One of the reasons I started this blog was to write about the big things in life that happen when you reach 40.
I didn’t really intend to write about tales from my Spanish village or shootings on the Spain/Gibraltar frontier.
So for once, this post is a personal one.
I left the UK towards the end of the year. I think it was November. It was a big move, not in terms of any fear of what I was doing, but more a sort-of momentous change of life thing. When we left, we did not stop off to see my parents. I didn’t want any emotional manipulation and apart from anything else, we were actually late leaving home – and we had a ferry to catch.
On our travels I bought a mobile phone so I could keep in touch with them. Or they could with me, whichever way you want to look at it.
My dad rang a few times early the following year to say he wasn’t feeling well. One call always sticks in my mind because I was sitting on the beach at Camping Chullera, south of Estepona, looking at Gibraltar. I talked to my dad about Gib because he was there during the war. He’d forgotten that I had been there too, on holiday some years ago.
He asked if I would get a cheap charter flight to go and see him. I wasn’t impressed with that. I hadn’t flown for years, and I wasn’t planning on flying at all, certainly not cheap charter. I doubted my dad would get a cheap charter flight. In fact I suggested he did, and then we could see each other. He could even fly to Gib. Stalemate. He didn’t want to fly cheap charter either.
My dad was the sort of guy, who, when I first got married and arranged a day out with my mother – in Harrogate, bit of shopping and very nice lunch – suddenly takes ill on the morning of said trip. Mother naturally feels obliged to cancel trip and look after him. Helpful Partner assures her there is no problem and he would look after my dad. Haha.
As soon as we had gone out of the door, and the ruse had failed, father was reinvigorated and suggested they cleared off to the pub. In fact, he’d never been particularly sick in his life apart from a bad back, so I wasn’t very impressed with being summonsed back from a camp site in Spain to the UK because he was feeling sorry for himself.
Some months later my mother rang me. We had bought the house in Spain by then. “Send your father a card, he’s not feeling well.” I did. Never heard any more about it.
Then he was off to hospital for some tests. They were inconclusive. I felt very manipulated. I couldn’t get any sense over the phone and it was clear they wanted me to make the obligatory Dutiful Daughter visit. I didn’t.
Christmas came. Or rather the few days before, and my mother rang. My father had been taken into hospital. She was so stressed and frantic she couldn’t really tell me anything. Partner Who Is Always Right told me to get my arse into gear and go back. It was 18 months since I had seen my parents.
I told my mother I would go back. I think she expected me back on Christmas Day. Given that a) I had to get my head round everything and book tickets, and b) I was going by train and ship, this was impossible. But I did get back on Dec 27.
The neighbours took us to the district hospital the next day. I spotted my dad in the ward before my mum did. He was grey and old, but he looked the same. Sort-of. I guess she was looking for the 25-year-old guy she married and not the old man in his late seventies.
He said thank you for coming. He was never big on words. We chatted and he was a pain in the arse to my mum. He told her he wanted to come out of hospital. Immediately. I talked him into waiting a few days – I couldn’t handle him at home and neither could my mum.
I spoke to the unhelpful staff on the ward desk. They eventually and grudgingly told me he had been admitted with a chest infection. They said he was lucid and alert, as was my mum, and they would do some tests on him.
“What for?” I asked.
I thought this was particularly stupid – having worked in the health service – and told them so. I got abused for trying to pull rank.
Then I went off to the toilet and cried because I realised he was dying and this was the last time I would see him. I dried my eyes and came back out.
I went to the desk and got some more information and insisted that the geriatrician ring me at home. Instead of relying on the unhelpful tosspots on the desk.
I went back to my mum and dad and we chatted a bit more and then we left. Total visit, maybe an hour.
After that visit, I went a few more times on my own. I got the bus, the visit took up most of the day, or at least the travel did. I took him some new pyjamas as a belated Christmas present. He had always been large, so I bought a large size. But they were too big, he had lost so much weight, and he asked me who they belonged to.
One day I asked him if he wanted a drink. There was a bottle of water and a glass. “Yes, please. I’ll have a large gin with a drop of water.”
“Sorry, dad, there isn’t any gin here. Do you want the water?”
Over the next few days I told him about his patient’s rights. Well, no-one else seemed to. He could refuse tests. He could refuse operations. He had the right to ask for information about anything and everything that was suggested/recommended/ordered. I don’t know whether I said all that wearing my patient’s advocate hat, or just as his daughter who didn’t want to see him deprived of making his own choices. He’d missed out sometimes in his life so I thought he should at least get the chance to make some choices of his own at the end.
