My father died ten years ago. Christmas has been a poignant time of year for me ever since. As distance means I can’t put flowers on his grave, this story is my memorial to him. It’s creative non-fiction, which means it’s true, but I have been creative in places. He was a great teller of stories himself, so he’d appreciate why.
Dad, you were a wonderful father to me, and thank you for that. I miss you very much. I wish you were here. I know you are here.
A Triptych of Grief
In Memory of Roger David Hunt 1942-2007
Becky and Roger sit on cushioned chairs in the oncology ward of Leicester Royal Infirmary. They both have long legs and they fold them out of the way to let people pass. Roger clutches his Times. He’s done the crossword every day since he retired, to keep his mind active. He’s struggling with the answers today. Roger is wearing his favorite golf sweater; pink, white and yellow abstract shapes drape across his shrinking shoulders. Becky longs to hold him, but he’s never been one for hugs.
There are several rows of chairs. Some are blue with little yellow diamonds, and some are red with faint cream pinstripes. Becky wonders why they aren’t all the same. They are used all day; they must get replaced; that’s why. Of course.
People of all ages, genders, sexualities, religions, races, classes, castes and occupations occupy the chairs. There are couples, friends, sons and mothers, fathers and daughters. There are liars, sexual deviants, careful drivers, smokers, drinkers. There are saints, hard-workers, lazy bastards, good kissers and brave hearts. Most are a mix of all the above and more besides. People. The comfortable, cushioned chairs are full of ordinary people with cancer.
Some are attached to an upright portable trolley with a drip bag piping clear liquid into their veins. Some have flesh and hair, and others wear headscarves and clothes that hang off their bones. In pockets of the room, there’s a party going on. People arrive for treatment at the same time every week and become friends, or brothers-in-arms. Most, including Becky and Roger, look stricken and fearful.
‘Christ,’ Roger says. ‘Everyone gets cancer.’
‘Not really, Dad,’ says Becky. ‘Some people have heart attacks or pneumonia or get run over by buses.’
‘No,’ he says. ‘I mean all types gets cancer. Doesn’t matter who you are, or what you do. There’s millionaires in here, sitting next to factory workers.’
‘Yeah.’ She carries on looking at chairs. The odd one or two are empty but not for long. It’s his first session of chemotherapy today. Becky has travelled from New Zealand to sit here next to him. She goes back next week. She has to work and, besides, cancer can take ages. And, there’s a man. She’ll return for the end. Roger’s girlfriend will drive him here next time.
Every so often a nurse in a loose blue uniform appears and calls out a name. Roger and Becky have been waiting for some considerable time, but are in no hurry to hear…
‘Mr. Hunt… Mr. Hunt.’ A nurse scans the room holding a clipboard.
Roger raises his thick hand. His sleeves are rolled to his elbows and shirtsleeves poke out from under the golf sweater. His forearms are muscular, brown and hairy. Becky knows those arms well, better perhaps than his face. She sits next to him mostly, so she sees those arms at tables, at steering wheels, at the kitchen sink. She sees his arms at work, lifting, holding, driving, writing. His upper arms are always covered, so when they are revealed, she is always struck by how white and thin they are. Roger’s arms held her as a child, she has photographic evidence, but she can’t remember it. She made him hug her once, for no other reason than it was Christmas, in the hallway. She just went up to him and hugged him. How old was she? Fifteen maybe, something like that, a pushy teenager.
And another time, one night. She was still up, in the kitchen getting a warm milk to help with insomnia. Mum had been gone for about a month, so she’d be eighteen then. Dad came home from the Three Pots, only a short walk but a long stagger, stinking of beer and cigarette smoke.
‘I’ve just been told,’ he said. ‘In the pub. I’ve just been told she left me for some bloke. Someone from the fucking bowling club. She said there wasn’t anyone else. They said he’s moved in with her. In the fucking house I fucking bought her.’
Becky nodded. ‘Yes, Dad. That’s why I stayed here.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘She told me not to.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’
‘It wasn’t up to me. How could I tell you? She should have told you.’
‘Why didn’t you tell me?’ For the first time, and the last time, Becky saw her father cry. He crossed the kitchen and held her, and she held him back. He cried on her shoulder, loud and wet and for a long time.
‘Mr. Hunt, Mr. Sharma is just through here. Can I call you Roger?’ The nurse looks up as they walk together towards a door in another part of the ward, and smiles at him. His daughter follows.
