My Dad died on a stretcher on the way to my house. I had rushed into his nursing home with my silly blue apron and gloves flapping and the hat I had to wear falling over my eyes. You had best hurry the nurse had said to me and I remember thinking, what do you know? I remember thinking, Dad would not go without letting me know and if I can get to him, I will tell him to wait. Just wait, I would say, just wait. You are coming home with me and once you are home with me you can do anything you like.
But Dad was not able to wait. Despite all my efforts, he died on the stretcher on the way to the ambulance waiting below, in order to come, at last, home to me where he would be with his family. Damn, Dad, I said, couldn’t you hang on? Damn, Dad I said. And my fear was, that I had let him down.
Our father was a quiet, eccentric, academic man. Witty, polite, open minded and lonely. A man for whom things did not go so very well in a conventional sense but who left behind him an ocean of loving and grateful friends. Dad was no businessman. He did not really belong in a world where money and prestige talked. He was creative, introverted, intellectual and eccentric. He loved to help other creatives find their voices and cared when they succeeded. He noticed the strugglers, and gave them his support and attention, which made them want to do well. Working at the BBC as an editor and producer, he never really got anywhere for himself. But after he died, the people who had made something of themselves because of his encouragement wrote to us of the help he had given them and of his kindness when they thought they were alone.
My father walked away from my mother when I was in my twenties. My brothers and I could not understand what took him so long, but once done, we thought Dad could get on with his life. But he never really did. He was lonely, and stubborn, and did not ever want to look too deeply inside. He drank too much and that seemed to be a comfort. He did not want anyone too close to him. The world, his family, people, could come so far and no further. What was really in his heart and on his mind was too private, too difficult to share. As time went on, my brothers and I worried about his health and his eccentricities, and sometimes we worried about the mad schemes he got involved in. And then one day, we got a call. He had been in a car crash and was unhurt but was in hospital. He had, we were told, had a stroke. He had been driving erratically, and had crashed into the side of the road. He was shaking and dribbling as he got out, only to be shouted at by other drivers for being a drunk old man. He wasn’t drunk. He had had a TIA, a transient ischemic attack, a mini stroke and was confused and frightened. No one helped him. A drunk should not be helped, they said. But someone did call an ambulance and that is when his TIA was discovered.
It wasn’t his first. We remembered other odd behaviours and other times when we thought he had been drinking. Once, he poured the wine all over the table cloth next to the glass and everyone waited it out, carrying on as if it were normal. Now, we realised, he was having a TIA. At the time we simply let it go, no one questioned it. That is very bad. But we didn’t know.
From that time onwards our father sank into Alzheimer’s and Dementia. Slowly slowly, this lovely professorial old man, with all his secrets, began to lose his way. We moved him three times in the end, to three different places to try and help with his increasing fear and loss of connection to the world. It was terrifying to watch him sink. It was distressing to never be able to reassure him
because as soon as we calmed him, he would forget it and the fears that plagued him would return at once. Who am I? He would cry, and What is happening? And then he would beg us, don’t leave me. It was horrible. We were lucky to place him eventually with the Ignatian Sisters in a Catholic convent and nursing home about two hours’ drive from my brothers and me. We placed him there because our youngest brother, a Catholic priest himself, had been looked after by the nuns when battling his own journey away from this world. Father Dominic, our youngest brother, had died while Dad was unable to comprehend the news and so it seemed right that the sisters that looked after Dominic would now look after Dad. They were magnificent. Dad would cry out and ask for Dominic, and the sisters and the staff would know who he meant, and talk to him of how wonderful Dominic was. The care our father received there was truly loving. But this home had to close, and he was moved to another with many of the staff transferring with the patients and Dad began his final journey in this new home.
I would sit with Dad in his new home, an efficient and impersonal place where he had no friends and where his sense of isolation grew. The staff were excellent, the care was wonderful, but the sisters had gone. No one knew who Dominic was and that lovely sense of community had disappeared. I would sing to him, and read to him, but often there was no response. And then one day we were told that we were not able to see him again. It was the April 2020 and a new virus was sweeping the world and my brothers and I thought, this is temporary and we understand. We can wait.
But time went on, and our father lay out of bounds behind a wall of protocol and there was a tightening of the restrictions. No, we were told, for his and your safety, you cannot see him. But he will not know we have not abandoned him, we said. They said, absolutely not. Perhaps we will put something in place for a visit next month, and you can look through a window at your father. But that too was cancelled. Dad remained on the second floor, medicated in his bed, the telly on full time and no one who knew who he was. Dad, who loved poetry, choral music and silence. Dad, who read theology and Greek and Hebrew, who spoke French and German and Latin. None of us ever came to see him again. Suddenly, for him, there was silence. Whatever links he had to a world that gave him comfort and meaning were severed. There was now nothing but the minutes ticking away with nothing to stop them, nothing to save him and no break in the monotony. Except of course, medication. Medication kept him quiet and helped blur the hours towards his inevitable death. Of course, it was all done for the best reasons. It was part of the care package for these precious and abandoned elderly for whom the wrong death would mean possible law suits. It was part of the terrifying safety that bludgeoned all other parts of life into paranoia and dystopia.
A facetime session was offered to me. The screen was set up to show me Dad in his bed, eyes closed and mouth turned down. He was dribbling and his beautiful white hair looked dirty and yellow in the afternoon light. I started to speak to him and his hands and arms came up, flailing in the air around him, trying to find where I was. He could hear me but not see me. Perhaps I should have said that Dad was nearly totally blind, all his life he had a rare eye condition that left him unable to see much at all. Dad! I tried to say, don’t worry, I am on a phone! But still his hands tried to find me, and I ended the call in tears.
