An Unconventional Death


This post has been nominated for a Blog Award Ireland award. If you fancy giving it your vote, please click on the image (like this one) on the right hand side, underneath my Recent Posts list. This will take you to the Blog Award Ireland site. Move your browser up to 'Nominations' 2013' along the top bar (beside Home). Then move down to Best Blog Post. Click here, scroll down until you find me, click on the little box beside my blog, then scroll down and press vote. It's free - and I'd love to do well, for my dad! Thank you!
This post has been nominated for a Blog Award Ireland award. If you fancy giving it your vote, please click on the image (like this one) on the right hand side, underneath my ‘Recent Posts’ list. This will take you to the Blog Award Ireland site. Move your browser up to ‘Nominations 2013′ along the top bar (beside Home). Then move down to Best Blog Post. Click here, scroll down until you find me, click on the little box beside my blog, then scroll down and press vote. It’s easy to do & it’s free – and I’d love to do well, for my dad! Thank you!

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.


Ronnie Allen, my lovely dad.






This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

74 Responses to An Unconventional Death

  1. Nan Bovington says:

    Ah Lesley, you’ve left me cheering for your Dad. It’s a side a dying that you don’t often see articulated and all the more important for that. Here’s to that strong life force!

    • admin says:

      Hi Nan. What a lovely response – and I really appreciate it. Have to say, it was a difficult post to write & I wasn’t quite sure what the reaction would be – so thank you! x

  2. Ruth Farr says:

    Heartwrenching and healing, you have crafted an amazing affirmation out of the unremitting pain and injustice of cancer – thank you Lesley

    • admin says:

      Oh Ruth – I’m sure it was hard for you to read, it certainly wasn’t easy to write! And I know you know! Thank you x

  3. Susie Curran says:

    Great writing Leslie, I love that your Dad put two fingers up to death, such a show of strength when the norm is weakness! You have showed the strength you have gained from him by writing it, when it would be easier to bury it. Xxxx

  4. Ian says:

    Hey Lesley
    It made me cry. Im glad that I got to see Ronnie in hospital but my memory when I think of Ronnie is sharing a pint with him and Steve outside the Kings Inn in Castlewellan near to my old mans trees and reminiscing with him and laughing loudly at our memories.
    Much love

    • admin says:

      Oh Ian, he had a ball that day! They were both stubborn old buggers, weren’t they? But so deeply loved by all of us. I’ll be giving my dad a wee drop of Bush tomorrow – I always pour some into the earth where his ashes are buried on ‘significant days’ – and I’ll toast my beloved Uncle Peter too!
      Love you too. L xx

  5. Oh Lesley. I didn’t know your dad, but your loving unrelenting darkly vibrant description of his life and illness and death has brought me to tears. What a wonderful contribution you make to his legacy. Thank you.

  6. Anonymous says:

    Oh, Lesley, I promised myself I wouldn’t visit your blog (but clearly promise broken).
    I am so glad you wrote this for your dad, for you, for everyone who knew him and countless others who didn’t. His feistiness lives through your words, and that is the biggest and best f*** you to cancer. I know this was painful to write, but I like to think of your dad looking on and encouraging you to write it out. Your writing it out ensures he did n He refused to ‘go gentle.’

  7. Janet McConnell says:

    Oh Lesley
    What a wonderful, sad, funny, heartfelt account of what you all experienced as a family from a tyrant called cancer. Like you I feel the loss of a parent every day and it is good to sit down and record the memories, feelings etc. Ur account brought a few tears to my eyes. The big things we remember but its the small details that matter most. Thank u for finding my dad’s name on the tree of remembrance that 1st Christmas. How ironic. Thank you. Janet x

    • admin says:

      Aw Janet – can’t believe you read this! I’m so touched. That was a very moving, extremely special evening andnim so pleased that I was the one who found your dad on the tree! Take care. L x

  8. yvonne says:

    Oh, Lesley. I only half-promised myself that I wouldn’t visit your blog, but I couldn’t stay away. I love this post. I love that your dad did “not go gentle.” I can imagine him sitting beside you (maybe adding an adjective or two for good measure) as you chose all the right words to unflinchingly convey the truth about a horrible, complex disease and the immense loss to your family. Too, it is a great big f*** you to cancer.
    I know this was difficult to write, but I am very glad you did.

