the bank to pay the bills, and pick up some firelighters ready for a turn on the railway next week - being February, I will probably want to get the stove going. The regular busker who only seems to play Nirvana and Green Day was in the Podium again, and as usual The Child Who Likes Fairies approved: “Like it music!” She has started introducing herself to other children when playing.

Undiplomatic

Or, a free-ranging post

Has anything happened so far this month?

Work has been the sort of place when I get irritated, because of people approaching to ask stupid questions when I’m trying to concentrate. It’s at moments like that that I start to answer the questions undiplomatically, if not unprofessionally. No, I don’t know anything about the issue you are asking me about. No, I don’t mind if you rewrite the workflow in the ticketing system, because negotiating the workflow will still be an unhelpful distraction from actual work.

At lunch, a woman at the next table was showing her colleagues pictures of shiba inus she’d favourited on her tumblr.

At home, we have been rearranging the furniture. On Tuesday I bought a couple of safety gates. We had one across the door of the front room; now we have a wide one to go across the archway that separates dining room and kitchen, and a narrow one to go across the stairs. I am not supposed to refer to the stair gate as “SG1″, incidentally. With these gates, and with some rearrangement of the dining room furniture, we’ve been able to take down the front room gate, to give the kids free roam throughout front room and dining room. Of course, their first response was to rearrange furniture themselves, pulling the nappy box in front of the TV so they could climb up and scratch the screen of the TV with a screwdriver I’d forgotten to put away.

Dinosaurs

In which we explore past times

As soon as we got up on Sunday morning, The Child Who Likes Fairies made it very clear what she wanted to do. “Museum! Museum!”

So, we headed into Cardiff, amazed at how quiet the city was. No more than five or six cars parked in the park-and-ride by mid-morning. The museum was, indeed, a hit, particularly the “Evolution of Wales” gallery starting with geology and the Big Bang then running through dinosaurs before ending the a fake cave of Paleolithic animals. “Dinos!” shouted The Child Who Likes Fairies and “Daaaaaa!” shouted The Child Who Likes Animals, running back and forth from the dinosaurs to the prehistoric marine animals and through to the mammoth and bison, then back again backwards in time.

There are always so many little things I spot during the day and think: “I must put that into a diary blogpost,” but when it comes to the time for writing things down, I can’t recall what any of them are. What else? We left the museum and walked around the city for a while, popping in the art supplies shop and various phone shops, looking to replace the one that turned into a brick the other day. I notice the site of the Ian Allan transport bookshop in the arcades, closed down nearly a year ago because of a rent increase, is still empty and untenanted even though the landlords have split it into two shop units. After we got home, at bedtime, The Child Who Likes Fairies could still remember what we had done: “Museum! Walk! Dinos!”

Today, back at work, was one of those days full of meetings. The longest meeting, however, was in The Tower, a board room way up above the rest of the building on a little floor all of its own, with panoramic windows looking out over suburbs and fields towards the mountains. As the afternoon dragged on the sun came out, its angle highlighting all the slight ridge-and-furrow remnants of ancient agriculture in the fields of pasture alongside the motorway, and just as the skies all turned blue the tower rocked, slowly but firmly, in the wind.

When I got home, I asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she’d done today. “Go museum see dinos!” was still the answer.

Celebrity

In which I say whatever inane thing is on the tip of my tongue

Monday morning, about ten past seven. I was getting dressed ready for work when K shouted. I went to the top of the stairs, and she came the bottom.

“David Bowie’s died!”

“What!?”

“It was just on the radio. He was 69.”

“That was the age my grandparents died at,” was the random stupid thing that came out of my mouth. It’s only true for 50% of my grandparents, too. It feels strangely young, for 2016, for someone to die in their 60s, especially someone who felt like a force for foreverness. “The Man Who Sold The World” has been stuck in my head for most of the past two days.

Tuesday: the weather has turned colder, but still no frost on the ground here. No frost at all this winter so far, in fact. The Child Who Likes Fairies has taken to asking to have a grey headscarf draped over her head so she can run around wearing it, looking like a ghost as she does so. I’m not sure she knows, though, that she looks like a ghost.

