Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The circle of life


In February of this year my only son, aged 23, left home. Two
Courtesy of samandale -
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months later my father almost died. So around the time that my child instigated the final phase of his transition to full independence, I nearly lost the man who, for my 55 years of existence, has admirably performed the position of male role-model. It was almost as if Life had decided upon a quid pro quo: if one young man is on the cusp of full autonomy, it is time for one old man to depart. 

My 83-year-old dad had been suffering abdominal pain for a few days. Typically a fit and active man who walks his boisterous golden retriever three times per day, when I called round on one of my weekly visits it was sobering to discover that his discomfort had rendered him almost incapable of leaving his bed. Why hadn’t you called me earlier, or (even better) rang for an ambulance, I asked. We didn’t want to make a fuss, my dad and mother replied.

I helped dad into my car and drove straight to the Urgent Care department of our local hospital. During the journey he insisted on telling me the whereabouts of his will and testament – apparently in the bottom drawer of his dining room cabinet, in a green cardboard folder – and asked if I could “keep an eye on” mum (his wife for the last 62 years) should anything happen to him. I smiled and urged him not to be so bloody morbid, while wondering whether the old fella had some sort of intuition that his demise was imminent.

I booked him into Urgent Care, asked the receptionist for a vomit bowl (dad was retching by this time), and emphasized that I believed my father’s condition to be a medical emergency. She instructed us to sit in the waiting area along with about two-dozen other patients, most of whom seemed to be suffering cuts and sprains. Two minutes later my father lost consciousness and slumped across me. Six nurses descended upon us from all directions, lifted my father onto a trolley and rushed him into the resuscitation area; there is nothing more effective than a dramatic collapse to propel one into pole position in a hospital waiting room.

Throughout the afternoon his condition oscillated between apparent improvement and episodes of mental confusion. Various tests and x-rays revealed an obstruction in his bowel; surgery for cancer several years earlier had left scars (“adhesions”) which had caused his intestine to twist like a balloon and cause a complete blockage.

By 8.30 pm, the medical specialists decided they would have to operate immediately. Although not explicitly stated, the indications were that we should prepare for his demise: the senior consultant surgeon was called to perform the operation; she insisted on speaking to me and mum beforehand to emphasize the seriousness of the situation; and we were led to the Faith Room to await the outcome of what they anticipated to be a three-hour procedure.

Alone in the Faith Room, mum and I sat in front of a broad bare window, allowing a view of both the lights of the nearby town on one side, and the sun sinking below the bleak Lancashire hills on the other. At first, we did not speak. I stared into the gloom outside, striving to comprehend the prospect of losing my dad, while (I suspect) mum quietly prayed to her God.

I remembered that I had not updated my only sibling about our father’s deterioration, so I rang him on my mobile and outlined the events of the day.
“I think we might lose him, Tony” I said at last, tears escaping for the first time at my explicit acknowledgment of the likely outcome.

When I returned to sit with my mum the quality of our togetherness seemed to have changed following my acceptance of the possibility of the big man’s death. We talked with a depth of familiarity only close family members can share. We laughed together as we reminded each other of family holidays, including the time he insisted on carrying both huge suitcases into the hotel only to become wedged in the swing- doors. We reflected on some of his foibles – how he doted on his dogs, his unintentional heavy-handedness with his grandchildren when wrestling with them on the carpet, and his habit of grasping stinging nettles with his bare hands to eject them from his garden – as we shared an unfamiliar intimacy, I wondered why mum and I didn’t make time to share this closeness more often.

***

My father survived. The bowel operation was a success and, after four weeks in hospital (two in intensive care) he was discharged home on the 12th May. Ten weeks later he continues to improve, although he remains 30-pounds lighter than his pre-operative weight and his mobility is currently restricted to short, tentative walks with his dog!   

During the crisis I glimpsed the gut-wrenching prospect of losing my dad, the unique quality of love that binds family members, and the circle of life whereby our children mature into full adulthood while our parents edge ever nearer to oblivion. Intriguingly, my visits to mum and dad have now increased to twice per week. 

   



30 comments:

  1. Wow! What a harrowing tale! It's so odd, isn't it---to watch our folks grow older and our young adult children sprout wings and fly. Welcome to middle age….

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    1. Thank you, Marcia. It was a traumatic time, but, like most powerful life-experiences, I learnt something important in the process.

