This is not a work of fiction, but a recollection from my past. Contains painful memories, so please be respectful. I hope reading this will help at least one person in their struggles.
My Last Goodbye
30th August 2016.
This is the day my life changed forever. The day my father died.
It had been a very bad year. The worst if I am being honest with myself.
I was still reeling from my past coming back to haunt my present. My family splintering because of it, and myself… Well, I lost it, and I never really found it again.
My father, Nick, had been sick for a while. He was diagnosed with renal cancer and it was the scariest moment of our lives. Like something out of a movie. You see it in Hollywood, hear it on the news, even read it in books. But you never think it’ll be you. That your family with have to go through the Hell of the “C” word.
My father had a choice to make. He was going to get very sick, very quickly if he didn’t make that choice, and make it fast. They had to cut the cancer out. But it was a dangerous operation. My father was a big man, and because of this he had a 1 in 10 chance of not waking up. This was something the plagued my father. He didn’t know if he could make that choice; risk his life to save it.
By the time my father made the choice to have the surgery the odds had shifted. He now had a 50/50 chance of living. He’d either wake up or he wouldn’t. It was a dangerous operation after all. They’d have to take his entire kidney, and even then, there was other risks besides the cancer itself.
The day was one of the worst in my life. Time did as it does best, ticking away slowly. Almost as if taunting us all. Every hour was excruciating. Would he wake up? Or would he be gone forever? The questions haunted us all. Every minute. Every hour. Slowly dragging its feet until we couldn’t take it anymore. Then, suddenly, it was over. He was awake. The surgery was a success. My father lived.
For months he was okay. Better than okay. He no longer looked like a man with a bomb strapped to his chest. He felt alive again. We all did. Like we managed to dodge a bullet, and it felt fantastic. But like everything that happens in my life, this silver lining wasn’t to last. In fact, things got worse. So much worse… it became a living nightmare.
My father had been in and out of hospital for months. Check-up after check-up. Blood screens. Medication. Chemo. Ambulances. Bed rest. All of it. It almost felt like the hospital became a second home, with a revolving door. But he had bitten the bullet and had the surgery. He was supposed to be okay now. We had gone through the worst of it. That’s what we all thought. That is what I wished, with all my heart. Until he met the oncologist at the Windmill unit of Victoria Hospital.
The Dr had given him the worst news. He waited too long. The cancer had already spread. But that was okay, because there were other treatment options, right? They have all these adverts on the television for Cancer Research UK and how they have made huge strides in the field. How the medicine is so advanced now, and that it was no longer a death sentence. There was a life after cancer. Only, they don’t tell you about the times when it doesn’t work… When the medication isn’t enough.
The cancer had spread. It had spread everywhere. His lungs. His lymph nodes. His spine… He was more cancer than not at this point. This was it. There was so treatment for this. It was terminal. Terminal. That’s the word they use for it when there is nowhere left to go. It’s quite ironic. He had months left. Maybe weeks. Maybe years. They didn’t know. All they knew was there was no future for my father. Which meant there was no future for me. Losing him would destroy me, I knew it would, I felt it in my bones.
No one expects to wake up in the morning and realise that any day they could lose someone they love more than life itself. My father was that someone for me. Yes, we fought. We fought more than most do. But it was because we were so alike, and when I was younger, I hated that fact. I hated thinking that I was a mirror image of my father. Now I would look into the mirror and cherish that I would always keep a piece of him alive. My father. My hero. The man who would do anything for those he loved. He was the kindest man you would ever meet. He snored like an 18-wheeler, and always breathed into his mug when he drank his coffee. He used to sit in his chair and scratch his hands to the point of annoying everyone in the room. But worse, he always coughed. Like a chorus of throat clearing and chesty grunts. I know now that these aspects of my father are what I would miss the most. The silence. What I would give to hear him cough one more time, as annoying as it was.
My father got very sick, very fast. He had nurses coming in and out of the house all the time. Our living room became a hospital room - a hospital bed sat in the centre with the kiddie rails up, and medical supplies busting through the seams. My mother and I got into a routine. She would sleep at night and take care of him during the day, and I? Well I would stay up throughout the night to care for him when he needed someone. It wasn’t normal, by any means, and it’s probably why I can never sleep during the night now, but it was what he needed. We never complained though. How could we? He was going through Hell, and we were barely bystanders to it all.
