Featured Image Credit: Andrew Tonge
I had a pretty normal upbringing. My parents got married in 1995, bought a house in suburban England and had two kids in 1998 and 2002. When I look back on my early childhood, I fondly remember family holidays, parties with my grandparents, aunts and uncles, day trips to farmer’s markets and funfairs. My very earliest memory is of a little blow up dolphin my parents bought me to play with on holiday. I always felt my parents put a lot of effort into doing a lot with me and I remain thankful for that.
However, when I got a bit older and started to settle into who I was, I realised I was a pretty withdrawn person. I always liked my own company; preferring not to join in with other kids playing games and sticking with what I knew rather than venturing too far outside of my comfort zone. As I got even older than that, I avoided doing things with my parents. I didn’t really have an image to preserve but I suppose I hoped I’d be invited out by my friends or some kind of better opportunity would present itself. Looking back, I should have dealt better when people were unkind to me and realised how unkind I could be to other people. I guess I can only cancel that one out by being kind going forward, and we all do things we regret in our teenage years, but it’s important to acknowledge past trappings to move on.
I don’t recall when I found out my Dad was ill; I don’t even really remember finding out at all. One thing I do remember is he hated the finality of it all – of course, when you find out a parent has a terminal illness, you avoid the thought that anything could happen. You just assume, that’s my Dad, nothing can hurt him. He was really good at putting that thought out of everyone’s minds, however much he must have been thinking about it himself. Even when my Mum would sit me down and try to explain that doctors had told her to prepare my sister and I that something could happen, towards the end, I wouldn’t believe her in the slightest.
I must have been around 12 or 13 when I first found out he was ill, and then, not even doctors had uttered the word ‘cancer.’ I just thought he had a stomach problem, one of the teething troubles bodies have as they age. After all, he didn’t smoke, he didn’t work in a nuclear laboratory, he rarely even drank. His mother died when I was 3 or 4; I don’t remember what from. But his father – and his sisters – were fine, so what could really be so wrong? My grandad on my mother’s side had a stroke around the same time he first got ill, so for a while, we forgot whilst we concentrated on helping him recover. I remember my parents helping him to first walk around his house again and completing a cycle marathon in support of the Stroke Association charity. Sure, my Dad would be unwell from time to time, but we were still going on holiday, going out for dinner. I was even avoiding going out to a lot of family stuff because I simply couldn’t be bothered; I thought, “there’ll be another time.”
It got worse when I was about 14. I remember an especially difficult conversation where my father sat us all down and confirmed that no, it is cancer and I don’t know if it’s going away. It hurt to see my Dad emotional because I hadn’t remembered him in that state from when his mother died. I think it was the first time I ever saw him cry. I didn’t even know how to respond. As time progressed, it went from occasional checks with the oncologist to accepting an aggressive form of chemotherapy that meant staying in the hospital for 3 or 4 nights at a time. The following days were spent at home but marred by trying to recuperate from the debilitating effects of taking chemotherapy. Even though my Dad didn’t lose his hair, I noticed he seemed frailer as time went on, and I found that especially difficult. I wanted to grow up with my Dad the same way he grew up with his, yet I found myself getting closer to accepting I would never be able to. I felt, I still feel guilty for not doing all those things as a family when I had the chance.
There were flashes of hope – family and friends would take us away for weekends and we’d get a call saying he could come home for the weekend and was feeling much better. The gaps between hospital visits varied; the very last time I saw him was the middle of the week and he’d told me he’d probably be home by the Friday. Before that, we had gone to car shows, motor museums and even on holiday a couple of times whilst my Dad managed his illness. I always said yes by then, but I hadn’t realised how hard this would have been on my mother, who’d often have to help my Dad with his medicine as it couldn’t always be administered by the patient. My Dad often couldn’t get travel insurance as a result of the complex medical situation surrounding cancer patients, so even when we got to go away; It was difficult to watch them both try to accept that every thing they did might be the last time they did it together. Saying that, our last holiday was pretty perfect, I remember it as a quiet, relaxing fortnight where we did all the things, we had always enjoyed doing in what had become our favourite place. I have thought about going back several times but never mustered the strength to do so alone.
Everything pretty much happened in my last year of secondary school. I never translated my feelings particularly well so I can only apologise to everyone who knew me for how much of an arsehole I was all the time. I really don’t remember how the year started; the overriding memory is my Dad getting rushed to hospital on Christmas Day. I’ve got a lasting sense of discomfort that stems from that Christmas whenever it’s cold weather outside, particularly if I’m spending the day alone. I really think my Dad thought that was his last day; I just felt numb. I had never been asked to phone an ambulance before. A lot of the time it’s easy to disconnect and distract yourself from lasting feelings of grief, but when you allow yourself to lean into it, it’s hard not to feel lost.
The rest of the next year was in and out of hospital – not the specialist that my Dad had secured for chemotherapy anymore, just the ordinary one in the centre of Preston. This gave me a sense of panic. Before it had just felt like a treatment option; I associated that hospital with emergencies. Saying that, I have to thank the NHS doctors and nurses for helping my father with both his pain and infection that occurred. They probably prolonged his life by some months; however much I found it difficult to be in that hospital. The hospital was on my way home from school, so I’d often stop by and visit my Dad. I still felt like he was going to be fine. I held on more to the moments where we laughed, and he gave me advice he felt I’d always remember than the difficult ones. As I’m writing this, I’ve also dredged up some of the more painful memories – something as trivial as lifting a bike up onto a peg in the garage. I remember him saying “I’m not strong enough anymore.” It wasn’t intended to be quite so poignant, I’m sure, but it stuck with me since that day. I’d just think, ‘he’s having a hard day today.’ I wish I could have been a little older and understood a little better how that kind of illness affects your mental health; maybe I could have helped or at least empathised. It’s strange how completely unwilling a son can be to accept that anything is wrong with his father.
The day he died; I remember getting taken out of a maths class. I already knew what had happened because it wasn’t my mother who picked us up, but her best friend. I can only imagine how difficult it must have been for her on that car journey, because all I could ask was “Dad?” and all she could say was, “Yeah.” I don’t like to relive that day too much.
The days blur together in some cases, I know I was sitting my GCSEs at the time and I went and did the exams to distract myself. Nothing worked, and yet anything worked. I didn’t want to be around anyone, so I just tried to do anything I could to take my mind off things. I ramble around when I think of that day or the days that followed because they all seemed so numbingly similar. You think about all the times you fought when you didn’t need to, every bad thing you said to each other without resolving it. Most of all, you’re tired. It’s been difficult to write this because I’ve never really remembered it in order.
My grandad wrote in the book at my Dad’s funeral: “my hero.” I couldn’t have put it better. I also haven’t seen the book since that day; it’s been 5 years and it doesn’t feel like it’s got any further away. I don’t blame myself for all the fights that we did have, and if he were still around, I’m sure we’d still fight from time to time. The perspective I got from it was huge, though. All these years you see a person as your Dad, but he’s a husband, a friend – he exists completely separately from you, yet he gives up that person to raise you.
If you read this and were/are in a similar situation, I know it’s hard. It can be difficult going to a friend or partner’s family, it almost feels like a constant reminder that your parent(s) aren’t around. Almost every piece of advice you’ll get is both irritating and unhelpful – something I hope I can avoid with this next sentence. Hold on to the good memories you have and carry their advice with you going forward. They’ll always be part of you, however far away they feel.
Cruse Bereavement Care (www.cruse.org.uk)
Mind Charity (mind.org.uk)
Samaritans (116 123, Free Calls)