Out of joint

Or, things not fitting together

Saturday: we went out to the pub for lunch with friends. Our local pub does very nice pizza, and nice beer, and moreover whenever you go in there on a Saturday lunchtime it’s full of children running about the place going crazy, so our own children generally aren’t actually the worst-behaved in there. We caught up on all the local gossip, whilst the children threw toys at each other and other people’s children screamed and cried around us. At bedtime we asked The Child Who Likes Fairies what she had done today, and she replied “People. Food. Baby sad. Pizza! Daddy walk hop-up.”

Sunday: we walked around town with me constantly grumbling about feeling unwell. The charity bookshops had no good books that were affordable; everywhere we went in was so hot it made me feel sick; and in general it felt like the sort of day where things didn’t properly fit together. Still, we got a table in a café for lunch even though it was packet with students on Macbooks who had clearly arrived at opening time and settled themselves in their seats for the day, and one of the waiters was fantastic at bringing us free milk for the kids within seconds of sitting down, and generally stopping to entertain them whenever he was passing. Afterwards, as we walked into town, The Child Who Likes Fairies started shouting “MUSEUM!” as soon as we were within 400 yards of the city museum, so we had to let them run around the stuffed animal galleries for half an hour, fighting other children off the “pull this lever to see a dinosaur’s jaw move” exhibit, and pushing past goth teenagers to get to the best taxidermy.

Doubling up

Or, doing more than I should

Yesterday, I did a full day at the office, went home, then an hour later went back to the office and did another 6-7 hours. Bed at 1am.

The office is big and echoing; in the day time it’s always busy, and the chatter of the various contact teams travels between floors and runs around the building. Last night was the first time I’d worked so deep into the evening since I started this job, and it was interesting to see how sound dropped off as the evening progressed. At 8pm the last contact team on my own floor took off their headsets, put their coats on and went home; and the noise from the teams below us dropped off a lot too. At 10pm the last contact sections on the floor below went quiet, and after that it was just me and my colleagues sprawling over our own corner of the building, eating pizza, and doing our various out-of-hours tasks. With nobody else about, I felt free to walk around the desks as I tried to solve problems, the way I always like to when I want to concentrate.

Today, I worked from home; or rather, hid in the kitchen with my laptop whilst the children stayed in the front room. If they see a laptop, they immediately become so excited they insist on getting close to it, climbing on chair, climbing on people, shouting “PUTER! PUTER!” and getting close enough to it to bang their hands on the keyboard as hard as they can. So when I work from home, I have to work out of sight.

New Year's Day

Or, the sights of Bristol

Went into town today, walking via Riverside Park. As we walked down River St, we were overtaken by a Hipster Dad pushing his buggy, rather faster than us.

At the passageway from St Matthias Square through to Temple Way, there are usually homeless men sheltering, by the huge hot air outlet vents from the local branch of Future Inns. Today, when we reached it, there were several. One hunched up on the floor, back against the wall. One stood, arm outstretched touching the wall, body shaking with tremors, face fixed solid. Another next to him, concerned; Hipster Dad on his phone calling an ambulance.

After getting a few things in town we walked up and down the harbour: along the north bank from the Centre down to Gas Ferry, across on the ferry boat then back along the other bank to Prince St Bridge - which is now a temporary scaffolding bridge way up above the normal one. The harbourside was much busier than town, with people out and about for a New Years Day walk. People who, of course, didn’t really know what they were doing. There was a long queue for the ferry boat, with people standing about, getting confused, trying to count up if they had enough money for the fare. “They’ll be needing to make twin and triple wheelchairs soon,” said an old woman in the queue who saw our double buggy, “because there’s not enough people to look after us all.” As we walked back along the other side, The Child Who Likes Fairies was very excited by the stabled stock of the Harbour Railway - “Choot! Choot!” and insisted on giving it all a very close look and playing with the vacuum bags.