absentfather

Letters for my kids to read in the future, from around the world now

Archive for the category “Cancer”

After Pops Died

Dear G, B and E

Pops died before Christmas. I wonder if you’ll remember this time at all or if you will remember him. Both of Ouma’s parents died when I was young and my memories of them are little more than feelings and sun-spattered moments that I think happened. Pop’s parents lived until their mid-nineties and I knew them until just a few years ago. It’s so very unfair that some get this pleasure and some don’t and I’m mad at the world that you won’t know him and he won’t  see you become all that you will. At the end of this post I’ll include the tribute that uncle Henry and I gave in December at his funeral (edited), which was both horrible and cleansing. It is a snapshot of a great man, who you can be proud to carry the blood of.

Losing my dad has brought my world into focus. I see you as he no doubt saw me and I have clarity on what is important more than ever. The futility of our existence on a ball of rock floating through the cosmos is certain, but so is the importance of every moment of life we have and what we make of it. How we spend these precious moments, who we spend them with and what it creates is all we’ll ever have. Life is long and life is short. Long enough to build an empire, short enough to pass by unnoticed. Perhaps we should all try to find a middle ground on that scale.

Ouma moved from 173 to a bungalow a mile away. It was hard to say goodbye to my childhood house, 35 years of memories and large parts of my father with it. It was a good step for her, a positive step forward and she seems better. IMG_5343

Where am I? On a plane to China again, this time Beijing and Chongqing, then on to Korea. Where are you? Well G just had his first experience of a skatepark and seems pretty keen on skateboarding, B is dancing and experiences life in extremities of emotion, such passion, and E is just trying out her first words: dog, mama, dada and mimicking sounds. She is the fastest crawling baby I’ve ever seen, like she is in fast forward. You are all so happy, so beautiful and you teach me new things every day. It has been snowing for the last few days and we finally managed to try out the sledge that I bought five years ago. So cold but you hardly notice, such was the excitement and joy from throwing snowballs at your dad.

Travel is now a necessary evil rather than a pleasure and the joy or excitement I used to get. I’ve been to most of these places before and even when I haven’t, exploring somewhere of interest is not as interesting without those I care about. I still find moments of tranquility and perspective when I’m somewhere different and I like getting away from the office and the odd feeling of disconnection. I gaze out of high rise hotel and wonder about all the people of that city, getting on with their lives which are so similar and yet so different to mine. I feel the different weather, smell the different cooking, hear a different rumble of transport and I am lucid. Then I don’t want to be.

So on the Beijing, smog capital of the world for more of these moments, with your kisses still on my cheek.

Love

Dad x

TRIBUTE TO DAD:

“Thank you all for coming today, I’m pretty sure even Dad himself would be surprised by how many people are here – but we of course are not. We would like to start by saying thank you to the many people that have supported mum and dad over the last few months, particularly Bente, Sue, Ray and Patricia, but many, many others and you know who you are and thank you. We would also like to commend the NHS and Compton Hospice for their care and service.

Today we have to try to sum up the most wonderful man in our lives, which is of course impossible, but we hope we can share a few memories of someone who meant something to each of you too.

As you heard, Dad was a brother and a son, a professional and a great sportsman – he was born in Burton and lived in London and Wolverhampton – he was married for 42 years and had two (gorgeous) sons and five grandchildren… But these facts could describe many people, there was much more to my Dad. Although he had a very active social life, like all the best fathers he was happiest at in his own space, at home with his family, in his garden or baking bread or laying a fire ready for a Sunday roast, then cuddling up with his grandchildren afterwards to watch an action movie. Like most boys, I grew up in awe of my father and the tales he told of his younger days as a handsome young man in London during the 60s. One of his proudest achievements was managing and coaching the all-female PanAm airline’s football team, despite having only very limited knowledge of the sport. He was always incredibly sociable and loved bringing people together. He had a wide circle of friends in London and it was through some of them that he eventually met Mum.

In the speech I gave at our wedding, I mentioned that mum and dad made marriage look easy and I think for them it genuinely has been. Having parents who so obviously love each other is a great thing to see as a child, teenager and adult, apart from when they are drunkenly snogging each other after a bottle of wine – no child wants to see that. They loved spending time together, enjoying the simple things in life – walking various family dogs, gardening and of course growing vegetables on their beloved allotment. Their relationship was the best example to me of what a marriage can be – supporting, loving, equal, complementary and fun, even when things got tough, which they did towards the end of his life. In the last few months I have been equally in awe of my parents’ strength and how devoted to each other they were. They were together in every way, right up until Dad’s last breath.

