As hinted at in my previous post, after a couple of nasty infections, my dad’s in his final days.
At the time of writing he’s being made comfortable. He’s not in any pain and he doesn’t really have the strength or inclination to eat or drink, other than a couple of spoons of mashed up weetabix he had yesterday and enough water to keep his mouth and throat from drying up. He barely has the strength to lift his head or even open his eyes.
This doesn’t mean he’s asleep though. I was talking to a doctor by the foot of his hospital bed earlier in the week and I’d mentioned my MS in passing. The doctor had started telling me about a disease modifying drug he’d read about in the BMJ: “Ock… Ockra…”
“Ocrelizumab?” I ventured.
He looked surprised, “Yeah – that’s it.”
Having MS sure makes you do your homework.
For some reason, my dad chose this moment to lift his head and eye us suspiciously; he lifted his right hand like an imaginary gun and shot me twice before nodding back off.
Good old Dad, he still has a sense of humour.
Now, I’ll lay my cards on the table: I’d describe myself as a pantheist. I don’t believe in a creator God. Plenty of people have tried to convince me otherwise: evangelists, jehovah’s witnesses, you name it, but it’s like water off a duck’s back to me now. I’ve considered the evidence and I’d say I was solid in my (non-traditional) belief. It’s not like I can say I wasn’t taken to church as a kid or anything. I’ve done it all. I’m even a Sunday school drop-out.
It comes from having a vicar as a dad.
I lived in vicarages for the duration of my childhood until I was within grasping distance of my teenage years, and then we moved into my gran’s old house and that’s where we settled.
Dad gained a job as the first full-time chaplain in the newly built local hospital, building the role up from scratch.
I don’t meet that many people who remember him in this role as it was a long time ago. The ones that I do, however, always take pains to tell me what a lovely man he was and how he had time for absolutely everyone.
He really found his vocation in life, and made it his mission to keep his finger on the pulse of all the staff as well as the patients.
Whether it was meeting or sharing jokes with the cleaners (or the ‘pink panthers’ as he called them, due to their uniforms), the consultants, or the mortician (who memorably tried to get the measure of my dad by inviting him to a post-mortem, expressing surprise that he hadn’t fainted during the experience), he listened to them all, and he let them all unburden their stresses, complaints, fears and sorrows onto his shoulders.
He respected no social hierarchy. We were all human. We were all made equal. We were all loved.
I remember him telling me as a teenager that he’d been to see a patient who’d listed wicca as their religion. I’d expressed surprise that he’d been to see someone who wasn’t a christian. He put me right – it didn’t matter what your religion or lack of religion was, we all need someone to listen to us and that was why he was there: to be with people and share their load.
When I was diagnosed with MS, I had, and still largely do have, a light-hearted attitude towards the disease and all the crap it throws at me. I guess it’s my way of dealing with it. No matter how breezily I’d mention anything to do with it to Dad, he’d always see through my façade and take me off-guard by stopping whatever he was doing, removing his glasses and giving me his full attention.
He was retired medically in the early ’90s. A dodgy ticker wasn’t being helped by the stress of his job. He’d had pressure from management at the tail-end of the Thatcher years. He said they sat in offices away from the rest of the hospital and their main concern seemed to be balancing budgets above all else. He felt that his was a role that had no empirical value in their eyes, I’d like to think that one or two of the senior management team sought him out when they eventually needed him. And if they did, I’m sure he’d be there for them in the same way as he’d be there for a newly diagnosed cancer patient or a bereaved parent.
I also remember that he’d found it especially hard dealing with stillbirths at a time when he’d become a grandfather for the first time.
Years of happy retirement followed in which he became a devoted grandfather to 6 and, in the last year (to his enormous glee), a great-grandfather. When my mum (who was born into a typical methodist mining family) died 12 years ago, on her encouragement, he ‘crossed the Tiber,’ and joined his friends in the Roman Catholic church. This was a not-unexpected move that eventually and inevitably led to him achieving ordination as a catholic priest, teaming up with an old hospital colleague at a church in a working class suburb of town. He retired for a second time only a handful of years ago.
Despite my beliefs, my upbringing means I’ve always found it very familiar and easy to talk to clergy. I always make time for them. Thinking about his last rites, I’d mentioned to my dad that I was going to talk to a priest, and in a feeble whisper he told me it wasn’t necessary. His short term memory had already been blown to pieces by his recent illness, so I assumed it was similar to him telling me about self administering his own communion after his second retirement, but no – the priesthood had been there on a stealth mission already.
“He’s all signed off, the Monsignor came to see him… let me see… ten days ago,” the local Dean informed me at the end of the phone, and then in a beautiful turn-of-phrase that made me choke back the tears, “he’s had his passport stamped, and he’s ready to fly.”
It must be a phrase that my dad is familiar with because when I told him I’d heard his passport was stamped, he managed a smile. Then following the Dean’s advice to give reassurance that it was OK to go, and for him not to worry about who or what he might be leaving behind, I added “when they call your flight number, just go for it Dad, just pick up your bags and go straight to the gate, OK?”
“OK” came the whispered reply.
He’s back in his care home now. The hospital where he’d worked has done everything they can for him, and he’s now being treated by nursing staff who visit daily and the lovely living saint who is his main carer*. It’s a surrounding that he’s familiar with, that doesn’t involve beeping equipment, the groans of other patients, the pink panthers with their mops and brushes, or having his blood pressure checked at regular intervals. He can be lulled to sleep again by the night trains on the nearby railway, rattling past to destinations unknown.
The future and the wellbeing of the planet has always seemed to me to be on a knife edge with global warming, the ongoing mass extinction event that is the human race, and now the era of Brexit, Trump and the rise of populism across Europe. Dad’s left such a legacy to be proud of, he has touched so many people’s lives, and we need more people like him. More people to redress the balance of an off-kilter world. More people to heal the human spirit.
It’s about quality of life after all.
* a couple of years after this post was published, I was very happy to hear that my dad’s old carer was now working in the local hospice. I couldn’t think of anyone else more suitable for the job.