“The doctors say he has weeks left, if that. One of us has to go.”
I was with my older brother, Sam, in a café in St James’ Park, London. My father was dying of cancer in Canada, somewhere in the vast, great plains that dominate the mid-west territory.
“Will you go?” I asked Sam.
“You should. You are closer. Beth is going on Friday. She can help you with Cian.”
I sighed. Beth was my father’s mistress, or lover, as she preferred to be called. Last year, mum had left dad after 37 years of marriage. Apparently, Beth had been the last straw in a long line of women. Everything appeared amicable. Not a word out of place. They sold the family home and bought two separate apartments. We all met for dinner every so often, usually in restaurants. No-one passed any remarks. Then Dad got diagnosed with cancer and, after initial treatment, took up a visiting professorship of Human Rights in Saskatchewan.
“We can get your plane tickets tomorrow,” Sam said.
“Can’t you go? It’s so difficult for me with work and the children,” I pleaded.
“I can, but you would regret it.”
Three days later, Beth, Cian and I boarded the aeroplane. I hadn’t been on a plane for years. I watched London dissolve into lego-land. Beth ordered gin and tonics. A thrill of pleasure trilled. It was a relief to get away from the pressures of work, children, marriage. Then I felt guilty. I must focus. I was going to watch my father die.
Five hours later, as the plane descended into the red painted leaves of Montreal, Cian screamed. His face screwed up, beef tomato like and his tiny fists lashed out. I watched his temple pulsate.
“Do you think he has burst his eardrums? Planes can affect babies’ ear drums.”
“I’m sure he is fine,” said Beth, with little interest.
“Please stop,” I whispered to Cian, desperately rocking him. Finally, we landed. Cian’s sobs subsided into gulps of air, like mine.
“We’re late. We have to run to make the connection,” said Beth. “Come on.”
In the baggage hall, Beth’s suitcases arrived straightaway. We waited for mine, Beth tapping her foot.
“We’re going to miss the connecting flight,” she muttered.
Cian started to whimper. He must be hungry. I was wondering whether I could feed him while standing when I saw my bag.
Beth grabbed it.
“I have to wait for the buggy.”
I watched Beth’s impatience play out on her face. Her cheeks flushed to the roots of her red hair, her grey eyes flashed and her nostrils flared. I turned my back and watched the carrousel. Only a square brown cardboard box with white postal stickers circulated. Cian started to cry. I was going to have to feed him.
“I’m going on.”
I turned around in surprise and before I had time to say anything, Beth strode off. I watched her auburn curls bouncing up and down as she disappeared. I couldn’t believe it. I hugged Cian close.
“Wow!” I said. “Cian, what do you think?”
I looked down at him. As usual, when calamity struck, Cian had gone to sleep. Finally, the buggy arrived. I laid Cian gently on the ground while I put it up. I strapped him in and balanced the bag on the top. B32 was the departure gate for the Saskatoon plane. I was in terminal A. I hurried off, pushing the buggy with one hand and carrying the suitcase in the other. I tried running but it was difficult to navigate the crowds. It was hot and heavy. The large square, black and white floor tiles slipping beneath my feet made me feel dizzy. After five minutes, I got a side stitch and had to slow down. A prickly heat grew in my cheeks. Maybe if I put the suitcase in the buggy and carried Cian, it would be easier. I stopped and swapped Cian for the suitcase. He was lighter. I looked at my watch. The Saskatoon plane had left five minutes ago. I stood still, surrounded by strangers going in all different directions. Dad was dying and I felt like I was drowning in an airport. What now? I took a breath. Oh God. Grow up, I thought. You’re an adult. You just get another ticket. You have a credit card.
“Ok, Cian,” I whispered. “There’s always another ‘plane, isn’t there? Let’s go to the gate and see.”
At least I no longer had to run. How could Beth have left me? Dad wouldn’t like it when she arrived without me, I gloated, but I didn’t like the thought of her standing by his bed, when I arrived, already in situ, smiling. And suppose I didn’t get there before he died. Suppose I couldn’t get a flight. Stop it, I told myself. One step at a time.
As I approached the gate, it was busy, people were milling around. Surely this wasn’t for the next plane, already. I scanned the crowd for a glimpse of Beth’s auburn curls. When I saw her, I couldn’t help feeling a rising tide of satisfaction while at the same time wanting to cry with relief.
“The ‘plane is delayed,” she said sheepishly. “Sorry.”
I hid my consternation, busying myself with the baby change bag and mat. Cian was soaked and my sleeve was wet from carrying him.
“I am sorry, Kath. I lost my head. I shouldn’t have left you.”
