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Blog : Posts tagged with ‘The Father’

Fun times

Or, another post on death, discussed somewhat bluntly

I’ve written a few things so far about my father’s death, just over a year ago now. Some were recollections written recently; the post about his death itself was written down not long after it happened. I’m glad I wrote it when I did, because, in trying to write this post, on how it felt to “host” a funeral, to be one of the more prominent mourners at it, there is an awful lot that I realise now I don’t remember.

It’s amazing just how long it takes to arrange a funeral, after someone dies; all the things that have to be aligned in everyone’s calendar. It ended up being booked for a date about three weeks or so after his death, which at least gave me time to discuss with The Children whether they wanted to go or not; give various other relatives time to decide if they could make it, and so on. “There’ll be a good turnout for his funeral,” one of his old colleagues had said. “There’s always a good turnout for funerals.” He had never been social in any way during his working life; after he retired work funerals had made up a good proportion of his social calendar, or so it seemed. A group of his old colleagues had made a point of visiting him regularly during the four years of his terminal illness; part of me thought it was rather nice of them, given I’d never have thought him likely to do the reverse, and part of me wondered if they were just getting themselves stoked up for the eventual social event that would result.

We got to The Mother’s house in plenty of time, we thought, before anyone else would get there; plenty of time to get The Children into their funeral outfits but not enough time for them to get into a mess. We had, I hoped, already sorted out the debate as to who would travel with who; sorting out the various priority arguments as to who would get to ride in the undertakers’ limousines. My father’s family could hold grudges for years;* if one of his older sisters fell out with the other over some aspect of funeral etiquette, it would be quite plausible they would never speak to each other ever again. Thankfully my cousins all arrived to try to negotiate and marshal things; The Mother sat stony-faced in silence, letting the debate all happen around her, trying to avoid getting involved.

The cortege arrived, and slowly everyone shuffled into their correct seats. “Just follow us in your car,” said the undertaker, “and turn your car’s lights on. That way other people will know you’re with us.” Is this some rule of the road that all drivers know except me, I wondered. The hearse and the limousine pulled away, and I pulled out of the drive behind at dead slow pace.

Being part of a funeral procession gives you a certain amount of privilege, the privilege to make other people stop or delay what they are doing. We glided serenely down the main road into the village, dead straight for a mile. I concentrated on keeping my speed even, worrying throughout what would happen if some random driver did pull out and separate me from the rest of the procession. Who knows if anybody saw us, or realised what was happening? The village church is on the main road, but when we arrived all normal road rules went out of the window. We drove into the middle of the road as if turning into the lane alongside the church; but instead, glided like swans onto the wrong side of the main road to stop on yellow lines, facing the wrong way into the traffic. We carefully unloaded ourselves onto the pavement, and the Rector was there to greet us solemn-faced, her surplice flapping in the wind. I left the keys in the ignition so the undertakers could shunt the cars out of the way for us; it felt unnatural and wrong.

Funeral orations must be a key skill for a priest. As we sat in the front pew listening to her New England vowels, I thought about all the things we had said to her, me and The Mother, when she’d come to gather information for it. I had been pretty open and honest with her about everything I saw as Dad’s faults, his coldness, his distance, his sudden rages. The Mother denied much of this had ever happened; I wasn’t sure if this was a desire to hide things from the Rector, a pair of rose-tinted grief spectacles, or a lifelong inability to admit he had faults. It was impressive to hear the Rector’s editorial skill: how she turned the account of how my parents got together into something resembling a romcom meet-cute, when phrases like “restraining order” are arguably more appropriate. They say, once you’ve seen the inside of a sausage factory you never want to eat another sausage. I’m sure I’ll be rather more cynical listening to funeral tributes in future. Anything at all negative, anything at all that might give the listener uncomfortable thoughts, is carefully wiped away to avoid upsetting them.

I stared at the coffin, looking awfully small. We’d gone for a wicker coffin, nicely rustic and biodegradable, ignoring the undertakers’ warning that it would creak like a ship in a gale as it was carried down the aisle. It was something Dad genuinely did believe in: self-sufficiency, living at one with the land, biodegradability and so on. Of course, due to the delay between death and funeral, and the amount of necrotic flesh already inside his abdomen by the time he died, the undertakers had also recommended we had him thoroughly embalmed. I knew, therefore, that sitting there by the lectern was an environmentally-friendly fully-biodegradable basketwork coffin with a thoroughly-unfriendly preservative-pumped corpse inside it. I still sit and wonder sometimes, a year since the whole arrangement went into the soil, what the relative rates of decay of coffin and body are, and just how recognisable his body still is.

At least myself and The Mother had immediately agreed on the coffin, knowing he would have liked the idea, because talking to the Rector we had disagreed wildly as to what else he had believed. For example, the Rector had asked if he was an religious man: not a surprising question, given that she had probably never seen him inside her church, whereas The Mother is there weekly.**

The Mother: Oh yes, he was always very religious.

Me: Really?

The Rector: I’m sensing some disagreement here…

The Mother: Of course he was religious!

Now, if I have to be completely scrupulous and honest about it, I can’t say. At no point in my life, no point at all, did he ever give me any indication of what he did or did not believe. The only thing I can say is: The Mother, ever since a sudden draught of religiosity when I was young, has gone to church every week as routine as clockwork, dragging me with her until I was old enough to say no. My Dad, barring weddings, funerals etc, went grudgingly once a year to the family event where they give everyone an orange and peanuts.

The Mother: Well, I know he was religious.

I don’t remember, now, what hymns she chose, only that the Rector thought them rather too mournful for a funeral and tried to get her to pick something less depressing. The Mother doesn’t do cheerful at the best of times. The Child Who Likes Animals could not cope with the sound of everyone’s voices around him; I held his ear defenders firmly on his head.

The undertakers hoisted the coffin to their shoulders, and started to process out down the aisle. As we had been told to, the family pews followed behind, through the middle of the other mourners, out into the cold of the church porch. Built in the 1970s, every surface of the church porch seems to be tiled, and at all times of year, whatever the weather, it is freezing cold. The cars were where we had left them, but flipped around.

“Do you want to wait and say thank you to everyone who came?” the Rector asked The Mother.

I was all for staying; it would have been good to shake the hands of anyone who didn’t want to go to the cemetery, or the buffet we’d laid on for afterwards.

“Oh no,” said The Mother, “I just want to get going and get it done with.” And so, to the cemetery, we went.

* One of my dad’s sisters once bought him a ticket for an event he was going to go to anyway, as a present. He was so insulted they refused to speak to each other for over a year.

** Barring pandemics, naturally. But it was the case then.

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.