During the nights I would hear him call out for help. Always. Every night. It wasn’t a yell as such, he had lost his voice for the most part. By this time my father was at the end of the road. He didn’t eat. He didn’t drink. He just kind of laid there on his bed, in a diaper, like a toddler. It was like we had lost him before he was actually gone. He wasn’t my father anymore, not really. He was always confused, and angry, but mostly scared. He cried, a lot, and I couldn’t blame him. I cried too. I still do.
I remember one night as the worst night. I won’t go into the details of what happened, because that wouldn’t be dignifying my father; a man who no man will ever measure up to. Let’s just say it was bad… Like, really bad. But it wasn’t what happened that haunted me for years to come, not exactly anyhow. It was what he said to me, or more specifically… what he couldn’t say.
This particular night he had some kind of consciousness back to him. He wasn’t as confused as he usual was, and when he looked at me, I knew he saw me – he knew who I was. I was sat on the sofa next to his bed, it was pretty late that night. He had called for me earlier, asked me to stay with him. So, I did. I stood beside his bed when he reached out for me, for hours, just holding his hand. His hands were always so big, his fingers thicker than my niece’s wrist. Though they were different now, almost unrecognisable. His tanned skin was loose, hanging almost, his bones easily felt beneath. They were colder too. He was always so warm, my father, like a radiator, but not anymore. He felt normal now, which was cold to me. I cradled his hand in my own, slowly rubbing my thumb over his skin. It was hard to look at him like that, so I just watched the movement of my thumb over his hand, over and over again, like I was soothing a baby.
“I have never been in so much pain in my life,” he said. He voice was quiet, hoarse from the lack of fluids. He had this little sponge and a cup of water. I had to dip the sponge into the cup and soak it and then press it to his lips so that he had some kind of fluids. I went to do that then, but he had stopped me. I saw something in his eyes I had never seen before, something that shook me. Fear. He was terrified, and he told me as much. He looked at me for a long moment and squeezed my hand. “You know how much you love me,” his voice trailed off. At first, I was confused. Did he mean to say how much he loved me? Was this the confusion? But then I saw it, the question in his stare; the pleading.
I knew what he wanted. I was 22 years old. I had used a similar line on my parents on many an occasion. Always when I wanted something, I knew they wouldn’t be willing to give. That’s what he needed of me then. He needed an out. He was in so much pain. I knew it. I saw it every day. The drugs weren’t enough. He was scared to die. I was scared for him to die. But he couldn’t do it anymore, he wasn’t strong enough. He wanted me to help him, to end his suffering. Maybe if I was stronger, I would have done as he needed me to, but I wasn’t strong. I haven’t ever been strong, and I couldn’t do it. I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. He looked away from me then, staring blankly out the window, almost as if I had disappointed him.
The next day my father died. It was just after midnight when the phone rang. My mother was asleep, as usual, so I answered it. My father wasn’t doing well at home, and as much as he wanted to die there, in our house with his family around him, we couldn’t keep caring for him as we were. It was killing us both. We barely slept, ate, showered, or pretty much did anything but watch him waste away into a shell of the man he used to be.
I answered on the third ring. There was a sweet woman on the end of the phone, her voice withdrawn but soft. She asked for my mother. My stomach dropped. She didn’t even say the words, but I knew it in the depths of my soul; he was gone. I crawled into bed with my mother and handed her the phone, as I curled into a ball next to her. I sobbed. I sobbed and sobbed, until my head hurt as much as my heart did.
My father was dead, and I had failed him. Those were the only two things I knew anymore. They would spin around inside my skull until I closed my eyes that night. I. Failed. Him. He. Is. Dead. Over and over, like a nightmare mantra. I didn’t even get to say goodbye. They had taken him to the hospice that afternoon, whilst I was asleep, since I stayed up with him in the evenings. The last thing he ever said to me was a request I couldn’t fulfil. I failed him, and I never got to say goodbye.
