I usually mostly write about yachts, but today I felt a call to sit down and write about my father, Nigel. The words came out quickly, they wrote themselves, and I feel more ready to tackle tomorrow having got them down on 'paper'.
Tomorrow on the 26th of September it will be a whole year since my father died. As I type those words, it still seems hard to believe that it’s true that he’s gone at all, never mind the fact that it has been a year. To date my main coping strategy has been to pretend it didn’t happen, that he is still there on the end of the phone, still there hard at work at the Times 2 crossword every morning, still there concocting delicious meals, still there sitting companionably with one of the family dogs, still just there. But he isn’t, and I’ve found that as that coping strategy runs out as time goes on, his absence now hurts much more than it did a year ago.
Over the past few weeks it’s been rough, emotionally, as this milestone approaches. Rather than focusing on the happy memories, I’ve found myself reliving that last, awful, week, where he battled so bravely and in so much pain right to the end. The laboured breathing, the shouts of pain, the thirty minutes of him staring at a pill knowing it was going to be too hard to swallow it but that without it the pain would get worse. The begging the doctors and Macmillan nurses to switch him from oral to IV pain relief and the long two-day wait for that to happen, with no proper pain relief in between and the anger and helplessness in the face of that cruelty, an anger I still can’t rid myself of. The watching him respond to my Mum’s presence, knowing she was there even when he was unconscious, and rouse himself enough to say that he loved her, with both those things a show of the deep love that they shared for so many years. The helping him walk for what you knew would be the last time. The feeling when he looked at us all, during what was to be our last ever family dinner, and said “I’m a goner aren’t I?” and none of us knowing what to say because what can you say when the answer is yes and you can see that your strong and brave father is afraid. The guilt of wanting it desperately to be over, because of his suffering and the loss of hope that the treatment might keep working, and then the sharp cruelness of grief the second that the end came.
Watching someone you love so much die in a slow and painful way is a cruel thing, but despite all of that I – and all of us I think – were grateful that, knowing we were going to lose him, we had the time to spend with him and to tell him how we felt and to make sure that in his last moments absolutely everyone who needed to be there was there. I mean, thank goodness I was there. It was bad enough losing him, but to not have been there for it would have been infinitely worse. Reading back through my diaries from a year ago it is clear how quickly he declined, faster than any of us, including him expected. In one of my last conversations with him, he told me himself “I just thought I’d have more time.” Even a week before he died there was no huge sense of urgency for me to get to England, and we were all talking about a planned visit for two months later. On the Monday before he died he was driving around the Island, on Tuesday he was at work meetings, I landed on the Wednesday and, as if he had been holding out for my arrival (in fact, he probably was), he quickly declined and by Monday it was all over.
I am so incredibly grateful that I was able to be there for that last week, we didn’t do much deep talking, but I was able to hug him and tell him how much I loved him and how proud I was of him. And I am beyond grateful that we had those 11 months following his diagnosis, which originally ran to days, where he was still around. But I am also heartbroken that he is gone and horribly aware that even though time undoubtedly heals that life will never be the same again now that he is gone. And I carry around all of this, all of the above, inside me and try to not let it come out too often (while at the same time feeling awfully and guiltily aware that when friends of mine suffered similar losses I absolutely, totally was not there for them remotely enough because I just didn’t get it then.) or to burden the others in my family with my own sadness when I know they must be feeling equally rotten. The times when it does come out are mostly when I am alone. Oddly, it’s usually when I am driving, and I drive along with tears pouring down my cheeks. Or else, it’s in a quiet moment, on a walk with a striking sunset, or when I look at my beautiful, wonderful children, and I think to myself ‘he would appreciate this’ that it hits me, and mostly when I just want to pick up the phone and call him for some advice or a chat.
I miss knowing that he’s there, even though he never was a huge talker on the phone and some of our best interactions were by letter or email. I miss the delight of winding him up by calling him before he was finished with the morning crossword and watching him battle with a conflicting desire to talk to me and the overwhelming call of the unfinished crossword, or of by telling him the answer to a clue before he’d got it. I miss his laugh – something none of us, a family of impressionists, could ever imitate – and sense of humour, with pranks including doctoring a flight itinerary of my mum’s to include multiple stopovers and terrible airlines, and her being torn between happiness to be flying to New Zealand and utter horror/ingratitude at the terrible flight he has supposedly booked her. I miss calling home and not knowing which parent would pick up. I miss his voice, and have googled and listened to him in a radio interview many, many times, because I love hearing him talk and I don’t want my memory of his voice to fade away. I could fill pages with the things I miss. He certainly wasn’t perfect, and with us both in possession of fiery tempers we argued many times over the years, but at the heart of everything was always a deep and strong love between all of us in our small, but tight family unit.
Most of all I am saddest about how much he will miss. It is hard enough for me, missing him, watching my children and wishing he was around to get to know them and enjoy them, but I am so very grateful that I had him there in my life for so many key moments like my wedding, and Otis being born, and finding out that Iona was on the way and being able to play him her heartbeat the week that he died. I am so much sadder that all of my siblings will miss out on all of this and that while it has been tough losing my Dad at 31, it seems even crueller that my brother was only 20 when he died, and that he and my other younger siblings have missed out on getting to know properly him as adults, and on having him there for key moments. I hate that my Mum is without her true love, when she’s not even 60, and I am so proud of how brave she has been.
But, life goes on, and in that last week, when he was still well enough to be lucid and talk, we talked briefly about his beliefs on what comes next. I recorded it, and this is what they are, in his own words.
What is the meaning of life? Humankind is a part of everything, the stars, the earth, atoms, everything. And God encompasses all that. God is us and we are God. When we talk about everlasting life it is meant that our progeny continues our lives, our genes are part of everything, mixed with everything and they will carry on.
The birth of my daughter six months after my father died was the greatest possible reminder that life goes on, and it gives me some comfort that his belief was that she carries a part of him with her, as do I, and that he carried a part of his parents and all those before them as well.
Our family, by admission, is mad and loud and happy, and I think the greatest tribute to him is that we try to be happy and remember him well and most of the time we succeed. The following poem was one we read when we buried his ashes last year. Tomorrow will come, the one-year mark will pass, and we will keep on keeping on, keep on remembering, and keep on being mad, loud and happy. I think he would be proud.