‘We’re talking weeks, not months,’ she said, and with those words she imposed a frame on things, curtailed a life without ceremony. Not that there was any correct or easy way to say it, to ease the listener into the realisation that this was now their life, this brusquely truncated space. Those plans you had? Nah. Think again. Those things you dreamt of one day achieving? Not gonna happen. The horizon you never truly believed in is here, you can see its defined edge. So cancel those hopes, tear up that list of things never to be done. Because, and it can’t be said plainly enough, this is the end.
How much worse it must be, I thought, to be told this news when it’s about you. I’d only nipped in there to ask about my dad’s medication. I hadn’t technically parked legally and so didn’t want to hang around too much. Just to know how much he had to take and when. There were a few different tablets and I knew how absent-minded he could be at times. Come to think of it, I thought he’d been a bit quiet.
She looked puzzled for a moment, as if my gaping jaw had given something away.
‘You did know?’
‘What did he say he was here for?’ she asked, sighing only slightly.
‘His back,’ I said. ‘It was playing up.’
She nodded. ‘His back was playing up. And the cough?’
‘He’s had that for years. We got used to it ages ago. I can’t see him complaining to you about that. If anything, we’d be concerned if he lost it. It’s just his cough.’
She took a deep breath and looked me in the eye. ‘It isn’t just a cough,’ she said.
On the way home Dad and I had the usual chat. By chat I mean I filled the silence by rambling on for as long as the car was moving. I assumed he was asleep most of the time; he usually was. It was only as I pulled up outside their home that I said ‘so. You have a bad back.’
‘So,’ I said to mum. ‘Bad back.’
She didn’t seem to hear, being intent on taking something out of the oven, putting something else in there and fiddling with what looked like a complicated system of plates. Strange to think tomorrow was Christmas. Time hadn’t really stopped that afternoon.
‘How long have you known?’
She put some plates on the table. ‘Only since October,’ she said. ‘Not long.’
We went outside, in part to escape the steaminess of the kitchen.
‘Lung cancer,’ she said. She lit up, striking the wheel on the lighter several times against the bitter wind before it sparked.
‘But he’s never smoked.’
‘Sod’s law,’ she said, exhaling from a corner of her mouth so as not to blow in my face. The wind blew it in my face.
Never smoked more than one cigarette – his brother daring him when he was an adolescent – yet thirty years on the shop floor among the hardened secondary smoke of decades caught up with him. Everyone has that grandad who got through a hundred a day for fifty years only to die from a chance snowboarding accident aged 98, but no one remembers the passive victims. People who just got along with things while their friends planted the seed which would one day sprout an ashy grey and papery end-piece to a mediocre life. They never looked cool on screen, never received more than flimsy pity, pathetic in its awkwardness. Though dad never, to my knowledge, expressed anger to anyone, yet I felt unproductive anger on his behalf.
I felt so useless the whole time that it was a nice change to be the one with the car. I felt like I was doing my bit, when the time came to take him to his doctor’s appointments. I would park up outside and send him in there, feeling oddly like the parent dropping a kid off at nursery, hoping he’d remembered to bring everything and that the other dads were being nice to him. And what did you learn today? It would reflect well on the gravity of the situation if I could say I spent all that waiting time ruminating on mortality. But in all honesty I played Candy Crush the whole time. Call that awareness of mortality – it’s certainly a way of sucking the hours from my days.
I was on a timed level when I was interrupted by the sound of the door opening. ‘Okay?’ I asked, not looking up. He made a reassuring noise.
I had no idea of what passed between him and the doctor. And I didn’t ask. Implicit in this whole thing since the C-word had first been uttered was that we would all put our fingers in our ears and sing over the noisy reality. Cancer, you say? Well, yes, that sounds scary, but… But it’s not the death sentence it once was. They can cure them all now, they’re clever like that. It helped that dad never let it get to him, never let it derail his cheerful old self. If life threw disease at him he would brazen it out with his bland refusal. If anyone could politely tell this illness not today, thank you it was him. Grind the carcinoma down with sheer bloody-mindedness.
And all this denial must have paid off in the end. We got to see a specialist, no less. Surely she would tell us the bright future that awaited, once this inconvenience was out of the way.
‘There’s no easy way to say this,’ she began. ‘You know about the tumours in his lungs, obviously.’
I nodded, hoping all the questions would be this easy.
‘Those tumours would be a manageable size, if that were all. But it isn’t all.’
