The beginning of the end game?

I’m walking out of the meeting room feeling utterly numb.

Since her stroke, everything about my mother has been laid bare.

My mother was still a powerful matriarch, well into her 70s, a proud, fierce and independent woman.

A woman who has bought children into the world, trained and worked in a highly specialist role for the Health Service, and fought against patriarchy to have an incredibly successful political career.

She now sits in her wheelchair, barely able to hold her head up, being judged by a meeting room full of strangers.

The strangers begin to discuss her most intimate details, their words dragging like nails across a chalk board.

One speaks about pain management and how there is a clot forming in her leg. My mother is on three different schedules of morphine and yet still the pain comes.

One gives intimate briefings about her lack of bodily function.

One talks about her slow recovery and how the stroke has affected her particularly badly.

One explains how she is depressed

The whole family is here, and the strangers carry on talking like we are not in the room. It is clinical, objective and where humanity, compassion and feeling should be, there is just a big dark hole.

My mother’s head lolls to one side and she shifts uncomfortably in her chair, the studs from the harness she has to wear for lifting her in and out of bed digs into her side.

I hold her hand, a small gesture of comfort in this painful baring of all.  

A knot of anger rises in my chest. This cannot be how it ends for my mother, reduced to a discussion point in a room full of strangers, her final days spent wracked with pain.

The meeting concludes and it is apparent that my mother cannot go home, her progress too slow, her vulnerabilities too actute. We are informed that in two weeks’ time she will have to go to a nursing home; a departure lounge where the destination is death.

On the way out of the meeting room my brother informs me that he thought he had read somewhere that the average stay in a nursing home is 3 years.

We now have a number. It all feels very real now.

I walk outside into the grey, concrete car park. The rain is coming down hard, it is unbelievably dark for this time in the afternoon, and the bruised ragged clouds scurry across the sky.

It is beginning to feel like the end game.

I get into my car and notice the sandwich packets and drinks cartons strewn across the passenger seat. These are symbols of how itinerant my life has become, a transient existence where vulnerability, pain and sadness is a consistent theme.

I start the engine. The heating comes on and sends a cloud of used hospital car park tickets into the air, a stark reminder of the current reality.

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I am now at my mother’s house, my childhood home. It has been unoccupied for nearly a month now, save for sporadic overnight stays by family members.

Where there was once light and warmth and noise and the urgency of lives being lived to their fullest, there is now a cold silence.

I notice cracks in plaster, wilting plants, signs of decay.

The walls seem to echo with the ghosts of the past, the heart of the house brutally ripped out a few weeks ago.

I make my way to the spare room, the walls heavy with files and folders crammed full of the past. There are photos on the walls, my family beaming down from blue skies and sunshine memories, a reminder of what once was.

I’m in the garden.

This was where I learnt to ride a bike, to play football, to play cricket;

This is where I learnt to run, and hide.

This is where I learnt to climb,

This was once the extent of my universe, and with my parents love, a place that left me wanting for nothing else.

This is where I learnt that if you fall over, you just get back up again – you must always get back up again.

Except I’m now learning that sometimes you can’t. You just can’t.

And now the sandpit has gone and the two great apple trees have died. The swing has been dismantled and the garden has matured. There is a huge gaping, hollow sadness in my heart. My mother is not dead, but I am mourning loss.

All over the house there are painful reminders of my mother’s funny idiosyncrasies.

In the kitchen there is a Paddington bear, a testament to her love of Peru and countless afternoons watching the famous bear on television with her young sons.

There are bowls of rocks and fossils all over the house, each one telling a story of how it came to be in the house. If she hadn’t been a politician and a scientist she would have been a geologist.

And there is the garden gnome taking pride of place on the kitchen island, taking residence there ever since my mother couldn’t bear to put him outside during a particularly cold winter.

There is something reassuring about all of these icons, but equally I am struggling with their memories. Each one has something of my mother vested in them. As such they are powerful and meaningful.

I am looking out of the kitchen window, my favourite view in the house. There used to be a huge cherry tree and a honeysuckle bush here.

We used to sit in the kitchen on late spring evenings, the door open and the evening sunlight streaming through the blossom, turning the light shades of orange and pink.

The scent of the honeysuckle would pervade the house and the shrill cry of the housemartins chasing around the eaves would signal the welcome onset of summer.

These were times of life and hope. These were times with an exciting future.

And now I look around and there is nothing. Silence, save for the ticking clock.

I leave the house and lock the door. I stand in the porch and wonder how many more times I will walk around this house. I shudder at the thought of someone else living here.

I step out onto the drive and notice it has started to rain. A chilling, cold wind bites my face. The ragged clouds scurry overhead. I pull up the collar on my coat and dash for the car.

It is beginning to feel like the end game.

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This was my father; he was my hero

It has been four years this month since my father died. This  post is a tribute to him and the legacy and footprint that he left. It is the hardest blog post I have had to write.