‘I prefer Mr. Hunt actually.’
The nurse nods. He’s holding on to something he defines as dignity.
Mr. Sharma’s office is little more than a cupboard. Behind a desk sits Mr. Sharma. He is wearing a casual beige suit and an amiable demeanor. Mr. Sharma rises to shake Roger’s hand and indicates for them to sit. ‘Please,’ he says. ‘Make yourself comfortable.’ There are three of the blue chairs with small diamonds to choose from.
There are a pile of x-rays and pages of notes in front of him. He doesn’t waste time. ‘Okay, what we have here, Mr. Hunt, is something which is growing in your esophagus very aggressively.’
‘Is that why I feel so sick?’
‘Do you feel sick or are you being sick?’
Mr. Sharma uses a lot of long words and medical jargon that neither father nor daughter understand and both stop listening. Then he says: ‘so, your cancer is in the most advanced stages, I’m afraid. The treatment we propose is to surgically insert a stent to help you eat by keeping the esophagus open where the tumor is growing. Also, chemotherapy, starting today of course, and radiotherapy after the surgery to shrink the tumor.’
‘So, it is curable?’ Becky asks.
‘No. We are buying you a few more months with this treatment.’ Her mind darts to the first stirrings of her pregnancy, the small fluttering she occasionally feels.
‘It’s not curable?’ he asks.
‘Why’s that then?’
‘As I said, your cancer is in the advanced stages now.’
Her hands are knots in her lap. ‘So. How long?’
‘Three to six months without treatment. Six months to a year with treatment.’
They nod. Mr. Sharma looks from one to the other. They nod.
Roger signs papers agreeing to treatment without even thinking about it and they are shown back out to the room of chairs and cancer. Their original seats have been filled by an elderly couple and they find two empty at the far end of the room. Red ones. Soon his name will be called to go back through to get his first drip bag of chemicals. They wait.
‘What I don’t understand is this,’ he says, ‘if chemotherapy can make the cancer smaller, why can’t I just keep having chemo until it’s gone?’
‘Because, Dad, the chemotherapy works by killing the cells of the cancer. I think, anyway. But it’s a poison and it is hurting you too; that’s why people get so ill with it. Because your sort of cancer doesn’t get noticed until it’s really big, or advanced as they call it, by the time chemo has completely killed the cancer, it will have killed you as well. I googled it before we left.’
‘Oh. I see.’
He stares at the floor in front of them, then at the bland landscapes on the wall, and she wishes she hadn’t said it. She’d give anything not to have said it.
There were signs of this cancer a few months ago, but neither recognized them. Roger had flown over to visit Becky in Kaikoura. He was still a fat man then. He’d arrived with a new set of golf clubs. She managed to drag him away from the golf course one afternoon, and took him to the beach to do some surfcasting. He insisted they go to the hardware store first, and buy a camping chair. As she tied hooks onto the nylon line with proper fishing knots, knowing that he was impressed, Roger barely moved from that camp chair.
Each time she cast, hurtling the hooks and little dangling pieces of squid towards the canyon just off shore, she looked over her shoulder at her dad who put his thumbs up and winked. As soon as she popped the rod into its metal holder, jutting from the pebbles, Becky sat by his chair, and they chatted easily. Every so often, she spotted little white flakes gathering at the corner of his mouth as he talked. They were new, and really annoyed her. Becky had to look away whenever they appeared.
Roger ate so many crayfish during his stay that he gave himself gout. He went to the doctor who prescribed something. While he was there, Roger asked about his constant indigestion. The doctor thought it was another consequence of crayfish glutton
Just before he left, as he was packing up his golf clubs on the veranda, Roger called out, ‘Becky, I’ve put a banana on this saucer out here. You won’t forget it will you?’
‘I always keep a banana in my club bag, in case I get hungry when I’m golfing.’
When she returned to her flat after taking him to the airport, she saw the banana and left it where it was.
The banana, still on its saucer, was taken to a bigger house when Becky finally moved in with her baby’s father. As she walked past it every day on the veranda, she watched it decay. It shrank until it was black and thin. They moved again because they decided to buy a house with her inheritance. The banana, a hard black stick by then, and its saucer, were put on a shelf on another veranda.