There was a brief pause, in which I considered sticking my fingers in my ears and singing the No Cancer song.
‘The latest tests have shown that it’s no longer just the lung. It has spread to the spine.’
I nodded and smiled back at her, looking forward to hearing the solution to this rather awkward state of things.
‘You should know that we are no longer talking about cure. There are two options now.’
‘Well obviously we’ll go for the better one,’ I said, on top of things.
‘One option is chemo,’ she said. ‘It might shrink the tumours, reduce the discomfort for a while. But you would have to balance that with the obvious disadvantages. It won’t be kind on him, at this stage. It might postpone the worst of it, but the worst of it will still be there.’
‘And what about the better option?’ I asked.
She looked at me like I had said something very stupid.
‘Option two is palliative care,’ she said.
The room was silent for a moment.
‘Well, blatantly chemo is the better choice. Can you start tonight or should we wait until tomorrow?’
She looked at mum. ‘The second option would mean movement to a hospice. They’re amazing there. It wouldn’t be such a wrench. He’ll be comfortable.’
Mum nodded. ‘We’ve looked at the brochure. It says that –‘
‘She said chemo,’ I said. It was as if I was the only one there who had listened to the small print. ‘So, yes,’ I said to the doctor, ‘we’ll take that.’
‘It says that the grounds are situated in unspoiled woodland. That sounds nice. We’d like that.’
‘But –‘ I said.
‘Robert,’ she said, using my full name, something she did so rarely.
‘We’re just going to step outside for a moment,’ she said, smiling at the doctor.
In the corridor she began pacing. I could see her need for a cigarette, something to occupy her restless hands.
‘Didn’t you hear?’ I asked. ‘There’s still a chance.’
She shook her head. ‘No, Rob.’
‘She said! She said chemotherapy was still an option!’
‘To give him a brief extension of life. You heard her. There is no cure.’
‘How can you say that?’ I shouted, tears in my eyes. ‘How can we just give up now –‘
‘Would he give up on us?’
‘When there’s still a chance?’
‘Robert.’ And she gripped both of my shoulders. ‘It’s not about you.’
I looked through the window, at dad snoozing in his chair. And in that moment I understood.
One of my sharpest memories of dad is of a family holiday, to somewhere which could be Kent or Dorset, or anywhere in between. I think I would have been about eleven. He and mum had set up our space on the sand, not too far from the sea. They had put the deck chairs up and put the picnic hamper out ready for when we would all feel the urgent need of a jam sandwich or a Tizer. I ran off down the beach, naked but for a pair of trunks, photographic evidence of which I would think of burning in later years.
I did the dutiful thing of wading briefly into the freezing grey waters, but soon found something else of interest, which the latest wave had brought in along with the seaweed and empty plastic bottles. On the foamy sand a deep purple circle of quivering stuff. A jellyfish. I knew better than to touch it, and so used the plastic spade attached to my plastic bucket to pick it up and ran back up the beach.
‘Look at this!’ I yelled, thrusting the spade excitedly in front of dad’s face. I was proud of my discovery and the practical application of knowledge from the text books I read so avidly. I held the spade excitedly over his lap while he snored gently.
That is honestly my clearest memory of childhood.
Things moved rapidly after that meeting, as if giving a name and a time frame to it made things more real and unavoidable. The question was no longer if but when.
And there came the day when dad moved, for the final time. He took a small suitcase, for all the world like he was going on a weekend away, and that the doors which closed behind him would one day open again. We personalised the room as much as we could, as if it were a temporary discomfort he would soon recover from. And then one day I had the call.
‘He’s taken a bit of a turn,’ mum said. ‘You should probably be here.’
That last afternoon we took turns to keep him company. There was no longer any pretence that this was anything less than goodbye. And there came the time for me to be alone with him. To say my goodbyes. But what could I say? That he was the best dad and I would miss him? That though I might have complained at times I knew that he strove always to give me the best life he could? That if I ever had children of my own I could only hope to be as conscientious a parent as he somehow managed to be, muddling through? So much to say and so little time in which to say it. I prepared a speech in my mind, all the things I had never been able to say, all the things he would never know of my future. I practised saying them all, over and again.
But then I was alone with him in that room, and the words froze in my throat. I knew in that moment that it could never have been otherwise. We just sat in silence for a while.
‘Shall I put the cricket on?’ I asked at last.
He made a positive sound. I switched the TV on and we watched in silence until visiting time was up. And I never felt as close to him as I did that day. He died that evening.