My mother made some calls after the hospice hung up. Soon after my sisters turned up. They cried too. Hard. Coffee was made, and no sleep was to be had. We all just sat around the table in the freezing conservatory, muted and dull. Like the colour had drained from our life. We knew it was coming. Worse, we saw it coming. We watched as every piece of my father was lost to the corruption inside of his body. The cancer that ate away at his life. No one talked. No one dared to. The house was silent for the first time in so long. It was deafening.
The hospice had told my mother that we could go to the centre in the morning to pick up his things, and to say goodbye. They had prepared him, or at least his body. No one wanted to see him that way, not even me. But I had to. I couldn’t forget those words he had said to me, and their meaning. I couldn’t forget the feeling inside of me, as if I had failed him, and it drowned me. Worse than the grief. The guilt was killing me. My family thought it would be good for me to say goodbye to him, to acknowledge he was really gone. I was so lost in myself that I didn’t have the strength to think for myself, so I did it. I went to say goodbye.
The room I had entered was so cold it made goose bumps appear all over my skin. It was as if I had walked into a freezer, only it was a room. A room with a bed in the middle, and my father laid on top of it. He wore a blue shirt; one I had seen him in several times before. They must have dressed him to comfort us, but it was odd to see him dressed now, after so long. He looked serene where he lay, unmoving. I was utterly terrified. Terrified of my father as he lay there, dead. I knew that doing this would have been difficult, but I never really knew how hard it was going to be.
It took me a while to move into the seat that was next to the bed, facing him. I moved so slowly, frightened he’d move, terrified he wouldn’t. My eyes couldn’t move from his face, so withdrawn, not like I had ever seen him before. They say that the dead just look like they’re sleeping, let me tell you this now, they don’t. They don’t look asleep, they look dead. Gone. That’s what he was now. Just a body, an empty shell, with no one inside. I thought I had cried before, when the news broke, but it was nothing compared to that moment. That haunting moment, in the coldest room I have ever been in.
I was scared to touch him, but I forced myself to. I placed a hand on his and wept. His skin was so cold. Too cold. It was hard, unmoving, and cold, like ice. I tried to squeeze his hand, but it did nothing. He was still gone. His stillness still haunts me to this day. I had placed my head onto his chest, his broad chest that, when he was alive, was always moving. Like him. My father never sat still. Never stayed silent. I don’t know why I did it, maybe it was because I wished that they had got it wrong. That I could somehow feel his large heart steadily thumping inside his chest. But it didn’t. It never would again.
I hold this memory in my aching heart to this day. The memory of seeing him, gone. Like he was never here to begin with. I thought that it would give me peace, to say a final goodbye. But there was no peace in that room. They may have laid flowers on his chest and tucked in his shirt and cleaned his face. But there was no peace. His face was covered in stubble, white wisps of hair poking out. He shaved every morning since I was a child. It looked so out of place. Everything about him did. I left that room with a heavier heart than I had entered, and I would never forget the horror inside of it. The finality of seeing him like that.
Sometimes we lose someone we love suddenly. It’s something I have been through in my short life, many times. Somehow, this was worse. The longevity of seeing him slowly becoming less of the man I knew and loved and seeing him in so much anguish and fear. To this day, I wish I had said something that day. I have so many regrets in my life. So much pain and guilt. Losing my father was like the last nail in the coffin for me, for a long time. I lost myself to a darkness I had pushed down for so long. I am still lost. Still trying to fight my way through the pain of losing him. Every day is a battle. Ever morning I wake up is a victory. There are dark times, more than there are good. Sometimes it gets so dark I see no light at the end of the tunnel, and I wish for it to be over. But it has been almost three years since that day. Three years since I lost him.
I have always found solace in one quote, from one of my favourite tv shows, Criminal Minds. “It has been said, 'time heals all wounds.' I do not agree. The wounds remain. In time, the mind, protecting its sanity, covers them with scar tissue and the pain lessens. But it is never gone.” - Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy.
And that is my story, at least one of them.
I would like to dedicate this to my father, Nicholas Danby, a man who was taken too soon. I would also like to thank Max for his dedication to Ember, and to allowing a safe and secure space to allow writers such as myself to express themselves, in whatever way they see fit. Lastly, I would like that thank Felix (Armon on Stormont), for helping me start this piece, and my heart for helping me finish it.
Stay strong – Emily