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RIP July 2009Just seven days before my father died from cancer he had completed a 7km walk, had devoured a fish and chip lunch and sunk two pints of real ale.

He was by all accounts, despite being in remission from chemotherapy, in fine fettle.

In fact I cannot remember a time in my life when my father had been anything other than in fine fettle.

He was part of the original “keep calm and carry on” generation, a generation devoid of the insidious poison of celebrity and entitlement culture.

This was a generation that had lived through the trauma of evacuation, the horror of war and hardships of national service.

This was the generation that had peered into mankind’s stifling, toxic heart of darkness and had survived. A generation for whom work was not an option, but a source of pride and identity.

His resilience came from these formative experiences and was aided by the fact that he possessed a natural physical prowess, a genetic gift passed through the generations. He was quick and athletic, but strong too. He had an engine that would seemingly never give up.

Indeed there were days when I thought he was hewn from the mountains themselves, a man of granite, surely immortal. He viewed broken bones as “a bit of a nuisance”, glandular fever as “a bit like a heavy cold” and even his terminal cancer diagnosis as “a bit of a disappointment”.

Even in his retirement my father was incredibly busy, seemingly moving up a gear with every year he lived on the planet.

He was a keen gardener and continued to play tennis, squash and badminton to a decent standard.

He continued to march tirelessly up and down mountains leaving his wife and considerably younger sons trailing and grumbling in his gigantic wake.

He continued to plan and execute exotic holidays, marching his way through Amazonian river basin jungles, tracking big game on the savannahs of the Masai Mara and going off road on the vast sand dunes of the West Australian desert, trusty map constantly in hand.

And he watched me go off to work in numerous war and disaster zones. He presided over the marriages of both of his sons. He became a grand-father. He survived prostate cancer. And all the time he laughed and maintained his sense of humour.

Much of my memories of my dad are of a man with incredible energy.

A man with ridiculous robustness;

A man with a resilience and pragmatism that can only come from living through a world war;

A man with a quick and cultured wit.

A man with passion for sports of all shapes and forms;

And a man with a penchant for discussing anything and everything with sound opinion, knowledge and humour;

Many of my memories are of him up a mountain; tough, gnarly hands clutching a battered old map, eyes squinted, staring off into the distance, the quickest route to a cold pint flickering across his mind.

On his deathbed, my dad told my brother and I that he was proud of us.

The truth is that we are proud of him, and lucky to have had him as a father.

I love sometimes catching his traits living on in me.

For example I have recently taken quiet satisfaction in seeing my broad beans grow.

I have enjoyed tackling mountains and peaks for no other reason than that they were just there.

I chuckle to myself when I have found myself denouncing modern sat nav and GPS technology in favour of crinkly old OS maps.

To my father I am thankful for giving me his pragmatism, his natural curiosity, his desire to experience life in its fullest – ‘I would rather wear out, than fade out’ he once told me.

I am thankful to him for giving me his desire to travel and understand different ways of seeing the world; I am thankful to him for sharing his need to get up amongst the mountains and look down from his lofty perch, in order to get perspective on the world and the human condition.

I am thankful that he taught me to appreciate geography; society, nature and place. And of course maps.

I am thankful for him spending hours in the garden helping me to perfect a good forward defensive stroke, and a consistent line and length that has since sent numerous batsmen skulking back towards the pavilion. And I thank him for my ability to be able to throw a cricket ball into the middle of next week.

I thank him for teaching me how to bend a football round a wall and for teaching me the principles and importance of playing for ‘the team’.

I thank him for my right foot. I blame him for my lack of a left.

And even though it has been four years now I still miss him terribly. I miss talking to him about anything and everything. I miss his presence. His gentle nature. His sound advice. His desire to see me constantly improve myself. His poring over a bridleway or footpath on his battered old maps.

I miss talking aimless nonsense with him over a few pints and Match of the Day.

Such is my sense of loss that I miss him for the life events that haven’t happened yet, and for things that may never happen.

But my memories of him are rich and full and perfect, and I have no regrets.  The footprint he left behind is long and deep.

Given how terribly quickly his condition deteriorated, I was fortunate to be next to him when he passed away.

And strange that it may sound, we had some beautiful moments in those final days before he died.

Moments when the love in the room was electric, crackling and surging through us all, revealing itself as a primal and infinitely powerful force as old and as mysterious as the universe, lighting up the murk and temporarily dispersing the shadows of death itself with its brilliance.

I am thankful for those moments and for all those moments in my life.

My father died much in the same way that he lived his life – with grace, dignity and youthful humour.

This was my father. He was my role model. My gentle giant. My stability. My anchor.

This was my father.

He was my hero.

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This post originally appeared on the Daddy Cool Project website. The Daddy Cool Project (DCP) is a London-based voluntary organisation which aims to help diminish negative stereotype of dads in the UK. It also highlights the importance and positive impact of fathers and male-role models living and working in today’s society. They do some really great work – go check them out at www.daddycoolproject.org.uk and follow on Twitter @daddycooluk