When my father was diagnosed with lung cancer and brain metastasis on March 21st 2016, he asked the doctor breaking the news what the prognosis was for him.
‘Can I be honest?’ she asked him and he asked that she was. ‘If you were to ask me whether you had three years I would say it was unlikely. If you asked me if you had one year I would say possibly. If you asked me if you had months I would say probably.’
As we sat there that Monday, desperately trying to process what we had just been told, we had no idea that this evil disease would take less than 12 weeks to snatch my father’s life from him.
Dad, being the optimistic half-glass-full (until you drink it, but then, you can always fill it up again), type of guy, was hoping for three years.
‘One thousand days,’ he told me. ‘One thousand days. That’s how long I want.’
His dream was to reach his 70th birthday in October. He would have a party, he said. A big, traditional one like our family used to have, filled with Greek food and dancing and drinking and, most of all, with family.
‘Invite everyone!’ he told me.
Since February, when metastasis was suspected, I have spent much time away from home, travelling to Surrey from Kent and staying there for days at a time in order to accompany and support my dad at every appointment. It’s times like this when those that say they would if needed are separated from those that do if needed. The times when you’re too busy or lost to know what to even ask for, is when you need someone to say, ‘I’m here and I’ve got you covered.’
My childhood friend Claire, proved to be both mine and my father’s saviour, offering me not only a place to sleep often for days at a time, handing me her spare set of keys with the reassurance to use them any time I needed, and becoming a shoulder to cry on and lean upon many times, even via text as her job as a paramedic would see us as ships passing through the night. For someone like me who never, ever asks for help – ever – the last few months have taught me many valuable lessons and one is to remember that when you’re ever on the outside looking in and you see someone in pain and lost, don’t wait to be asked before you help.
‘She’s my mate of honour!’ Dad told me of Claire.
I hope I will learn from Claire’s loving, caring example.
Dad and I were always close, but much more so since his diagnosis.
‘Stay with me,’ Dad would tell me. ‘I can’t do this on my own. You’re my girl.’
And I promised I would.
It was quite unexpected that Dad would deteriorate as he did. 16 days before he died we went for a routine appointment at the Royal Marsden hospital for cancer patients where we had found out that the cancer had spread to his spine. His abdominal pain that he had experienced for a fortnight by then, he had put down to constipation. The CT scan report the doctor had handed me along with Dad’s prescription screamed odd words as a glanced down at it. Calmly and without drawing attention I folded the report up and placed it in my bag.
As we drove home that evening we were devastated at hearing that the cancer had spread.
‘Will I reach my birthday?’ Dad asked me.
‘I don’t know, Dad,’ I cried.
‘Say “Yes, Dad, you will,”‘ he told me.
‘Please don’t leave me, Tan,’ he told me. ‘I need you.’ And then he weakly sang the opening line of the Leo Sayer’s When I Need You, the song we used to sing together when I was a toddler.
But all I could answer through my sobs was, ‘How am I going to live without you?’
He hugged me before he got out of the car. ‘You’ll be okay,’ he told me.
After taking him home I drove to my aunt’s where I broke down. Together, along with Google, we deciphered the medical report I had been handed and realised the worst.
The home situation is complicated to say the least, and as such my Dad had not seen my children, his grandchildren, since before Christmas.
‘I miss them,’ he kept telling me, so we arranged that he would text me on the Saturday morning – two days after the appointment I have just mentioned – and if he felt well enough we would turn up unannounced for a picnic in his garden. This would give my mother, someone who you’ll notice we do not mention often, no chance to argue against our visit as she was likely to do.
That’s what we did and we all knew in our hearts that it would be the last time they would see each other. I left the CT scan report for him. He didn’t want to read it and asked me to take it home. He died not knowing the extent to which the cancer had spread, which I was thankful for. It wouldn’t have made a difference, only upset him more.
By the following weekend Dad was having problems breathing. A chest infection had hit his already weakened immune system. Antibiotics, steroids and regular sessions on the nebuliser did little to help. Within a week he was eating less and sleeping more.
‘This isn’t right,’ he told me.
On the Monday I was hopeful that he seemed to be breathing a little better.
On the Tuesday we walked very slowly to the shops together. Then we visited his GP who prescribed him more meds.
On the Wednesday a lot happened. A lot more than I shall go into here, at least. Dad was writhing in pain and I was unable to help him.
‘I don’t like seeing you like this, Dad’ I cried as I knelt by his bed, watching him struggle to get himself comfortable. We wrapped our arms around each other as I tried to persuade him to let me call for help.
By 4am we were on the ambulance heading for hospital.
On Thursday Dad had insisted on shaving himself while lying in bed earlier that day. Stubborn and independent from the day he was born at seven months gestation, the fight that enabled him to survive his premature birth in the 40s was still going strong. He drifted in and out of sleep for most of the day and night. His waking times were by now few and he was under the influence of many drugs that kept the pain at bay. My tears flowed freely and often, and as I sat holding his hand with one hand and burying my face into my other, my Dad turned his head to me and told me sternly to ‘stop crying’. Then he mimicked my sniffing and snorting. How typical that he would be the clown right to the end of his life. This was him all over, a teaser, a comedian, a storyteller and all round mickey-taker.
He woke from a sleep and I stood beside him.
‘Are you pregnant?’
‘Am I pregnant?’ I asked him.
‘No!’ I laughed. ‘I’m far too old for that!’