I nodded, changed and fed Cian, cooing and caressing him, while tears poured down my cheeks. I couldn’t control them.
Five hours later, we arrived in Saskatoon. It was mid-evening but still bright. We caught a taxi to Dad’s rented flat which was in the basement of a concrete corner apartment block. The sitting room had a nylon, paisley-patterned, carpet of red, and orange and the wall paper was brown and mottled. The windows were high up and pavement level with the street. In a letter, Dad had described his accommodation as giving him a ‘worm’s eye view of the world.’
“Oh, my God! Dad tarted up the flat a bit in his description. Look at the mock orange and green fur on couch.”
“The plastic furniture is awful,” said Beth going straight into the kitchen.
“It’s miserable. How could he have lived here?” She called to me.
“He said he could get nothing better.”
“Are you joking? Did you not see the gorgeous houses down the road?”
“I don’t think he had enough money. The separation from mum probably caused a dent in his finances. He doesn’t have an income yet from the University. Presumably it doesn’t pay him until October when term starts.”
I felt irritated that Beth didn’t know about his money problems. I rubbed noses with Cian on the floor while changing him and tickled him but then, I hadn’t realised how broke Dad was either. I shied back as I got an electric shock from the baby.
“Cian is full of electricity from this nylon carpet!”
Dad’s room in the hospital was small but light. It overlooked the tall, red brick chimney of the morgue. He looked like a living skeleton. I gave him a kiss on each flaccid and florid cheek. Chaucer’s Miller’s Tale came to mind; his ‘neck slacketh’. My big father had shrivelled. Bones protruded.
“How are you, Dad?”
“All the better for seeing you, and Cian. Let me look at him,” he said in a jovial voice. I held out my son to him. Dad looked rather than taking him.
“Now, there is good health for you! He is beautiful. Very bonny.”
He held out his hand to Beth.
“Hello, love. A good trip?”
I let Beth deal with details of the journey. She mentioned nothing about abandoning me.
“Great view, Dad, the chimney.”
“I know, I watch the sinners go up in smoke.”
“Oh Dad. We’ll have to get you out of here.”
The next day the nurses suggested we take him out for the morning. They attached oxygen canisters and drips to the wheelchair and wrapped him up. It seemed wrong to have my dad wrapped in blankets in a wheelchair. It was a beautiful, clear, autumnal day. The sunshine was high in a blue sky and there was a sharp, fresh bite in the air. Beth wheeled him while I pushed Cian in the buggy. I felt as if I had ventured into Alice in Wonderland.
“Got one of them for me?” said Dad pointing to Cian’s hat and scarf. I hadn’t thought of him needing scarves.
“Of course,” Beth answered. She wrapped him up in her black scarf and woolly hat. I thought of him scrabbling over the Welsh hillsides in sandals, rolled up sleeves, arms grazed and bleeding from the ‘short cut’ through the brambles.
“Lovely day!” I said.
“Oh, what a wonderful morning…” Dad began to sing.
“Oh, what a beautiful day…” I continued.
“Dad, what about that song, ‘It’s the same the whole world over, it’s the rich wot get the gravy and the poor wot get the blame.’ Let’s sing that.”
We continued through the roll call of songs that we used to sing in the car on family holidays. Beth knew them all too, though she had a few different words and harmonies in places. We laughed at the occasional flat note. It began to feel like being on holiday.
“How does that song go…’Red Fly the Banners O’. You know, I’ll need you to write down the words of these songs, Dad… “ The implication sliced through the sharp, cold air. “…I didn’t mean it like that.” I couldn’t think what to say to make it better.
“I’ve already started, love. You’ll find them in the desk drawer.”
He started to cough. I put my hands over Cian’s ears. I didn’t want him to hear. We returned him to hospital and we went to the worm’s lair.
The days and nights spilled into a routine. Every morning I would take a few minutes in the bed I shared with Cian, playing. Then I would shower, having to swill handfuls of my long hair down the plug hole afterwards. I fed Cian a jar, wrapped him up and put him in the buggy to walk to the hospital looking at the beautiful turreted houses. I would spend the day with Dad. He slept. I read or cuddled Cian. Every day I spoke to the social workers, and hospital authorities. I wanted to fly dad home. But because he was dying, no airline would take him. Beth would come in about five and stay with him overnight.
At six in the evening, I would walk home again. I couldn’t get over how everything was so regimented. You had to park your car on the right-hand side of the road, facing the direction of the traffic. You were not allowed to cross the road except at pedestrian lights. You were not allowed to eat or drink on the street. Some blocks were for apartments, other blocks were reserved for houses. There was no mixed tenure. There was never a wrapper or piece of rubbish knocking about on the wind.