Ever since I was a child, I remember dad being a big kid. He loved all the things most children do and could not contain his excitement at trips to Alton Towers, the first signs of Christmas or the chance to make you laugh. He would be bouncing up and down in the queue for a rollercoaster whilst Henry and I looked at each other nervously and both knew we weren’t going on the ride for our own sakes – it was for Dad. You can just imagine what he was like when it snowed! You’ll have spotted the carol in this service, in there because he so loved this time of year. We used to have an upright piano in the living room, which nobody could really play, but he would start practicing Good King Wenceslas and other yuletide favourites two months before Christmas Day arrived. He dressed up as Santa for the nursing home next door and loved handing out the presents after our Christmas dinner donning a Santa hat or pair of antlers.

Dad was always there when it mattered. I would see his face at the railings at the end of my sports day race at primary school and from then on at every important event in my life. He watched virtually every game of rugby I played for the 1st XV at school, which was even more remarkable given that I played on Saturdays, a certain conflict with either golf or shooting. I asked him why he came to watch (after he had driven to South Wales for one game) and he simply told me that the rugby was good, which of course I knew was not true, he was just the kind of man that drove 200 miles to support his son.

Dad had worked out his priorities in life into what is now commonly known as “a healthy work-life balance” but what he simply thought was common sense to any self-respecting man. When I would tell him that I couldn’t take up golf and shooting because I had a full-time job and kids he would say proudly, “That never stopped me!”  – Then I could see mum biting her tongue somewhere behind him. Dad always worked hard and was a successful surveyor, but was never a slave to his career. It was there to enable him to do what he wanted to do: give his kids a good start, go on the odd adventure and play sport with his pals. He could perhaps have worked longer hours, but that would have eaten into the time he would much rather have been drinking your wine, or taking great joy in watching you drink his. It allowed him to spend time with his grandchildren, who he was just getting to know, and to spoil them. He was never materialistic, never showy and never bothered what other people may own. When I was a boy I asked him what object he would save from the flames if our house burnt down and he told me that he would save me, Henry and mum, because all the rest of it, including the house, was just stuff and that stuff can be replaced by more stuff.

I will admire him for so many reasons, but setting an example of how life should be led is his true legacy. He stuck to his principles, he treated people with respect, he acted fairly, he had fun at every opportunity and he loved deeply.

His social awareness was exemplary. When I first passed my driving test I would happily drive my parents around to various parties and pick them up when called to do so. As you can imagine, I got a lot of practice as they blatantly abused the opportunity of a free taxi. On several occasions during my role as their personal chauffeur I noticed that dad would be in amongst guests at the party holding two glasses of wine, one in each hand. I asked him why he’d adopted this habit and he told me: “Well if I am stuck talking to you and you are boring me, this glass is for your mother, and she’s over there.” I can see you wracking your brains to remember if he ever made that excuse to you… But perhaps he needed such tactics because people gravitated towards him. Maybe because he was always the same with everyone, no matter who you were – he didn’t care if you were a prince or a pauper, he would still find a way to take the piss out of you. He would always like to leave a conversation once he was confident everyone had been suitably topped up, educated and tickled.

His love of language and skill with it meant that generally all we needed as children to be brought into line was a raised eyebrow and a choice comment.  He was just as much a friend to us as a parent and even though our family has been diminished, we have been so incredibly lucky to have had him in our lives.

He leaves behind him a family who loved him dearly and that is a testament to the love that he gave to us.”

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Your Pops has a brain tumour

Dear G, B and E

This is going to be a hard one, and I’ve thought about writing it for the last few weeks, for me as much as for you.

In July this year, Pops was on holiday with uncle Henry and Caz in Devon when he had a strange turn and became a little vacant in his behaviour. They were at the Eden Project and he wandered off and was not very responsive when they did catch up with him. Caz took him to hospital as she thought it might be a urinary tract infection (apparently common in old people and can have these symptoms), but they scanned him and found a large brain tumour in the middle left side of his head.