But somehow, before all the madness had taken over, I had thought ahead and had asked for a confirmation email from the manager to say that I could come in if Dad was dying, to be with him. I did not think for a moment that he was going yet, but in late May I was given permission to come for one hour for one visit. Oh I thought, we can see him now. But it turned out that this visit was only for me, for one hour, for ever, and whatever happened now, no one would ever be allowed to see him again. This old man was our father. He had done his best for us and he was to be sacrificed to a protocol that stripped him of his dignity and life.
It was after this visit, where I sat with him as he lay helpless and dribbling in his hospital bed in his big plastic room, my gloves and face mask removed in order to stroke his hair and hold his lovely big old hands, that I decided enough was enough. You are coming with me, I told him. It did not seem that he was dying then. We have time, I thought, we can do this.
It took about a week to get things organised. I wrote to the home, I signed him up at my surgery, I organised a package of care and I paid for a private ambulance to bring him to my home on the day we were to collect him. I had a hospital bed delivered, I cleared the downstairs dining room which was full of sunshine and I made such a beautiful place for him with flowers, old books, music and the company of my household. He would lie in his hospital bed facing through two open doors into the garden where the flowers and colours and sunshine would remind him of the gardens he had created all his life, with such pleasure and care. I would be there day and night, the carers would do all the washing and moving, and the district nurses would keep an eye on him too. Oh what could go wrong? I said to my brothers. They would be there with him too, we would bring him out of the fearful empty sterile atmosphere of his single sealed room at the home, where if anyone did come in to see him, they would be covered with plastic and would keep away from him as if he were dangerous.
But then I got the call. Come now, said the nurse at the home. Your father’s breathing is changing. I called the private ambulance and arranged for transport now. I called everyone and had everything changed from a few days’ time to now, got into my brother’s car with him and took off to get Dad.
I took Dad’s lovely hands in mine and told him to hold on. My brothers were outside and the ambulance was late. Dad was breathing noisily and shallow but I did not listen to it. Stop that! I wanted to say. This is not the time or place. You are coming home with me now, sort your breathing out and if you want to, die on arrival at mine but do not do it now. Please Dad, I said, please hang on. An hour late the ambulance arrived and came up with my older brother. His apron and hat were askew and my mask and gloves were long gone. His mask was hanging from one ear. As we do with matters of life and death, my brother had known he needed to come in and simply followed the ambulance staff upstairs. They lifted Dad gently onto the stretcher and stopped. He won’t make it, they said, and withdrew as my second brother arrived breathless and running, followed by staff trying to tie his apron and overall strings into place. We managed to hold our father as everyone gently left the room, closing the door quietly behind them.
Dad lay tiny, thin and grey on the stretcher. He used to be well over six feet tall. He used to have masses of blue black hair which he had never lost. It had just become masses of white hair. Strapped in and on the stretcher on the stand they would have wheeled out to the ambulance, he simply did not breathe again. We held him, we looked on our phones for prayers for the dead, and we sang his favourite songs. Has he gone? We asked each other, and Yes, we said as his old chest was still and did not move. We put our hands over his heart to see if there was any breath left, but there wasn’t. Just silence. Oh Dad, we said. Oh Dad. When the staff came back in later, one by one, gently and quietly, they hugged us all. He was a good man, they said, and we will miss him.
And I remember thinking, if you can hug us now, why could we not come in and sit with him when he was alive? If there really was a problem, we could not be doing this. It was not their fault, they were only following rules. But someone, somewhere, had colluded with something that kept everyone apart, business unfinished and grief more complex than it needed to be. Dad lay dead on the stretcher. He did not come to my house where he would have been so happy, so cared for and so part of his family. I felt anger and guilt, so much guilt. If I had not waited so long, if I had organised this sooner, our father would have died as our mother had, in a lovely room with family
present, and we would have seen him out of this life with the honour he deserved. As it was, as in his life, he was lonely, private and we were too late. He said nothing, never complained, just wanted to know where we all were. If only I had acted sooner, I thought, this would never have been so lonely and ignoble. I had to go home and dismantle the lovely room I had created for him, and let it all go. I had to let him go too. But I am angry. He never complained. He never asked for anything. He deserved more than this, and I was too late. He is just one of millions of unsatisfactory, cruel, impersonal deaths by protocol. He was never ill, and neither were we. And still aren’t. He was just one of too many sacrificed on the altar of fear and madness.
But I believe that when the mist clears after someone we love has died, there is a gift, and Dad did not leave me unannounced.
The night before he died I had a dream. I was on a harbour wall facing a dark and swelling sea. The waves were growing larger and crashing around my feet where I stood. Looking behind me I saw a small stone cottage with large windows looking directly onto the sea. I ran into the cottage, barring the door behind me. I will be safe here I thought as I looked out of the window at the sea crashing against the glass. And then, a figure passed along the window, walking just inches from the glass on the other side, in the storm, dressed for the weather, walking calmly and confidently and in the dream, joyfully, without any problem amongst the wind and the waves, disappearing along the side of the house. If that person is not afraid, I thought, then I don’t need to be.
Later, when I remembered the dream I thought, perhaps Dad checked out the night before and was not there at all, the day we held him on the stretcher. He let me know he was going now, a day early, walking through the storm unafraid, so I would be comforted. That was Dad, passing me with love, on his way home.