And he raised his hand and tenderly stroked the grey hairs peeking through my hairline. I wanted that moment to last forever.
Mike drove up to Leeds to collect Ben. They visited Dad that evening.
‘What do I say?’ Ben asked me through his tears. He and his grandad were extremely close since the day Ben was born.
‘I don’t know,’ I told him. ‘Maybe you might just want to say goodbye.’
‘I don’t want to say goodbye.’
And he didn’t.
When the time came for Ben to leave he bent down to kiss and hug him and told him, ‘See you later, Grandad.’
See you later.
That felt right.
By Friday Dad was completely bed bound. Stephanie brought Oscar to visit his wonderful great-grandad and despite by now not being able to say much, Dad’s face lit up like the brightest star on the darkest night. He motioned for Steph to lay Oscar on his arm and savoured that short time they had together as I took their photos. Oscar would have no idea how much Dad loved him and how proud he was of him. Like my grandparents, my Dad took pride in only one thing: his family. As weak as he now was, he still tried to make us laugh as Oscar’s little legs bounced against his arm. ‘Ow! Ow!’ he feebly joked.
Dad had had enough of being poked and prodded about. The staff kept coming to monitor Dad’s blood pressure every half hour. ‘Let them leave me alone,’ he pleaded, so I asked if they could please stop bothering him and just leave him be, which they agreed to.
As I tried to coax him to take a sip of water and tucked him back under the covers again, he mustered up his strength to tell me something.
‘Don’t thank me, Dad,’ I told him, half laughing it away. ‘It’s what anyone would do.’
That evening his breathing became more shallow. Jimmy came and visited him following his own outpatient appointment at the Marsden. Once more Dad’s humour shone through when he tried to say something to Jimmy and I translated it for him as an expletive. Dad nodded to confirm that I had translated it correctly and Jimmy and I laughed. We needed to laugh.
Jimmy left and Dad and I were alone again. As I watched Dad sleep Caitlin text me.
‘I’m going to miss him.’
‘Me too,’ I replied.
‘Can you tell him that I love him?’
And that’s what I did.
And I told him how much we all loved him, his grandchildren, his sisters, and everyone who had the honour of knowing him. ‘How am I going to live without you, Dad?’ I asked him again. Unlike the months before, he couldn’t reassure me that I would be okay. I swear I could feel my heart slowly tearing inside me.
After a small panic a couple of hours later and a return visit from my aunt who had spent much of the time at the hospital with me in the previous days, and Dad and I were alone again. He didn’t want the lights on so I turned them all off, even the night light, and I settled into the chair beside his bed and pulled the blanket up around my chin and fell asleep as I listened to his laboured breathing – one breath in, one breath out.
The past few nights had been difficult and I hadn’t slept much at all for three days or so. I tried to wake during the night but couldn’t, my eyelids were too heavy to lift. At 3am I sat upright and my eyes snapped open. I was wide awake and didn’t know why. I could hear Dad’s breathing was now softer than it had been a handful of hours before. I felt his arm and he felt a little cold so I placed my blanket over him and tucked him in. I told him I was going to brush my teeth and I crept around for my toiletries.
I went to the bathroom and brushed my teeth then settled back down with Dad.
‘Can I hold your hand, Dad?’ I asked him. Where I had covered him up with the blanket I had covered up his arm. I wanted him to know what I was doing uncovering it again so soon.
As soon as I held Dad’s hand he breathed out.
And then he said, ‘SSSSSSSSSHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH!’
And breathed out.
And I waited.
And I began to panic.
I put my face closer to his. It was about 4am and the room was still quite dark and he didn’t want the lights on. I didn’t want to disturb him by putting the lights on. And I willed to hear his breathing. And I wasn’t sure that I could.
I ran into the bathroom and called my aunt before messaging my brother.
‘Dad’s breathing is shallow!’ I cried. ‘I don’t even know if he’s….’ and I hung up on her and ran back.
I held Dad’s hand once more with one hand, draped my other arm across him and rested my head across his chest as I hugged him and I willed myself more and more to hear his breathing.
I could see that he pulled the oxygen tubes out of his nose and went to place them back in. And then I realised that it didn’t matter any more.
‘You didn’t want this, did you Dad?’ I asked him. ‘You don’t have to have it, it’s okay.’
Dad wasn’t religious.
‘Dad, I know you think that when you’re dead, you’re dead. But I think otherwise. If I’m right, will you promise you’ll always stay with me? I love you, Dad. I’m always going to be your girl.’ The words threatened to choke me as I tried to say them.
I don’t know how long I was sitting there with him, waiting and willing to hear a breath no matter how small. Kidding myself that yes, he was still with me. My aunt – my rock – walked in soon after with the nurse. They stood next to the bed and my aunt hugged me a while before she sadly said, ‘I missed him.’
‘He’s gone,’ the nurse said.
And that’s when my heart broke.
I have counted every day that I’ve managed to get through without him since. It’s a whole week tomorrow. I still don’t know how I’m going to live my life without him – it’s the one thing he never taught me. I feel as though he’s in another room and I don’t yet have the key to find him. I’ll get it one day, I know, and I’m taking it one day at a time.
The pain I feel is palpable. My eyes are sore from crying and I feel exhausted from the loss. It’s hit me harder than I ever expected. However long it takes to find the key that brings us together again, I do know one thing. I am sure that he will stay with me as I stayed with him and I will always, always be his girl.
See you later, Dad.