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  2. Glad to read your dad is doing better. I can't even imagine how frightening all of this is. My mom is still alive and kicking at 66 years old and my dad, well, we haven't spoken in two years. I've tried to mend that relationship but he wants no part of it. Sad but that's life.

    Here's to continued improvement and many more years of life for your dad.

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    1. I appreciate your kind words, Kim. Sorry to hear about the relationship with your own father, but clearly you've tried to do all you can to repair it. It is sad when family members fall out - life is too short. Best wishes.

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  3. Phew! Good thing you came to visit! Hopefully he won't think an illness is a "bother" moving forward! That sounds like my father, the only few times he ACTUALLY went to a doctor, he wound up having to be hospitalized. Glad you have a happy ending!

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    1. Thanks Joy. That generation often have a 'grin and bear it' mentality.

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  4. You are fortunate to have had this scare to bring you and your dad closer. I was not so fortunate. I saw my dad on the last day of his life and the next morning he was gone. Looking back on it I think I was in shock. It's hard when you don't get to say goodbye to someone you love.

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    1. Yes, I recognize our good fortune, Stephen, and appreciate you were much less fortunate. I am grateful for the further time I will have with my father.

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  5. Oh, that almost made me cry. What a well-written story.
    I identified with this a bit. Of course, at our age, we have (I sincerely hope) a long way to go. But...
    I have told my son where all my writing is when (it's not 'if') I shuffle off this mortal coil. And where he can find passwords for Facebook, Twitter, and here at Blogger. Sounds morbid, but...I really hope my book is done by then.
    A natural thing which happens to us all, but no less sad.

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    1. I appreciate your generous comments. And of course, you're right; nothing is surer in this world than our ultimate death.

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  6. It's times like these that lets us know how our parents must have felt as we were growing up and they watched us go through so many hard times...same as we do with our kiddos. A touching story that we thank you for sharing.

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    1. Stephanie - I appreciate you taking the time to read and comment.

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  7. Do just as you are doing, remember to show our aging parents and our maturing children all the love that we can.

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    1. Yes, that's what I aim to do, Kay.

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  8. So happy that he got a new lease of life. It's events like that that make you treasure every moment.

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    1. Traumatic experiences do make you appreciate what you've still got.
      Thanks for reading and commenting.

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  9. I can certainly empathize, and I'm glad your dad is okay now.

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    1. Cheers Joe - I appreciate your support and interest.

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  10. I lost my mom here last month. What I find most amazing is how we take life for granted. And only under the stress of imminent death do we wonder why we did not get to do/be/say the things we should have been doing/being/saying while we are still alive. Things that make you go Hmmm....

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    1. Yes Denis, I agree; we tend not to appreciate what we've got until we lose (or nearly lose) it.

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  11. Oh Bryan, I'm so glad that your dad is okay. Four weeks in the hospital? How horribly scary. I love that you're now visiting him more often. In fact, reading this makes me want to book flight tickets to see my dad!!!

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    1. Thank you for taking the time to comment. Scares around loss do tend to make us appreciate what we already have.

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  12. Nearly losing my dad a few years ago and actually losing a treasured family member last year both taught me to never miss a moment and treasure every opportunity you get to spend with the person. I'm glad your dad turned the corner and I hope he continues to do well.

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    1. Thank you for your supportive comments. I do now spend more time with him than I did before his illness.

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  13. Good to hear your dad is still around and kicking. It gets tough as the parents get older. My dad survived a cancer scare a few years back. Chemo and all. He is fine but now my grandma is in hospice care at 94. It's never easy. I don't see my dad that much as my parents are in Florida and I am in NY. I need to call him.

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    1. I appreciate your time and interest, Phil. A close encounter with death does focus the mind around what is important in life.

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  14. Man, what a rollercoaster that must have been. And not even one of those fun ones, like the Disney Pirates Ride thingee (whatever it's called).

    Happy to hear your dad's recovered so well. Wish you all many more happy years ahead!

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    1. Thank you, Daniel; I appreciate that.

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  15. I'm glad your story has a happy ending :) Prayers for your dad and for your whole family. I'm not getting your updates in my email for some reason, so I'm off to resubscribe.

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  16. Anne, I really appreciate your ongoing support. It's always a pleasure to read your comments on here.

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