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Breathe

Christmas is a difficult time of year for my family. In late December 2010, my Dad passed away and 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: irritable, irrational and often hilariously, disproportionately quick to temper over the most insignificant matters. He was loving, caring 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 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 so much better and ever wanted the best for me. The real tragedy is that Dad only started to show degrees of warmth toward me again when dementia began to consume his mind and he grew increasingly confused and bewildered.

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 ago. 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. On each occasion, we’d had to call the police to help track him down. Mum was completely devastated that her beloved husband had been reduced to a befuddled, rambling shell of his former self.

When Dad caught a nasty cold in the care home, due to the earlier and nearly fatal episode of pneumonia (combined with septicaemia) several years previously, we insisted that the staff send for a doctor immediately. Sadly, the carers ignored our wishes and within a few hours, Dad was rushed to hospital suffering from chronic chest pains. The family arrived soon after.

I vividly recall being sat next to 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 my immediate family also sat by the bed. But in those precious few moments between Dad and myself, it felt as if we were the only two people in the whole 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 us to discuss the best course of treatment for Dad. 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 would 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, let him go. Despite the practicality, I’m sure you can imagine the difficulty with making such a ominous decision. But – and to this day, I don’t know where this came from – as soon as the consultant finished talking, I spoke up:

“No, leave him alone. 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, 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. Being driven home by one of my brothers, no-one said a word for the entire journey.

December 20th. I awoke from a bad dream at exactly 4am. On my way downstairs to make a cup of tea, the phone rang. Mum answered the call but I just knew: Dad had passed away. As I tried to comfort her, Mum told me that the hospital had phoned and informed her that my Dad had passed away peacefully at 4am. These days, I think it’s merely coincidental.

My father’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. 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. Even now, I cannot bring myself to attend another funeral. As I’ve mentioned in another post, I couldn’t face going to Steve’s funeral 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 others that regret is a useless emotion and it solves nothing but, looking back, there’s only one thing I’d change.

Everything.