I struggle at this time of year. Some years more than others, it has to be said; but this year, I am struggling.
On October 4th 2004 I started a new job at a pension company. I had previously been working for a small local company, but when my dad had a near-fatal heart attack in Spain that June, they were not terribly supportive – especially when he didn’t just recover, as you would expect from a standard heart attack. He was brought back to the UK in a coma, and we were told: he is in a coma; he has brain damage. We don’t know how much brain damage there is; we won’t know the extent until he wakes up. We don’t know if he will ever wake up. He had woken up though, and been moved to a specialist hospital forty miles away for treatment. This meant I wanted time off work to visit him, and my employers were not terribly flexible about that.
I had not coped well with my dad being ill, and although I didn’t expect my new job in a larger company to be any more flexible, I felt I needed the change. My dad was now “out of the woods” and recovering from his brain injury. For the first time there had been talk of moving him back to a care home closer to Salisbury. We knew he would probably never be back to his old self, but he was now eating some solid food, and even managing to speak a little. More importantly, he had frowned furiously when he’d seen my latest piercing – so we knew he was still in there!
That morning as I got ready to go to my new job, my sister called. I almost didn’t answer; we didn’t get on, and I didn’t appreciate the way she had handled her role of “next of kin” to my dad while he was ill. I did answer though, and she told me my dad had been sick in the night, and had inhaled it. He was too weak to just cough it up, and so he had been moved across town to the “proper” hospital. I was nervous and in a rush to get to my new job, and my sister is prone to dramatics. I told her to call me if there was any news. I figured he would go to the other hospital, get this fixed and then carry on with his recovery.
Two days later as I was leaving work, I took my phone out of my bag and saw that I had several missed calls from my sister – and a voicemail. That voicemail was the worst thing I have ever listened to. In it she said the doctors wanted to put my dad back on a ventilator, and if they did that he may never be strong enough to come off it again. If they didn’t put him back on the ventilator, there was a chance he would have another heart attack and die. She asked me to come to the hospital as soon as I could. I turned around and rushed back into the building. I got as far as my new manager’s desk before I just burst into tears. I somehow managed to tell her I wouldn’t be able to come to work the next day because of my dad. I didn’t finish my sentence; she didn’t care what the problem was. She offered to drive me to the hospital immediately but I declined and went home, having been told to take all the time I needed.
From there, I went to Southampton to stay with a friend; he wanted to look after me, and I couldn’t bear to be at home. The next morning, October 7th, my aunt and uncle collected me, and we drove to the hospital. It was awful. I don’t actually remember much about that day. I do remember feeling like I was skiving off work, especially when my aunt and uncle took me to the cafe for lunch.
When we came back from our lunch, my sister and my dad’s girlfriend looked shell shocked. One of them told us the doctors had just been to visit; they said the drugs they had been giving my dad weren’t working, and so they were going to stop them and wait. Wait for what? I asked. The answer came in tears from my aunt and uncle, two people I cannot recall ever showing any emotion before; we’re not that sort of family. I just stood there. What are you supposed to do when you’re told you are essentially waiting for your father to die?
I remember calling work to say I wouldn’t be back that week. They were really good about it, but I still felt like I was just skiving off; surely this was no big deal really, and I should just get back to my new job. I was probably making a really bad impression.
My dad’s girlfriend had been practically living at the hospital since he had been moved there, and she said she would need to go to the shops to buy some clean underwear and toiletries so that she could stay with him. All I could think was that I couldn’t stand the idea of standing about in a horrible, smelly hospital, tapping my feet and waiting for my dad to die. My family were coping by having weird, mundane conversations about family news. Chatting about the weather, sitting on uncomfortable chairs and taking it in turns to go and do the same in the cafe because we weren’t supposed to have more than two people in the room with him. I felt like I would be literally waiting for him to die so that I could leave this horrible situation. So I decided I should leave immediately instead. In retrospect, I was wrong about that but ultimately I wanted to run away and I did.
Everyone left the room so that I could say goodbye. I don’t really know what I said to him; he was in a coma and surrounded by tubes and wires and all sorts of things. I think I held his hand but it felt weird to do that because he wasn’t holding mine back. I got on the bus into town with my dad’s girlfriend, and then caught the train home. I remember my mother calling me while I was on the train, but I didn’t want to cry in public so I didn’t answer.
When I got home I took all of my clothes off and put them in the wash; they stank of that horrible hospital. My friend from Southampton came to get me, and I basically ran away and hid at his house. All weekend, any time my phone went I thought it was “the call” and it was terrible. The call eventually came on Sunday 10th October, some time in the afternoon. We were in TGI Friday, having dinner. I went outside to take the call, and said I would be the one to call my youngest brother and tell him; I don’t know why I volunteered to do that because it was frankly a horrible conversation. But I thought I might be better able to break the news than my sister. I went back into the restaurant unable to stop crying, and tried to eat my food through my tears because I felt bad about wasting my friend’s money. Everyone was looking at me but I couldn’t keep it together.
After that, I stayed in Southampton for a long while. I was hiding from everything. The friend became a boyfriend and I hid in his bed for several days. I didn’t go with my family to clear out my dad’s flat, so I don’t know what happened to most of his things. I managed to go to my mother’s for the meeting about the funeral arrangements, but all I remember is that we all posed for a very awkward photo afterwards. Then I went back to Southampton to hide some more, and between then and when I broke up with that boyfriend (the following June, I think) I continued to hide from my life by taking over his.
I don’t think I actually grieved for my dad until 6 years later, when I had a nervous breakdown and was unable to avoid all of the horrible things I had been hiding from until that point.
Every October since that year has been hard. Some years have been harder than others. This year, I have had a very stressful few months which reached a peak at the end of September when I ended up having emergency hernia repair surgery, and then spent a week unable to do much except sit and think. Often, I ended up thinking that while it took my mother 6 days to even call me, my dad would have been at the hospital when I woke up. Actually, he probably would have driven me there in the first place.
I think every year I struggle with this more than I let on, or even realise – because my dad’s death was a long, drawn out affair which, rather than bringing my family together actually drove further wedges between us. And because I didn’t deal with any of it at the time; I ran away and hid in a very literal way because I just couldn’t face what was going on. Every year I feel rubbish, make bad decisions, cling to people to whom I should not cling for support. And then October 10th arrives and I think: oh, that’s what was going on…
There is actually no point to my writing this post, except that I wanted to try and order my thoughts, and to try and remember that time clearly – possibly for the first time. I am struggling with it this year. You might think, considering it’s now been 13 years, that’s pretty ridiculous. You might be right. But it is what it is. And the only way out is through.