I wasn’t perfect. I didn’t want him home and I knew my mum couldn’t cope with him. She couldn’t move him around. And I was frightened of him. Even though he was ill, and old, and frail, I still didn’t want to sleep under the same roof as him. I told him he could discharge himself if he wanted. He would have to call a taxi, dress himself, and pay for everything. I wasn’t going to do it for him, and I knew he couldn’t do it either.
How do you balance it? I wanted him to die peacefully, the way he wanted. I wanted to look after myself and my mum. No easy answers.
One day he said to me:
“I’m going to die aren’t I?”
I couldn’t think of a sensible answer. “Yes” seemed just a bit too blunt even for two people from Yorkshire.
I said something like: “Well, we all have to die sometime, dad,” and felt so inadequate.
He didn’t reply. He probably wanted me to say no, but I couldn’t.
We were his only visitors, but he did say he didn’t want to see anyone else, but I couldn’t visit at weekends because there was no bus from the village. He rang my mum on the days I didn’t get to go. He must have felt so lonely – or alone – or both.
On New Year’s Eve the hospital rang me late at night. My mum was asleep. He had had a fit. They asked if he had ever had one before (no), and told me they weren’t sure if he would last the night. Could we go in? No we couldn’t. No car. And, I didn’t want to stress my mum in the middle of the night for a false alarm.
I slept on the sofa and asked them to ring if there was any more news. In the morning, he seemed to be stable. There was no public transport and I didn’t want to ask the neighbours again. I went to see him the day after. He must have been medicated up to the eyeballs because he talked to me about people I had never heard of, and seemed to think I was going home to see his mum (my grandmother). The next couple of visits he was ok.
The district hospital was obviously sick of him though. He was taking up a bed and he had refused any further tests –I think I can take the credit/blame for that – so they decided to ship him off to a local cottage hospital. Easier for me it had to be said.
So I spent the next couple of weeks trudging backwards and forwards on the bus into the local town and then walking 20 or 30 mins to the inconvenient hospital. Needless to state it snowed, and the pavements were covered with sheet ice while I was struggling backwards and forwards with his laundry.
My mother couldn’t manage the public transport. We did it once and she was so cold waiting for the bus. She had to get a taxi after that at £20 round trip. Not something to do every day on a pension.
Dad looked very tired. The nursing staff got him out of bed every day and dressed him, so instead of falling asleep in bed, he got to fall asleep in a chair. I’m not sure of the added value – less bed sores?
He fell asleep when I went to visit him. He was reading a John Buchan book, but he didn’t seem to get very far with it. He stopped asking about coming home. He had a nasty bruise on his forehead from when he had fallen at the district hospital.
I left many a time in tears because I didn’t want to cry in front of him. I didn’t even know what to say any more.
One day I got home and told my mum I couldn’t go any more. I was so tired and felt very drained. She told me to go back to Spain, my dad was stable and they were talking about bringing him home soon with a care package.
So I left. I stopped over in London to see some university friends and it was such a break. I rang my mum from Dover and there was no different news, so I boarded the ferry for France and then got the overnight sleeper from Paris to Madrid, and then back down to Málaga.
It was good to be back in Spain. The morning after I arrived my mum rang. Partner answered the phone. My dad had died in his sleep that morning.
Apparently after I left he had deteriorated. They moved him into a private room and told my mum she could visit any time.
I arranged the funeral, phoned the relatives and went back. The undertaker, who was superb, took me to the funeral parlour to see my dad. In that sort of practical manner that they have, he commented as we looked at him in the coffin: “He was a big guy wasn’t he?” and then, “I’ll leave you for a few minutes. Just come out when you’re ready.”
My father was the first dead person I had seen. My mum didn’t visit the funeral parlour, she didn’t want to see him. But Partner had suggested I might find it helpful. I did. He still had the bruise on his head too, which I incongruously thought was such a shame. He looked big and frail at the same time in his box. Then Tom drove me home.
The funeral went ok. The organ music was nice, and my father wasn’t particularly religious but he always liked “Eternal Father” from his days in the navy. I only got half way through it although I did try so hard to sing.
Afterwards, my mum’s relatives and my dad’s niece came back to the house. I had put my foot down at the idea of naff pub sandwiches for all and sundry to have a freeby, so I had decided it would be family only at the house.
I made lots of food. But no-one seemed interested, so I never bothered getting it out of the fridge. It kept mum and I going for days afterwards.
I stayed with her for a few weeks, I thought after the funeral would be the hardest time for her and I had all the paperwork to sort too, but eventually we both had to get on with our different lives so I left for Spain again.
It felt so strange after my father died. It was like part of my life was gone. And he wasn’t very old either, 77. I remembered the good times, and the bad times, and then there was a huge sense of loss which I had never felt before.
And I remembered his comment from many years ago, in my late teens or early 20s, when we were in the pub together, having a pint after work. “When I’m gone, it will be up to you to look after you mother…..”