I could spend hours and hours telling you stories about how awesome my Dad was, just so you could get to know him that little bit more, but instead I’ll just give you a really quick overview…
Son, brother, husband, father, friend, crime fighter, holiday organiser, nominated driver, part-time dancer, chief dog walker, driving instructor, peace keeper, laptop fixer, red wine drinker, family photographer, period expert, essay writer, shit sorter, managing director at ‘bank of Dad’, and someone who always answered his phone to a pissed daughter at 3am.
He was everything to our family, as well as being kind, caring and without doubt, the most courageous person ever.
To give some background, my Dad had testicular cancer in 1997 but eventually he was fine, he survived and he went into remission, fab. But fast-forward 18 years and he was diagnosed with cancer again, but this time in his back.
To be honest, I don’t remember feeling very much when he was diagnosed. I didn’t live at home anymore so I didn’t see first hand what he was going through. He’d always survived everything thrown his way before so I just assumed he’d survive this too. I don’t think I ever thought that anything bad would happen. Bad things didn’t generally happen to us.
He had chemotherapy and he fucking hated it. Don’t get me wrong no one enjoys having chemo, but my Dad used to sit there absolutely dreading going in for his sessions. He slowly started to lose his hair, everywhere, his head, face, even his signature goatee disappeared.
One of the many things I loved about my Dad was that he would always find humour, in anything, even if there was little humour to be found – we share that in common. I remember during his treatment he went for acupuncture and sent us pictures of needles stuck in his toes with the caption ‘I’ll be pissing my brew out of my feet later.’
After he finished his chemo sessions, it was recommended that he should have an operation on his back. They would remove the tumour and fit a titanium vertebrae. This was quite an invasive surgery but like everything, he took it in his stride. He endured the worst but he came out the other side. The next minute, he was home and he was recovering.
It wasn’t until one morning he woke up and just didn’t feel well. The surgery was supposed to make him better but instead he just felt worse. He made a trip to hospital.
I received the phone call from my parents whilst I was at work. I don’t even remember who rang me but they told me to pick James up and come round. I still don’t remember worrying about anything, I think I just expected him to tell us that he will be having more chemotherapy or another surgery.
We walked through their front door and into the living room, catching a glance of my sister and her partner upset in the kitchen. That wasn’t a great sign. We sat down and I looked at my Dad, sat in the chair he always sat in and he told us that the cancer had spread to his liver. There was nothing more they could do.
‘So how long have you got?’
‘Weeks not months.’
So where are we going then?
This was my response, because apparently I thought I was living in a terrible movie by this point and the answer was to run away somewhere exotic. He laughed at me, ridiculously upset and we hugged, for what felt like hours. We just stood there, hugging.
It was my 25th birthday a few days later and we all had dinner together. We laughed, we cried and my Dad played with his selfie stick taking photographs of us all. We all knew what was going on behind those smiling faces, but we just enjoyed being together. You would never have thought that these photographs would be the last ones ever taken of the six of us.
The whole situation really hit me when I was driving into work (yes, my Dad tells me he has days to live and I go back to work!?). My Mum rang me to say he’d taken a turn and they’ve had to call an ambulance. I did a 360, rang my boss to tell him I wouldn’t be around for a while and I rushed to my parents house.
When I finally got there, there was no ambulance. One had turned up but had to leave to attend to a more critical case. A more critical case? More important than my Dad who was about to die? But actually when you think about it, you can understand. No matter what the paramedics could or would have done, they couldn’t save my Dad. If someone else had been hurt and had the chance of survival, of course they would go there instead.
Finally another ambulance arrived but by this point Dad wasn’t great, going in and out of consciousness and they needed to take him to hospital.
‘Does your Dad have a DNR?’
A DNR? I’d literally only ever heard these mentioned when watching medical dramas on TV. I knew he didn’t want resuscitating as he’d already told us that, but the thought of him leaving us hurt too much. They told us that because nothing was signed yet, should the worst happen on the way to hospital, they would attempt to save his life.
They wheeled him out of the house and I caught a glimpse of their next door neighbour (who had been like an Uncle to us) stood in his doorway with tears in his eyes. They pushed him into the ambulance, my Mum sat beside him and he just looked directly at me and my sister and waved. He had this look on his face, white as a ghost and almost lifeless, and he just waved at us.
That couldn’t be the last time we’d see him alive. We weren’t ready yet. We needed to make it to the hospital. The ambulance stuck on the blues and off they went whilst we scrambled into the car. We sped. Indicators did not exist, speed limits weren’t necessary, we recklessly didn’t care. Who gives a shit about a speeding ticket right now? We finally made it to the hospital and threw the car whenever it would go and ran inside. He was there and he was still alive.