There was a group of doctors on the hospital ward: the Cancer Doctor, the Blood Doctor. The Heart Doctor. The Lung Doctor. One day, together, en masse, they approached me to consult. They told me that he was going to die very soon. Despite knowing this, after all, it was why I was here – to be with him when he died – I was shocked. I watched myself from a distance, talking to the doctors. The real me was hovering to the left, about three feet off the ground, like Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire cat. I examined their faces, noting the brown eyes of the Cancer Doctor and his red sideburns. I wondered what his home looked like. Was it an apartment or one of the lovely big houses? Probably an apartment. I looked for a wedding ring. His fingers were bare. I could hear what the doctors were saying but I couldn’t focus. I wondered if they were well paid and if, when dad died, I would have to organise a dead body on the plane. Did the doctor have a family that he would tell about his day? About my dad dying, about me, about my response. I suddenly realised I’d better make one. They were waiting.
“Thank you. You have all been very kind.”
I went back into Dad’s hospital room. Like a child, I felt puffed up with my important news. I stood at the end of the bed, holding the iron bedstead. I needed the cold metal to grip. At least, I thought, I didn’t suck my fingers any more. The iron taste in my mouth used to be horrible after fingering metal. Tears begin to sting the back of my eyes. I took a deep breath. Deep, deep, breath. I must be strong. I breathed out slowly. Another deep breath. Then I spoke but I heard my voice quaver. I blurted it out, like a teenager.
“The doctors say that is unlikely that you have more than a few days to live, Dad.”
I moved to the side of the bed and took his hand. I tucked my fingers into his, in the special way that we had since I was a little girl and he woke me at dawn to take me to Hampstead Heath on early morning walks. He opened his eyes. They were still blue, but watery and pale. The skin hung on his cheekbones. His eyebrows, though, were still bushy at the ends. They were flying off in all directions. He squeezed my fingers.
“What a cock up!” he muttered.
“They say he’s only got a couple of days left,” I whispered to Beth in the corridor when she arrived.
“Have you told him?”
“What did he say?”
“It’s a cock up.
“Has he said anything else?”
“It’s so frustrating,” moaned Beth. “I thought it would be different. I wanted to be with him. But I’m not. I’m with a stranger!”
“Oh Beth!” Horribly, I was pleased to hear this. It meant she was not as important as me. Then, I felt guilty. How ridiculous to have these competitive feelings.
“I’m glad you are here, Beth. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
And I meant it. I gave her a big hug.
“Let’s have time out and go to the liquor store on the way back to the flat tonight and treat ourselves” I suggested, “I think we deserve a drink.”
“Good idea! Let’s eat together. I’ll cook.”
Bizarre, I thought, now we were celebrating!
We left the hospital early and returned to Dad’s lair together. Beth cooked in the kitchen while I prepared Cian’s supper, changed and bathed him, and finally put him to bed. I went back into the kitchen, waving a bottle of wine and two glasses. It was a relief to have a break from the usual grim routine.
“Something smells wonderful.”
“Nearly done,” said Beth. “Give me ten minutes while I wash.”
Over supper, we discussed Dad. Silly stories and memories flowed with the wine and by the second bottle, we were sharing secrets. The nylon carpet provided a soft glow and warmth. The fake fur began to feel soft and cuddly. We made each other laugh.
“You know when he joined us skiing last year, he refused to wear the proper gear. He insisted on wearing his old corduroy trousers and old wax jacket that he always has. He looked ridiculous and it was awful when he fell into ten foot of snow. We had real difficulty getting him out.”
“People loved your father. He would walk into a room, and everyone would try to gather round him.”
“He was quite scary though, when I was child. His eyes would pierce blue, his mouth would shrivel and his voice would freeze. He smacked me once when I swore.”
“He didn’t want to leave your mother. But when she left him, the vultures descended…
“He told me. And you won. Well, I’m glad.”
We laughed, drank and smoked away the night. Occasionally, I thought of mum. How she was at her flat at this minute, sitting alone, waiting to hear from me. I felt a stab of guilt about sharing his death with Beth. I was enjoying this. It made me feel close to him. It kept him alive. I was glad it was Beth with me rather than mum. It was mum’s fault for refusing to fly out. If I was friends with Beth, they were to blame. They should never have split up.
At the hospital the next morning, after I had settled Cian for his mid-morning sleep, I sat with Dad.
“I want all the medicines and drips stopped,” he said shortly.
There was silence while the words found a resting place in my head. At first, I was shocked, then relieved. When I realised my relief, I felt guilty and then worried that my face was betraying these different emotions.