    • admin says:

      Oh Yvonne – you have no idea what this means to me as I know just how difficult it must have been for you to read. Really, I didn’t want you to – and I’m so humbled by your response! And yes, he most definitely would be adding a few adjectives, and expletives! Hope your holiday was relaxing, lovely and comforting. L xx

  9. yvonne says:

    Lesley … it was a lovely holiday, and now normal activity must resume. Oh, joy.
    The anonymous comment is mine … I don’t know why it’s anonymous. I think I was trying to post it from my phone, but then thought it didn’t work or that I broke Twitter.

  10. Caroline Rumore( Toner) says:

    Dear Lesley,
    I remember your dad well from the days growing up at Innisfayle Drive. He had,through my childs eyes, a kind, friendly face with a lovely smile and warm eyes. Years later when Simon my husband moved to Ireland he was kind enough to give up his time and give some valued career advice to a young stranger who happened to be marying an old neighbours daughter. I am so sorry you , your mum and Carolyn went through such an horrific time with his illnes and his passing. Its harder than you ever imagine losing a parent, when the time comes it hits hard. Mum passed away a number of years ago, dad never got over losing her and died the following year still broken hearted. Anniversaries are always hard but it does get a little easier each year. Thinking of you all, Caroline Toner

    • admin says:

      Oh Caroline – I remember that well. Dad thought Simon was a great guy, and he was so pleased to help him – and you! He always had a soft spot for you and your brothers – since the day I rounded you all up for my fourth birthday. We’d only just moved to Bangor a few days earlier and mum and dad said I couldn’t have a party as I didn’t have any new friends yet. So I told them I’d be right back with some – and I found the Toner family just around the corner! I remember your mum and dad with great fondness too. Weren’t we lucky to have lovely parents who loved us and loved each other!
      Thank you so much for commenting. You’ve made me cry a little and smile a lot! Xx

      • caroline rumore says:

        What a funny story, you always had determination and confidence, we had some good parties as kids still got a few photos knocking around will post on facebook. Its true we were all very lucky kids, lots of great memories from those days.

  11. Lesley, that was heart-rending and yet uplifting to read. I can’t begin to imagine how difficult it would have been to be at your Dad’s bedside as he battled against death at the final hour. I think we all hope the death of a loved one will be peaceful and has their acceptance, somehow if they ‘cope’ well with it, then we will too. But I sincerely believe you and your family will laugh about this some day, will be reminded that your Dad was a trooper and decided to hell with dignity, he had a great life and wasn’t prepared to take the end of it ‘lying down’.
    All the best, Lesley. He’d be proud of your post!

    • admin says:

      Oh thank you Jackie! What a lovely thing to say. He certainly did it his way – and I think he would be proud. I hope so, anyway! xx

  12. valerie sirr says:

    Lovely post, Lesley. Honest and heartfelt. Couldn’t have been easy to write.

    • admin says:

      Hi Valerie – thank you so much! Yes, it was definitely difficult to write – had tears streaming down my face at points – but the end result and the wonderful (and truly unexpected) responses I’ve had have made it an ultimately uplifting experience. xx

  13. J.D.Hughes says:

    Beautiful post. It reminded me of the death of my own father back in 1995, in some small ways, but I doubt I would have been capable of writing the post you wrote, with such obvious love.

    Epicurus said something like ‘we live in a city without walls’ and for your dad and mine the enemy walked in unseen. I like to think that maybe the enemy isn’t always an enemy, but that sometimes the human spirit simply refuses to give in to anything, enemy or friend.

    But I’m glad he punched the fucker in the face.

    • admin says:

      Thank you so much JD! I’m humbled by your comments and I’m astounded that this post has resonated with so many people. And you know what? I think he broke the fucker’s nose! ;)

  14. Kathy Campbell says:

    Hi Lesley, what a truly wonderful post. I am sitting at the breakfast table crying my eyes out, (Lola is eyeing me suspiciously!)
    I so wish I could write something half as good about my own Dad. What a beautiful tribute.

  15. Heartbreaking, heartfelt and heart-strong. Beautiful Lesley, not to mention extremely well-written. <3

  16. Moloney King says:

    Wow, I need a cuppa after that. Your dad sounds like a man after my own heart.

    Thanks for sharing.

