My dad told me his girlfriend was ill not long after she told him. Their relationship was in its early days but I can still vividly remember the moment the joy I felt that he’d found someone to share his remaining days with was crushed by the news that not only did she have cancer, but it was breast cancer, the same cancer that killed my mother. The whirlwind of emotions that swept through me then and in the following days was intense, but as they settled I made a more or less conscious decision not to let myself get too close to this new woman who would (undoubtedly, the cynic inside me said) break my father’s heart again.
As was her want they kept the last days of her illness relatively quiet. I had known that her condition was slowly deteriorating, but my father had finally convinced her to sign up for a clinical trial that, whilst only offering a 50/50 chance of treatment, at least offered some hope. As they waited for the trial to begin my dad stayed by her side constantly, seeing to her needs as they arose and enjoying the few good days as and when they happened.
He wasn’t by her side when she passed. I don’t think it’s an accident that she collapsed and died on the only day in almost 6 weeks that my dad wasn’t there, I think she was trying to save him the pain of watching the light fade from the eyes of yet another woman he loved whole heartedly.
The funeral was a beautifully non-traditional event, no church or religious speaker but rather friends and family sharing their thoughts and memories in a wonderfully open and fluid ceremony. I was even accorded the honour of acting as a pall bearer (my father being too unsteady to do it at the time), and as we lifted the willow cot on which her shroud wrapped form lay and carried it into the hall I found some peace amidst the grief.
As people slowly left from the wake I found myself reflecting on how this wholly unorthodox ceremony had put me somehow at ease. The shock was over, the pain of the burial was done, we could start dealing with our grief now.
Two days after the funeral I got a video call from my dad and I knew within seconds of accepting it that something wasn’t right. His speech was slow and rambling, his face twitched down one side as he stuttered out certain words and his assertion that he wasn’t having a stroke sounded like classic denial to me. As soon as he had finished assuring me that he was ok and didn’t need any help I packed a bag and headed straight there.
Staying composed in the moments between recieving that call and walking into his house wasn’t easy. In an odd sort of way I had been proud of how I’d delt with the death and funeral of his girlfriend – I’d managed to remain relatively strong and composed simply because I wanted to be there to support him. But now my world was once again in turmoil, seeing him so unlike himself bring up thoughts I’d hoped not to have to face for some time. Would he recover or would he be left forever as this twitching, stammering shadow of the man I had once known? Would he die, forcing me to remember and enact all the many and various last wishes he’d been so fond of reminding me of when he’d had one too many to drink? My mind reeled and the journey passed in a numb blur.
Opening the door and walking into his house to confront him was frightening. His surprise was tempered with relief, he’d said not to worry about him but here I was. After hugs and hello’s he settled back into his usual spot on the sofa and I listened as he explained how the doctor was wrong, that this wasn’t a stroke but a natural manifestation of grief made physical, all the while silently hoping he was right but somehow doubting it.
Over the next 24hrs the twitches and stammers eased somewhat (although he remained worryingly unsteady on his feet) but it wasn’t until we finally got to his hospital appointment that he was proved right – the consultant neurologist concluding that this was indeed grief related rather than any kind of stroke. I had come to the same conclusion soon after we sat down in the waiting room; the noticeable increase in his stammering and twitching as we waited for the appointment to start suggesting the condition was most likely stress related rather than physiological in cause.
It was quite the relief to be able to message the numerous people who had enquired as to my dad’s condition once I got him home. I had received offers of help and best wishes from many of his friends as well as his girlfriend’s family when word of his ill-health had originally spread, and the sense of relief was heart warming.
Dispite (or maybe exactly because of) his ongoing problems my dad is planning to move back closer to me, and I’m looking forward to it. He is the only real family I have left, and whilst I am slowly coming to accept that his days are numbered I want to make the most of them.
Family is a rare treat, and one I intend to savor