We were waiting around for a while, trying to find out what was going to happen next. We thought after all this, the end was imminent so we took turns to sit with him and have what we thought was the final goodbye.
I thought about keeping this private from my blog, a special moment between just me and him, but if I’m being completely honest we just sat there quietly, holding each others hand. I said ‘you know how I feel’ and he said ‘I know.’ That was us and that was all we needed.
They gave him some steroids that really seemed to perk him up and they finally found him a space at a local hospice. Dad had made it clear that he wanted to die at home, but if he couldn’t be at home for whatever reason, this was the next best thing.
The hospice was a weirdly wonderful little place. The reality is that it provides end of life care so you’d expect it to be quite a sad place but it really wasn’t. It was bright, home-like and everyone was so lovely. I’ve never met people so kind and caring who would do anything for you. If Dad wanted something, they’d get it. There were no rules. One nurse even told him she could sneak in a tipple if he wanted it. Dominos pizza? Cake? Poached eggs? No problem at all – they did whatever they could.
One night, Dad wanted KFC so we ventured out, bought six meals and all sat around his bed eating fried chicken. It was such a ridiculously sad situation but whenever we were all together, we laughed and we smiled.
I lost count of how many times Dad told us he wanted a ‘TV death’. You know, whenever you watch a soap they never lie around for days until they take their last breath. He wanted an ‘ahh I see the light, gone’ kind of moment. He talked about his funeral, said he wasn’t really bothered about anything in particular and that we should do whatever made us happy. The only thing he did say was that ‘it’d be nice if I could fill the church’ – spoiler, he did, and more!
Dad had perked up quite a lot on his steroids so was very much acting like his normal self. He spent most of his days lying in bed writing in a notepad and making phone calls. I remember wondering what he was doing and he told me he was making a list of things that Mum would need to sort after he’d gone – of course he was!
‘Ring Sky on this number and ask to speak to Karen. She knows to cancel the sports channels. You’ll save a few quid.’
My Dad had always liked his cars so it was ridiculous listening to him ring funeral directors. The first question he asked them was ‘what fleet of cars do you have?’ and when one guy said Ford, he put the phone down. He rings another and the lady on the phone tells him ‘Mercedes’ so he said ‘great, my wife will be in touch with you in a week or so.’ I sat watching him in complete disbelief.
Dad cared more about making sure the three of ‘his girls’ would be ok when he was no longer around. He remained chief of our house and did everything he could to make life easier for us – something he had always done. He even recorded himself talking about his life and highlighted key dates so we knew exactly what to put in his eulogy. Even when writing this now, I remain completely in awe.
We visited him in the hospice every single day. We sat there as family and friends came to say their final goodbyes. It was so unbelievably heartbreaking, watching family drive away knowing they’d probably never see him again. How do you walk away from someone for the final time?
When we went home in an evening, I spent every single night with one eye on my phone. Checking whether it was on loud. Checking the house phone was working. Could I be contacted if something happened whilst I was asleep? Every minute I wasn’t with him, I waited for the call to tell me he was gone.
The steroids were continuing to work and Dad was still full of life. It was strange really. He looked unwell but because of how he was, you’d never have thought he was going anywhere anytime soon. You almost questioned whether or not his prognosis was wrong and I remember walking around the gardens with Mum asking her whether they were sure there was nothing they could do? It just didn’t seem real. He ate, watched TV and Skyped relatives. A Doctor came to see us and told us that he could go home for a few hours if he wanted to. And after much debate, he did.
I watched him as he sat back in his chair, playing on his iPad just like he always used to. Every now and again he completely zonked out and you’d have to wake him up. He wouldn’t even remember falling asleep but he thought it was hilarious.
He ate all his dinner and even had dessert. Stan slept soundly under his chair. It was a magical evening and so lovely to be home. Mum drove him back to the hospice afterwards and he messaged us.
14th September 2016, 9:46pm. ‘Night girls. You’re the light of my tunnel and spur me on. Cu tomorrow. X’
The following day, he died.
The three of us were there when it happened. We watched him peacefully drift away.
That night when we got home, I got into bed and I turned my phone on silent. I slept soundly for the first time because I wasn’t expecting a phone call.
There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t think of and miss my Dad. I remember different parts of this story every now and again, depending on what I see or hear. I can’t watch an ambulance race past me without remembering.
It’s such a sad story. I lost my Dad quite suddenly, but I had the chance to say goodbye.
I decided to share this story with you because he is one of the reasons that I survive, and continue to survive, one of the worst times of my entire life. His complete care for us, his strength and his ability to continue on in the darkest of times is why I am able to do the same after losing my daughter. He taught me to have hope.