  17. Sharon McFarland says:

    Lesley I have no idea how I missed this post when I first discovered and read your blog. It was extremely courageous of you to write it at all. That you did, and with such searing emotional honesty married to your trademake humour made it all the more touching. Beautifully written, it’s a wonderful tribute to your Dad. X

    • admin says:

      Hi Sharon – thank you so much! Yes, it was a tremendously difficult post – as much of the actual writing was done through a haze of tears. But in a way it was very cathartic too. If my dad knew about all of the wonderful responses the post has received, and that it’s now been nominated for the Best Irish Blog Post award, he’d be tickled pink! x

  18. Rambling Man says:

    I’ve spent my afternoon off reading the blog posts taht are nominated for the 2013 blog awards – not one has touched me like this one, because I can see my own father in it. I was too young then to understand the pain you have so eloquenty put into words … thank you for writing something so powerful and personal. Ronnie raised a good ‘un :)

    • admin says:

      Blimey! I am truly humbled by your comment, and right now I’ve got a huge big lump in my throat! Thank you, Rambling Man. You’ve made my day!

  19. eileen says:

    Death is never easy even when not as nasty as your fathers. I hope you are all in a better place now. You truly put into words the heart rendering emotions and feelings that happen.

    • admin says:

      Hi Eileen. Thank you so much. I’m so humbled by the responses to this post, and my dad would be proud as punch! The fact that total strangers are reading this, and are moved by his story, takes my breath away!

  20. Cathy says:

    Hi Lesley,
    I said I’d better get reading some of the posts I’m “competing” with (for want of a better word!) Beautiful, honest post, I was crying and laughing at the same time at one stage! You’ve a really lovely, refreshing blog

    Turquoise Flamingo

    • admin says:

      Hi Cathy – and thank you so much for commenting! I’ve been sneakily doing the same and I absolutely adore your site! I’m so sorry that you were forced to close your gorgeous shop, but thrilled that you’ve managed to create an online success! I’ll definitely be popping your site onto my favourites. Good luck with the competition. Would be very cool if we both made it through to the final! It’s looking good at the moment, but as we both know, there’s a long way to go! :)

  21. Terry Allen says:

    It was a real honour to spend time with your Dad, Mum, Karalyn and yourself Lesley over the last few weeks of Ronnie’s life. You have summed both him and the situation up perfectly. You like my big cousin Ronnie are a star in my eyes. He may be gone but will never be forgotten. When I watch Ulster or Ireland playing rugby my thoughts immediately turn to Ronnie and can just see him pint in hand shouting the odds. Thanks Lesley for sharing with us all…Terry…

    • admin says:

      Well I’m sure that was a tricky read for you, Terry – as you witnessed the agony first hand. But thank god you did, as it made it easier for the rest of us to bear! And what do you think he would make of this malarkey, eh? I reckon he’d love it! Xx

  22. Lynda says:

    Lesley you get my vote. I loved reading your heart felt blog. I always knew you had an amazing articulate mind ,since we were in Mrs McGimpseys English class, Oh so many years ago. Keep up the good work! Proud to have been your school friend and still in touch today!

    • admin says:

      Aw, Lynda! Thank you so much. I like to think Mrs McG would be quietly pleased! And I’m so happy that we are still chums today too. Wonderful memories, and hopefully more to make! Xx

  23. Clare Steele says:

    Truthful, honest, touching and brave. X

  24. Stephen Roycroft says:

    I’m moved Lesley. There’s a defiance in your own words befitting your daddy’s spirited end. Thanks for sharing.

  25. Found your blog post through the blog awards. Now sobbing at my desk! Very well written!

    So sorry for your loss!

    • admin says:

      Hi there Louise. I’m sorry I made you cry – but I’m thrilled that my dad’s story moved you. Thank you so much for reading – and for taking the time to comment! :)

  26. Sheila Trainor says:

    Hi Lesley, I have just played a round of golf with your mum ( she whopped me) and she was telling me about your blog and how you had written about your dad. I am a nurse who worked in palliative care for 10 years. I so admire how and what you wrote about your dad and the awful disease that is cancer. You articulate what I have seen over the years, how patients and their families live with cancer and indeed how they cope (I hate that word) but you know what I mean.
    How wonderfully you have expressed all those experiences you went through, both individually and as a family. Your dad was an inspiration to us all, he didn’t leave this world without fighting to the end. I like to think I would do that, cling on to life with my fingernails, but that takes courage and support and by the sound of it your dad had both.
    I wish you well for your future and I know that your close experience with death will make you stronger and will be such a help to others that may need a hug or practical advice in such sad circumstances.
    Hugs from a stranger, Sheila Trainor.