Henry called to tell me and my first thoughts were that it was something we could deal with and get through, with operations and treatment. After speaking to him, I looked up all the different types of brain cancer that are out there (and there are a lot) and my hope was given it’s first reality check. In younger people, when tumours are caught early and in places where they can be removed then survival can be good, but most of the time things are not so.

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Pops and baby E

I wanted to be with him so jumped in the car and drove the 5 hours down there in a strange and desperate mood, a kind of fuzz around me. I was in a rush and everything seemed to be going wrong: the traffic was terrible and then my rear tyre exploded. I managed to limp to a garage and eventually got the hospital to find dad in bed and not able to speak. His mobility was restricted and they had given him heavy doses of steroids to bring down swelling in the brain. After a couple of days of frantic phone calls to every doctor mum and dad know in Wolverhampton we got him transferred and allocated a space to see a specialist at the hospital in Birmingham. I drove them home in a nervous silence, dad just occasionally getting angry with somebody else’s driving.

People heard and started to visit, not really knowing what to say and drinking a lot of Dad’s wine. They are lucky to have so many close friends, but things like this hold up a mirror to their own mortality and some don’t know what to do with that reflection.

I sent the notes from Devon to a neurosurgeon friend of uncle Charlie’s and got my second reality check. I’ll never forget his words, they were powerful and awful. He said, “start making the most of him.”

In some cases of glioblastomas they can “de-bulk” the tumour through surgery and put chemotherapy wafers that dissolve right in the the brain, but Dad’s is inoperable. Radiotherapy can slow it’s growth but nothing can shrink it or stop it. Even if these are caught relatively early, almost 100% of people are dead within 5 years. Most people are dead within 1 year of diagnosis.

He had a biopsy and cried as he was wheeled away to surgery, one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen. The results were what we expected and that he has less than a year of palliative care.

I managed to arrange for him to come to Wales as part of our summer holiday in August and was so glad he got to see the village again and so many of the people he loves down there. My ‘fairly’ godmother (fairly because I was never actually christened) Bente flew over from Norway to help mum and stayed for weeks. She was amazing in so many ways and our family owes her a great debt for this selflessness.

He started radiotherapy 4 weeks ago, dual with chemo, which only works on a small proportion of brain cancers because of the brain/blood barrier. They make a mask to hold your head in place and then zap the active areas of the tumour when you are in it, accurate to the millimetre. A few hours after his first session he had a seizure and was hospitalised. He totally lost speech and much of the use of his right side, including walking and good use of his hand. He was confused and would get stuck on words and repeat them over and over again. He has spent three weeks in hospital in the oncology ward, which is not somewhere you want to spend time. The guy opposite died not long after dad arrived, people spend their nights coughing up blood. The good thing about hospital was that he could start treatment again and he could get speech therapy and physiotherapy every day, which quickly improved him, but he is still absent in many ways. We’ve already lost so much of him.

My first visit to him in this state put me in a misery I don’t remember ever feeling. I cried and cried for him, mostly on my own, sometimes uncontrollably in the car or anywhere out of sight, for the indignity of such a great and lovely man and for his helplessness.

The cruelty of this compared to other cancers is that it affects the brain and therefore slowly steals the person an inch at a time. The cancer itself just grows on the outer edge and then dies inside, leaving necrotic tissue in its wake. An existence with one goal: to squeeze into space that should be used for Dad’s brain and kill him.

The small mercy of it is that I don’t think he fully cares about his situation most of the time. He reads, but I don’t think he absorbs. He watches endless TV but I don’t think he really follows what is on (judging by the crap he is watching). He is there and is still caring, he still loves a hug and kiss, he still enjoys food and the whiskey we sneak into the ward.

Mum (Ouma) is battling on but her heart is crushed. Knowing that he is dying is to prolong grief, but it also prepares her and us for the end. Dealing with practical things makes you forget and being in the moment is how we get through life. You three children are a massive help to me and that I know he would all be so proud of what lovely kids you are. I wish he could live longer to get to know you as adults and that thought always makes me cry.

It looks like he is coming home today, back to the house he has lived in for 35 years, which is wonderful news. It will be hard for mum but much better for him.

I’ve had to leave on a plane, which is where I am now, on my way to Korea again.

Love

Dad x

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