My Dad lay there on the settee with dried blood coming from both his nose and mouth. He was 67 years old and had been diagnosed with liver and lung cancer just eight weeks before.
Six weeks ago, he’d buried his youngest sister, Mandy, to cancer and now he was dying, too. The greatest man in the world, the strongest man in my world. I was so proud to take after him: we’re even both left-handed and when I was little he would call me his little gypsy girl because I had dark brown hair and blue eyes. His hair was grey. This cancer, this monster has taken away my Dad’s brown hair. I just had to keep telling myself that no matter how it looked, the cancer will never take my Dad away from me.
Well, that is what I told myself every day up until I had no other choice but to call for an ambulance. Audrey, my Dad’s partner of sixteen years, was just sitting there, in total denial probably. The ambulance came and they rushed him in to a cubical where they took some blood and X-rayed his chest. At first, I was the only one there, but I called my sister Teressa and brother, Wayne. It wasn’t long before they got to the hospital too.
Once the doctors had completed the X-ray, one of them pulled us to one side and said, ‘Your father’s death is imminent, if you have more family who you need to call, it’s best you do that now.’
We all moved away from Dad and fell apart; we didn’t want him to see us so upset. Once our other brother, John, had arrived, we were asked to go into a small room near the A&E department. I knew what was going to be said. Or at least I thought I did. We were told by the same doctor that Dad had less than two days left to live and that we had a choice – we could either take him home and give him around the clock care, or he could die in hospital. We all decided there and then that we were going to take him home. Dad hated hospitals.
When we were all settled, with Dad’s settee in the spare room and the hospital bed and oxygen in the living room, we put the tv on and tried to make the place as cosy as possible for Dad. We had got a long weekend ahead of us and every second of it was going to be like a hammer to the heart. Watching someone you dearly love waste away to a bag of bones and die a slow and painful death is one of the worst things you can go through. Dad amazed us all; he outlived the weekend.
We all sat, talked, took care of Dad, took advice from the district nurses and drunk enough tea to sink a battle ship. Dad was a proper tea drinker. A giant mug, the bigger the better, two sugars and just enough milk to make it look like a cuppa tea, not a builder’s cup, not a farmer’s cup, but just right. The one he used to use said ‘World’s Worst DIYer’ – it made me smile.
The next day, my brother, John came in with an old newspaper clipping from a local paper that said ‘When Bells Rang and People Sang.[i]’
‘You see the young, blonde lad sitting at the front, facing the camera, there’s a little girl and a dog right next to him?’
In wonder, I smiled and said, ‘Yes.’
‘That’s Dad as a little boy. He’d have been three, coming on four, and the girl sitting behind him is Aunty Brenda.’
‘Is Nan there?’
‘Yes, she is on the left hand side to the woman holding the child.’
‘She is smiling.’ I said ‘It looks like a happy day.’ And then I cried. John put a hand on my shoulder.
Dad was in and out of consciousness and he woke up but he was confused. He said that he could see his Mom and Dad, (both had been dead since the mid-eighties). As far as my Dad was concerned he wasn’t dying, or in his own house, he was a young lad again.
‘Ang? What are you doing here?’
‘I’m helping to look after you.’
He didn’t reply to that. Maybe he knew more that he was letting on.
‘Dad, do you remember when this was taken?’ It was such a long time ago, I doubted very much that he would remember that day at all. I handed him the newspaper clipping.
Quietly and between breaths, he started.
‘Mom was in the kitchen making jellies, red ones, and sandwiches. The back door was open as it often was in those days, and we were friends with everyone. Your Nan was such a lovely woman. If ever there was a problem in the street, someone would say, “Go and fetch Mrs. Garratt.” Didn’t matter whether it was someone who was ill or having a baby. If the kids were playing up or if someone was upset it was always, “Go and fetch Mrs Garratt.”
‘Oooh, you do look just like her, Gal, you got the Garratt nose.’ Dad often called me and Teressa ‘Gal. ‘I remember being told to sit down and behave. You see in those days children were supposed to be seen and not heard, but it was a special day. Of course I didn’t know what was going on I was too young, but I remember everyone was happy.’
Dad sighed and rattled a cough, ‘We had to sit like that for ages while the man took the photo. Put the fire on Gal, it’s getting cold in ‘ere.’
I did as I was asked and Dad closed his eyes and went to sleep with the newspaper clipping still in his hands.
There was a knock on the door. It was our cousins Claire and Albert. Everyone but me congregated in the kitchen. I didn’t want to leave Dad. I held his hand and I didn’t know whether or not he could hear me but I said, ‘I love you Dad and I am so proud to be your daughter.’ I repeated it over and over and he squeezed my hand to let me know he could hear me and then he let go.
There are very few material things in this world that I hold dear to me. One is my Dad’s umbrella. Even now he has gone, he is still protecting me every time I use it. And in this photo, my Dad has got the rest of his life to look forward to. Even now, in my writing, he will live.
Photo: A 1995 copy of the Black Country Bugle.
Angela Garratt is the founder and leader of the Oldbury Writing Group (O.W.G), est. 2014. She is a published writer and performance poet. She also runs a poetry night at her local pub in Rowley Regis. Her other interests are wildlife photography, history, art and music. Angela is currently studying for a combined BA Hons Degree in English Literature and Creative Writing through the Open University. To find out more about Angela and the Oldbury Writing Group please visit: