An Unconventional Death
Three years ago this week, my father died. He’d been ill for some time. Cancer. Actually, a conglomerate of cancers, a medley of the bastard diseases which mutated together and formed a vicious alliance, such was their determination to kill him. His illness had been brutal; unremitting, and merciless, but we expected his passing, when it finally came, to be peaceful and calm. Ethereal, even. Well, it wasn’t. He left this world in a rage, furious with death for getting the better of him, thrashing against it with every microscopic scrap of energy he could muster, until his very last breath. And even then, even when he exhaled his final, agonising howl and they said he’s gone, his body continued to contort and protest on his behalf with such hostility that he came back. Twice.
At the end we were spent, my mother, my sister and I, not quite believing what we had just witnessed. Even the (wonderful) nurses were stunned. Neither they, nor the doctors, nor the palliative team could offer a clear-cut explanation, during or after the experience. On a ward used to death, they’d never encountered one quite like this. Over the course of six long, torturous hours, my dad ‘died’ three times. Finally, with all three of us cradling him, whispering that we loved him, that we were so very, very, proud of him, that we’d all be fine, that, really, it was time to go, he listened.
The thing is, we never expected him to react that way; to fight. We thought he’d hold his hands up when death came to get him, quietly succumb. We thought he’d be ready. Throughout his life my father had been a committed hypochondriac. I can’t remember a time when there wasn’t something or other wrong with him. Often his maladies were genuine (a collapsed lung, appendicitis, slipped disc) but generally they were run-of-the-mill, everyday ailments. He never just had a cold. In fact, he probably invented man-flu. And as for his ‘wind’, well, I won’t burden you with the details. His health ‘issues’ were a long standing, eye rolling, tut-tutting joke in our family. And then, one day, when one of his infamous colds turned out to be glandular fever, we finally gave him a little bit of sympathy. But when he didn’t get better quickly, and continued to mooch around in his woe-is-me cardigan, our patience soon waned. For Christ’s sake, we thought (at least I did) it’s only bloody glandular fever. Except it wasn’t. It was Non Hodgkin’s Lymphoma.
The diagnosis was a shock, of course, to all of us, but thankfully the prognosis was good. His cancer was low grade, the treatment an initial dose of tablet form chemotherapy followed by regular intravenous shots of immunoglobulin. He was told he would most likely die with the disease, and not from it. So, he carried on with the business of living. For a time his diagnosis almost invigorated him. He joined the Lymphoma Society, informed himself about the disease and talked about it to anyone who would listen. Which was fine. He had an incurable illness, after all, even if, as we’d been told, it wasn’t going to kill him. The years passed, yes, years, and somehow we forgot about NHL. At least we did, his family. And when he wandered back to his old ‘oh, my stomach, oh, my blocked nose, oh my sinus pain’ ways, we rolled our eyes again, or tut-tutted, or ignored him.
A year or so before dad’s illness seemed to bypass gears two, three and four to leap with ruthless speed straight to five, we noticed a change in him. He was sluggish, grumpy, agitated. His pallor paled. His confidence diminished. A nasty bout of shingles left him with restricted feeling in his leg. He stopped playing golf. He didn’t drive so much. Lethargic and easily irritated his enthusiasm for life, for his life, appeared to wane. He wasn’t like this all the time, but when he was it was difficult to witness. And we, as was our way, responded with frustrated irritation. Of course we know now that his illness was shifting gear, subtly, quietly, with malevolent intent.
Then suddenly it pounced. One day he felt an uncomfortable tingling sensation in his arms and fingers. A few days later he had something in his eye. They thought it was an ulcer or a boil of some sort. Then an unsightly welt appeared on one of his legs. By this time we knew that something was wrong, very wrong, and at last he had our full attention. The start of a gruelling, heartbreaking period in all our lives had begun. I’ll bypass the exasperating details of our struggle to get a definitive diagnosis, suffice to say eventually we knew that the welt on his leg, which rapidly materialized all over his body, was Peripheral T Cell Lymphoma, a rare and particularly sadistic cancer which infiltrated his central nervous system causing motor problems. The thing in his eye – well, that turned out to be leukaemia. His slow burning NHL had been taken hostage by this bandit Peripheral T Cell thing and then invited leukaemia to join the gang. None of his doctors, and there were many, had ever seen the like of it before.
Dad spent most of the next nine months, the last of his life, in hospital. His ward, the Haematology Unit, became a second home for all of us, the nursing staff our extended family. He quickly became something of a novelty within the hospital as his condition was so rare that treating it was something of a conundrum. Without hesitation he agreed to become a test case, a guinea pig for whatever innovative treatments they could throw his way. As his sight deteriorated, his beautiful brown eyes (which I’ve always wished I’d inherited) clouded with white leukemic deposits, he was offered more chemotherapy – but this time the liquid would be injected directly into his eyes. The pioneering procedure hadn’t been done before, at least not in Northern Ireland, and only once or twice in the rest of the UK. It would be uncomfortable. There were no guarantees. In fact, it would most likely make no lasting difference at all. But it would be ground-breaking and hopefully the knowledge gained would help others in the future. We winced, dad nodded. He had nothing to lose, but what a legacy to leave.
Throughout those final months the cancer ravaged dad; reduced my tall, strong, handsome father to a physical ship wreck of a man. But of all the pain and trauma and indignity he had to endure, the loss of his sight was what devastated him the most. A life-long fanatical reader, the joy of losing time trapped in a brilliant book was stolen from him, just when he needed it the most. We tried Talking Books, but as he couldn’t operate the CD player due to the loss of power in his fingers, that didn’t work. He couldn’t watch television either, or switch the radio on and off. He couldn’t even feed himself. But not being able to look at his family; his wife of almost fifty years, his daughters, his darling grand children who were growing up daily before his eyes that couldn’t see, that was what truly broke his heart, and ours.
But what he could do was talk, and so he did. To the hospital staff, to his visitors, to us. He talked and he reminisced and he laughed and, now and again, he cried. Talking became his saviour, visitors his last remaining joy. And there were many. The scores of people who wanted to spend time with dad in his last few months, and the hundreds who attended his funeral, were a wonderful affirmation of just how loved he was. That was no real surprise, but dad’s attitude was. Through it all, through the daily, hourly torture of slowly dying, he barely complained. My father, the man who couldn’t handle a head cold, who told the world about his wind, who took himself to bed if he had a toothache, confronted cancer with the decorum of a king and the courage of a lion. And although by the end his life was virtually unbearable, he still didn’t want to let it go. He didn’t want to leave, and he let death know that in no uncertain terms.
Dad’s final hours were horrendous to witness, his death a traumatic experience we will never forget. Initially it haunted us, consumed us even. But now three years have passed and I’m beginning to look at it from a different perspective. For the first time, while writing this post, I’ve been able to smile at the memory, grin at the thought of my father holding two fingers up to death and punching the fucker in the face. Even after a long and harrowing illness, why should you go gently? Why should your passing be passive? My dad was bloody minded, determined and unyielding to the end. And I love him all the more for it.