My father has died.
For me it started with a phone call from a shopkeeper in Brecon on Friday morning, 1st April. For my dad, it started a few minutes earlier when he fell and hit his head on the kerb outside her shop. She told me that he was conscious but had probably broken his nose and the ambulance was taking him to Merthyr Tydfil. After liaising with my brother Mike, I set off for Merthyr expecting to take Dad home to Brecon, make him a meal, and generally try to cheer him up.
At the hospital he was in reasonable spirits, cross with himself of course, but able to joke a bit – this did have to happen on April Fools Day. He looked a fright as he had broken his nose which was still bloody. Of some concern was the fact that he couldn’t move his fingers, but at this stage he was sitting upright and moving about freely. As the afternoon progressed it became clear that the broken nose was of less importance than the possible spinal injury that was affecting his hands, and that I wouldn’t be taking him home.
I updated Mike on the situation and he came out to join us – we all laughed and joked a bit, but it wasn’t easy laughter at this point. Suddenly it was serious. I felt bad leaving him there that night, and I would have stayed longer if I had known what was to come – that this was going to be the last time that I was able to have a proper conversation with him, and the last time I would ever hear him laugh.
The next day I called to see him on the way back to Talog. It was truly shocking. They were now very concerned about the spinal injury and Dad was flat on his back with a neck brace and splints on his hands. He was extremely uncomfortable, particularly because he couldn’t blow his nose which was still bloody from the fall. He was very upset and despairing about the loss of movement in his fingers and feet. How could he continue to live like that? Along with the loss of his eyesight the future seemed unbearable to him and he wanted to die. I had never seen him so distressed. Of course he would hate being totally helpless, which is also how I felt, not knowing how to help him and feeling that whatever the hospital were doing it certainly wasn’t enough.
Before I left the hospital I asked them to up his painkillers – give him more morphine or something. I think I wanted some morphine for myself! I remember sitting in the car and talking to Liz, my sister-in-law, on the phone. Feeling unable to drive home, I decided to return to Dad’s bungalow in Brecon and do what all good Brits do – have a nice cup of tea.
I did eventually go home that night but everything had changed – we had entered a cloud of worry and uncertainty with so many questions. Mostly my concern was for Dad, of course, and I did wonder just how far I might go in helping him with his pain …
The next day, Sunday, Liz went to see him and thought they had given him morphine. Gone was the intense distress and fear, but also so was his lucidity. He was babbling and off in his own world, only recognising and responding to Liz at times, and apparently hallucinating at others. The hospital had not given him morphine however – Dad had simply left the building.
The next few days were very difficult for us, and we don’t really know how they were for Dad, who was in his own world. I found the communication with the hospital difficult and didn’t understand the treatment, or lack of it, which all seemed to hinge around phone calls to someone in Cardiff who seemed difficult to get hold of. In the end being in Talog was not okay. I returned to Merthyr hospital on the Thursday. Sitting with him was completely different to how it had been on the Saturday. He no longer seemed in pain, which was the main thing for me, and I felt able to go with him a little way into his world. He was at different places in his past, which he found very strange, and confusing, but not distressing. Mum was there. Sometimes she was right by his bed sometimes she was just nearby. I asked him if she said anything. He said not, and he didn’t know why that was, but it was nice to see her. The nurse told me that he was often talking to Mary.
It started to sink in that this was it. He wasn’t going to recover from this.
Gwen was with me on this trip. We stayed in Brecon until the Saturday, and when I wasn’t at the hospital we would go off for walks, around the reservoir just north of Merthyr and on the hills and bits of moorland as and when we fancied. Time with Dad was precious, but hard work. Time with Gwen was healing, when I could pull it all together into a manageable shape. How would it be if he died? How would it be if he lived but was paralysed? Would he need constant care or could something be built at Pistyll Gwyn? I wished I’d been more like Mike, more money and career minded, and had actually got the barn converted rather than just dreamed about it …
Back at Dad’s bungalow the time had come to bring his friend’s up to speed so the phone calls began and as ever, speaking the words started to make it more real. No, we didn’t know. The hospital didn’t know. They were still treating him as if he would recover. How was this for his friends? At first the shock, the disbelief, and then so much support and love for him, and for us.
Saturday lunchtime Mike had a call from the hospital saying Dad had become unresponsive. Gwen and I were already making our way there slowly, but changed our plans and headed there directly. By the time I got there he was awake again … troubled by the snowing of the ceiling tiles, and concerned that I was being rude to the person who was offering me an umbrella. Mum had been to see him again, but wasn’t there now. It felt like something had changed at the hospital. The standard of nursing care was very high, with a nurse close at all times, who was very involved in his care. They were still talking about treatment though, but did the nurses believe it at this point?
Back in Talog, I was not surprised when I got a phone call in the middle of the night from Mike saying that Dad was unresponsive again and I should come right away.
I arrived at the hospital in the early hours. Dad had been moved to a private room. He had a thing down his throat to keep it clear. Mike and Liz were there, and then I was there. We sat and talked, to each other, to him, about him, about … what? I don’t know. The night passed. No-one expected Dad to recover now, and I no longer wanted him to. He had long been ready to die, making the best of things in the five years since Mum’s death, and we now found ourselves beside his deathbed, talking about his funeral, even as he still breathed. As the dawn came we made a plan so that someone could be with him at all times. My nephew Joe would also come up from London later that day to spend some time with his granddad.
I went to Brecon to get some sleep, returning at lunchtime to relieve Mike and staying with Dad until evening, when Joe arrived.
My last hours with my father. I started to write him a song, singing him snippets as they came to me and jotting them down, hoping I wouldn’t lose it all as sometimes happens. I did sudoku. I held his hand – finally the hospital stopped the wretched treatment, and removed the splints on his hands and the antibiotic drip – so it actually felt like I was holding his hand …
Whether he heard anything I said I’ll never know, but it didn’t matter. The important stuff was already there, and always had been, even if it only really manifested in these last few years of his life when we became friends as well as father and son.
My last hours with my father.
Liz arrived and it became less personal, more social, sharing Dad stories, with Dad in the middle, telling the nurse about Fred and Lisa, and the baby-shower, happening on that same day in California, and the nurse telling us about her American relatives. This was fantastic time, gentle, respectful, and even joyful. Dad would have approved. We were all so grateful to the nurses who gave Dad, and us, the private space, and all the support we needed. And tea. Of course.
Joe arrived with Steve, and after some time I knew I needed to head back to Brecon to get some sleep. Dad was safe in Joe’s hands, but this was the last time I would see him alive. I knew that he’d be gone before morning, and so I said goodbye.
My amazing father.