Dad’s death in Walton hospital
Death is not a subject that people want to hear about these days. We are institutionalising it. We leave to the experts – the medical team, nurses and then the undertakers. I think we should talk about it more.
This fear and silence is a modern phenomenon. Death used to be more common. It was not merely the old who died. Most families lost children. Nobody was immune. Because it was more common did not make it any the less distressing. But even so it was the family who nursed and cared for the dying and it was the family who laid out the body. The body would remain in the house. The Irish wake was a celebration of the life of the dead person and they were present at it.
We have become divorced from the cycle of life and death just as we have from nature. Increasingly we are marooned in an artificial cocoon. The reality of life and death is kept at arm’s length and institutionalised.
My father died from liver cancer at the age of fifty eight. Much too early. He never lived to enjoy his retirement. His illness spanned nine months – the length of a gestation.
He started to smoke when he enlisted in the war at the age of seventeen and it was a habit that stayed with him for his remaining forty one years. I hope he extracted enough pleasure out of those fags to warrant the loss of twenty to thirty years and the life that would have filled those years.
My mum and dad came to stay at Christmas. He was off his food and grumbling of a loss of appetite. Over the course of the next few months I’d phone him at work and he’d say he was fine but he’d been to the doctor’s for some indigestion medicine. It wasn’t until Easter that my aunt phoned and said I should go down to visit him because she was concerned.
I drove down and had a shock when I walked in. My father was so gaunt and thin he appeared to have aged thirty years. He resembled a refugee from Belsen. I could not believe that he was still working.
We had the meeting with the consultant. He told my mother that there was no hope. There was only palliative care. I do not think it sank in with him or her. They pretended it would be alright. He just needed medicine.
My father refused to discuss death. He ignored it.
That summer he grew weaker. He was forced to give up work, then even walking around became too much. He sat and read and watched television.
As summer progressed he became bed-bound. I spent my summer holidays helping care for him along with my mother and older sister. I gave him bed baths and helped feed him. We watched TV together. It was the cricket. He loved cricket and this was Botham’s Ashes. We delighted in the way Ian Botham took apart that Australian team
Dad read one of my books and said he enjoyed it. It was an old typed manuscript. I am pleased that he read it. I look back now and see all the faults in those early books. I have to rewrite them extensively. Dad was an intelligent man who worked for the newspapers in Fleet Street. He would correct and edit the raw stories. My errors must have glared at him but he was too kind to say.
We sat and talked for hours – but it was all trivia. How I would have loved to have talked in more depth about feelings and emotions. But there was a barrier. He knew the depth of feeling without me saying and so did I. That was the way things were then. Yet still it would have been nice to share more. I would love to have heard the stories of his life. But my father was a private man. He did not like to talk about his life and to do so now would have been to admit what was happening. I had to respect that this was not something he wanted. It was hard. It felt like pretence and it was a pretence. We both knew what was being acted out.
He always used to say that he felt alright in himself. I can’t forget that. I do not think he was in any great pain. He merely felt helpless, humiliated, impotent and embarrassed.
In his final week he required medication. They put him on morphine and the decline set in fast. He drifted in and out of lucidity.
Yet it went on. The strain was telling on all of us.
To get a break I went to visit a friend. I came back late evening. There had been a scare. The hospital had called the family in. I went in to see him. He was conscious. I said good night and he said ‘night bless’.
He died in the night.
The next morning I went in. He was cold and as hard as marble. You could sense that he was no longer there. Something had departed.
I remember looking out of the window as people walked by outside. Inside that room I was standing next to the bed with my dead father. My life had changed. Outside life went on as usual.
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