  27. Jackie Rainey says:

    Hi Lesley,

    I’ve finally just read your blog, I have lost some Aunts and Uncle’s to cancer and its refreshing to see such a frank and honest reaction to it, thank you for posting it.

  28. ldejong4 says:

    This is really beautiful. Death and dying are scary. Scary to think about and I’m sure write about so well done! Instead, I will read about it. I have been recommended “On Death and Dying” and “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying”. I don’t think it’s something we cope very well with in our culture.

    • admin says:

      Thank you, Lisa. Three years passed before I felt strong enough to write about what happened – and when I finally did, it had to be honest, not sentimental gush! The response has been so unexpected, but made me realise that you are so right – our culture is hard-wired to avoid the reality of death, at all costs!

      • ldejong4 says:

        Yeah strange isn’t it! It’s the awkward nature of the Irish I’m sure. I’ll read those books and if they are good I’ll write up a review on this topic someday.

  29. Anne Finney says:

    The detailed account of your father’s death was so sad but beautiful too.
    Just proves that life in any form is precious.

  30. Terry says:

    I’m writing this reply in a wee hotel outside Dublin that would give Fawlty Towers a run for its money….with a group of counsellors/therapists on the beginning of a somatic based training to help dear folk cope with the wounds that early life experience can leave. Your story has deeply moved me to a place inside myself that ‘remembers’ loss in the medical settings of hospital ICU’s and dares me to confront thoughts of my own dying while holding in counterpoint what it means to be fully alive in every moment despite the landscape… sounds like your Dad found that in big measure right to the last…..or was it the last?
    when some powerful essence of him is now around in those that he has now touched through your hands and heart touching a keyboard. Shalom Shalom, Terry

    • admin says:

      Wow, Terry – you have moved me beyond words. So much so, I am honestly struggling to find the right ones to form an adequate reply. I’ve never looked at it in that way before – that all of these people, many of them unknown to dad, are now carrying a speck of his spirit with them because at that moment in time, when I wrote his story down, the right words did come. Thank you, Terry. Thank you.

  31. Paul says:

    Just read again….how I miss my dad…xxxx

  32. mary says:

    That was very emotional and honest it made me cry,Very well done for writing it.Like yourself my Father also passed away from cancer .From the time he found out till the time he passed was only four months he had lung cancer. Before my father was diagnosed he had a very happy and healthy life .He looked after himself ,ate healthy and enjoyed his pass time ,He owned a vintage car.He certainly wasn’t ready to die.Even turning to a faith healer which was totally out of character.I think he would have tried anything!He would never speak about dying didn’t want to know.My father passed away in my sisters house with all my family present I hoped it would be a spiritual peaceful experience . It didn’t turn out that way. I thought when my Father passed that it was the most scary experience of my whole life.I had nightmares after it ..He just didn’t want to give up.That was seven years ago, I can only hope he is happy now were ever he is .I try to tell myself it was just that he enjoyed life so much he didn’t want to go, which is a good reason really. So many people have such sad and lonely lives.He loved his life and his family, as I’m sure your dad did and you obviously loved him .Xx

    • admin says:

      Oh my goodness, Mary, our fathers sound so similar – in life and in death! My dad’s passion was rugby – and when he survived to witness Ireland’s historic Grand Slam win on 21st March 2009 (which, by a twist of fate, he was at home for whilst I was in hospital) we all thought he would succumb to death, a content and happy man. Of course, as with your father, he didn’t! Your last comment has really resonated with me – that so many people live sad and lonely lives. How lucky were we to have dads who loved their lives and families and friends so much that they couldn’t bear to leave them? Thank you, Mary. You brought a tear to my eye – but you’ve really made me smile too! X

  33. Tanya says:

    Lesley, I just wanted to say I’ve just read this and found it extremely moving. Hope all well with you and yours and hope to see you again in the near future, wishing you all the best, Tanya R. xxxx

    • admin says:

      Oh Tanya – thank you so much for this gorgeous comment! And I’m really sorry I’m only replying to it now, but for some reason I missed a whole bunch of comments with were made last October/November! Hope all well with you – and yes, it would be great to see you again soon. Xx

Hello! Talk to me - please! :)