Breathe

Christmas and New Year is always a difficult time of year for my family. In late December 2010, my Dad passed away and, sadly, I live with a number of regrets where my father is concerned.

As the atypical moody teenager, I treated my father with contempt. Dad loved me, but had his own way of showing it – something I’ve only come to realise recently. He was not the easiest person to be around (much like yours truly). He was often irritable (a family trait my eldest brother has persisted with to this day), irrational (my own particular speciality when under duress) and often hilariously and disproportionately quick to anger over the smallest, most insignificant matter (no comment). Dad was very loving and affectionate toward me when I was a child, yet I slowly destroyed his kindness throughout my adolescence and beyond.

Upon turning 13 and forever falling under the spell of James Dean, I behaved as if it was mandatory to hate my father. Years later, I tried to make it up to him in my own small way, but the damage had been done and I got the impression that Dad held a grudge against me for all the heartache I’d caused him. I can’t say I blame him for feeling hurt. He deserved better than that as he only ever wanted the best for me. The real tragedy is that Dad only started to show degrees of affection toward me again when dementia began to consume him.

Out of all the memories of my father, the one that endures the most is the day I held his hand as he lay dying in hospital. Dad had succumbed to pneumonia for the second time in his life, which was bad news, as only one of his lungs was fully functional following the first instance several years before. Due to the onset of vascular dementia, regrettably, we’d sent Dad to live in a care home as the family simply couldn’t cope any longer. He’d started going walkabout – for miles and miles with no particular purpose or destination – and on each occasion, we’d had to call the police to help track him down. My Mum was completely devastated that her childhood sweetheart was now reduced to a confused, rambling shell of his former self.

When Dad caught a nasty cold in the care home, we’d insisted that the staff sent for a doctor immediately, due to the earlier and nearly fatal episode of pneumonia (combined with septicaemia) that had led to his ongoing lung issues. Predictably, the carers ignored our advice and within a few hours, Dad was rushed to hospital suffering from chronic chest pains. The family arrived soon after.

I vividly recall sitting by Dad’s hospital bed and, for the first time in decades, holding his hand. His beautiful, piercing blue eyes were heavily bloodshot and, unable to speak (due to the pain in his chest), desperately thirsty and just plain scared, Dad gripped my hand so tightly that I can still recollect the feeling to this day. It didn’t hurt – or if it did, then I didn’t care – and I believe he wanted me to fix him somehow, telling me in the only way that he could. He’d done everything he ever could for me all my life and yet, in those final, crucial hours, I couldn’t do anything to save him. That’s what hurts the most – that I let my father down in his most desperate moment of need. Though, just perhaps, as he lay on (effectively) his deathbed, he was trying to tell me that I shouldn’t feel so guilty? That he realised there was no hope? I wish I knew the answer. That day on the ward, the rest of the immediate family were there, too. But in those precious moments between Dad and myself, it was as if we were the only two people in the world. Everything else was just static.

The only other thing I remember about that day is when, just as the family were leaving, a senior consultant approached to discuss the best course of treatment for my father. Sat in a family room, we listened as the consultant gently emphasised the difficultly with my father’s lungs and how any further intake of antibiotics could only be 15-20% effective and that, in the long run, may do more harm than good. We had to decide whether or not to continue with another course of treatment or, simply and more humanely, to let Dad go. Despite the practicality, I’m sure you can imagine the difficulty with making such a near-impossible decision. However, and I don’t know where this came from, as soon as the consultant finished talking, I spoke up:

“No, let him go. He should be at rest and I don’t want him to suffer any more than he already has.”

To my relief, the rest of the family agreed, but that doesn’t stop me wondering what would have happened if I’d made a different choice. Perhaps, in those moments on the ward and in his own way, that was what Dad was trying to tell me as he squeezed my hand? With the decision made, all the consultant could do now was to make Dad more comfortable as we waited for the inevitable. Returning home, no-one said a word for the hour-long journey.

A couple of days later, I awoke at exactly 4am and made my way downstairs to make a cup of tea. My mother soon followed and the moment she walked into the kitchen, I knew from the tears in her eyes that Dad had gone. She told me that the hospital had phoned and informed her that my father had passed away peacefully at 4am. These days, I just tell myself it’s a coincidence.

Dad’s funeral was every bit as difficult as I’d anticipated. I lost count of how many well-meaning relatives asked me if I was OK when I plainly wasn’t and I’d had to bite my tongue to stop myself from telling them exactly where to go. Both Mum and I sobbed uncontrollably throughout the service and to this day, I cannot bring myself to attend another funeral. As I’ve mentioned in another post, I couldn’t face going to Steve’s and, at the time, I hoped somehow he’d understand.

Over the years, I’ve often reflected on the relationship between my father and myself. I honestly wish I’d done things differently. But at least I tried to offer Dad some comfort in those desperate moments at the hospital. My Mum says he wouldn’t want me to keep torturing myself. I tell other people that regret is a useless emotion and it solves nothing but, looking back, there’s only one thing I’d change.

Everything.