“There isn’t any point in lying around,” he said, “might as well be done with it.”
“I’ll talk to the doctors.”
I walked quickly out of the room.
In the corridor, I could hear the doctors doing their round. I watched them coming towards me. Their footsteps clicked on the floor tiles as they approached. Click, click, click. I clutched my hands behind my back. I dug my nails into my fingers. Pleasantries were exchanged briefly. Then, slowly and deliberately, I spoke.
“Dad wants to turn everything off. He doesn’t want to wait.”
I could feel the tears welling up. I squeezed my nails harder into my fingers. Half of me felt like an unhinged adolescent and the other half trapped in the straitjacket of an adult. There was no hovering outside my body this time.
“We need your permission. And his.”
“You have mine. Is it possible? How long will he last without medication?”
Talking practicalities helped me steady my voice.
“It’s difficult to say. Maybe a day. We can keep the morphine going,” said the Dr White, the cancer doctor. “I will speak to him.”
We entered his room. The chimney stood tall in the window. Not smoking today. It would be, I thought. Dad opened his pale blue eyes and gave a small smile. One I associated with him when he was angry.
“Hello, doctor. I would like everything turned off”.
While weak, his voice still contained a frisson of the sternness that used to make me quake. The doctor nodded.
“We can keep the morphine going,” he answered.
“I will arrange it.”
I watched the exchange. My head turning from one to the other. Wimbledon popped into my mind. Dad and I loved Wimbledon.
It was that simple. Dr White looked at me and we left the room. My nails were still digging into my fingers behind my back. The tears flowed down my cheeks anyway, regardless of my embarrassment. I tried biting my lip.
“They will stop the medication this afternoon,” he said. I nodded, unable to speak. He walked away. I heard his heels click. Then I watched him turn and come back to me. He took my hands from behind my back. My palms were bleeding.
“I will leave a prescription for you.”
After a while, I phoned Sam.
“I guess it’s time you and Dad started making phone calls,” he said.
Phone calls? Sam said Dad would need to phone people to say goodbye. I realised this would include my mother. Was this necessary? I wondered if Sam was asserting his authority from afar. I returned to Dad.
“Sam says we have to make some phone calls, Dad.”
We both looked at the phone which sat on the side of the hospital bed. I dialled mum’s telephone number first. It rang for a long time. Finally, she answered. Her voice was high pitched, trying to be calm. I couldn’t bear to talk to her.
“We are both here. I’m fine. I’ll put you on to Dad.”
I made to leave the room. Dad beckoned me back.
“I’m fine, love,” he said into the phone. “Everything is fine. It’s a bit uncomfortable. No, there is nothing I need. Are you all right? Good. I’m a bit breathless. Look after the grandchildren. Take care, love.”
Was that it? I wondered. After forty years of marriage. No one else was in. Thank God. I left messages on answer phones. “Hi, just Kath here. I’m with Dad. We wanted to say goodbye.”
The next morning, I arrived early. He was still conscious.
“Good morning, love.”
He closed his eyes and squeezed my hand. I tried to think of encouraging things to say but I didn’t think wittering on about my early morning childhood walks with him and Rusty, our dog seemed appropriate. He probably had more important things to think about. He slept, I think, or maybe he was unconscious. Beth arrived at 4pm. We sat, one on either side of the bed in silence. I left with Cian at 9pm and went home to bed, exhausted. At four, Beth rang.
“Oh God! Did he say anything?”
“No. There was a rattle and he shook a bit.”
I hurried to the hospital. It was just getting light. A white light. The streets and the usually busy hospital were deserted. Silence. I walked in. Everything seemed so deliberate, defined. I noticed scratches on the floor. I had a strange feeling of drama. I hurried to the room. Beth stood by the window. Dad’s body looked waxen.
“They’ve tarted him up.”.
“What did they do?”
“Straightened him out, and put some kind of make up on him.”
I looked at him closely and touched him. He had gone.
“Let’s pack his stuff and get out of here.”
My voice broke. I felt wretched. I’d never see him again. I was furious.
Back in the lair with a worm’s eye view, Beth opened a bottle. We toasted Dad. Raising my glass, I said.
“To dad’s cock up.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Beth laughed. I grimaced. I hadn’t meant it like that.
We left the next day, me holding Cian and carrying Dad’s hot ashes under my arm. I left the remains of his stuff to the worms. We flew to Alberta and from there to Heathrow. I left Beth at the airport, and never saw her again.
“It was horrible, mum.” I said, though I knew that wasn’t wholly true. “I’m glad you weren’t there.” Sadly, that was the truth.