One morning, while playing with the toddler and pottering about outside, Becky found the saucer empty. She thought about washing it, but the stains were so deeply ingrained that she quietly slid it into the bin instead.
You prop up your father’s head with one hand and bring the diluted orange juice to his lips with the other. His mouth is so clogged, he can barely move his lips or his tongue. He has been trying to say something to you all morning, but he can’t form words, and you can’t understand the noises he makes.
He’d been ready to die a few days ago, but had perked up once you got there. Now, he’s on borrowed time and the black goo in his body is out to get him. You both give up on the drink. His fingers try to grasp the blanket that covers him and he groans and grunts, trying to speak. What he wants to say is important.
As you sit next to him, you don’t know whether to talk or not. Do you read from a book? Do you bring the television in? Or, do you let him lie quietly? So you sit in silence, and watch your father as he stares around him, slowly starving to death, slowly being eaten from the inside.
Would it hurt to get some of the black stuff out? ‘Do you want me to try to clean your mouth?’ You get a pair of tweezers from the bathroom cabinet and his toothbrush. You sit on the rented hospital bed next to him and he opens his mouth as wide as he can in your direction. ‘Why hasn’t the nurse done this?’
The smell is overwhelming. It makes you feel sick. You try not to let it show in your face.
You start with your father’s tongue. You hook a large crisp of hard stuff under the tweezers and prize it away. Then you clasp it and pull. It comes away, leaving raw pink tongue underneath.
There’s an inch of cancer in your hand.
You go to the bathroom and flick it into the toilet. You gag and retch, but nothing comes. You pick up a roll of toilet paper and a bowl from the kitchen and get back to work.
It becomes easier, though the smell gets worse. The black stuff at the top of his throat is gooey, but most of it has hardened, on his gums and his teeth. Each time you wipe it on tissue or flick it into the bowl, is a chance for him to try out his mouth, to move his tongue or smack his dry lips.
You are nearly finished and much of it is out. ‘I’m going to have to talk to the doctor about this. Or the nurse,’ you say. You take your haul into the bathroom and toss the tissue, sticky and crumpled, into the toilet. You leave the bowl in the sink.
You take a glass of water, clean and fresh, into your father’s room and you try to sit him up enough to swill out his mouth. It makes a bit of a mess, but he looks much happier. You lie him back down and he stares at the ceiling. You are just about to sit down yourself, exhausted, when you hear: ‘Where’s my jumper?’ It is the weakest of whispers, but you hear it so clearly that it breaks your heart.
‘A jumper? You cold, Dad?’
You go straight to the wardrobe and find a navy blue one that’s made of soft lamb’s wool. It is a struggle to get it over his head and thread his arms through. You pull it down the best you can. You tuck the blanket in around him. Then you find yourself doing something that you’ve never done before: you stroke your father’s head. It is incredibly soft, and warm. His hair is baby soft regrowth. He seems to relax under your hand, but you’re not sure because he’s not one for hugs.
You plug in the heater. You’d turned it off when you first arrived; the place stifling hot. A solitary cool breeze from an open window had felt like a presence. You turn the heater back on. You check on your father. He’s looking the most restful you’ve seen him since taking a turn for the worse. There is even a trace of a smile on his mouth. His eyes, that have looked panicked this whole time, are finally closed. He is breathing. He’s okay.
You go to the kitchen and put the kettle on. A neighbor has delivered some Christmas mince pies and you eat three, standing in the kitchen, as you sip your cup of tea.
Once you finish, you go back into his room and sit in the armchair next to him. He is sleeping, so you settle down for a nap yourself.
You are woken by the soft sound of the blanket moving. Your father is awake and is having a silent conversation with something hovering above his bed. He is holding out his hand. He takes something between his fingers. ‘Thank you,’ he whispers. He puts it into his mouth. He chews. There’s nothing there.
Truth is, I am in no fit state to drive. Christmas lights, dangling over the street, are reflecting off the wet road and are hurting my eyes. Newton & Hall is housed in a large Victorian building on Castle Street. I wait in the middle of the road until it’s safe to turn right into the private car park. The hazy headlights of oncoming cars are slapped and distorted by my windscreen wipers. A momentary gap means I can finally slither down a tight alleyway and find a park next to a hearse.
Walking to the main entrance, I pass stacks of headstones that are leaning against the wall. I push my hands deep into my coat pocket and charge onwards. I’ve borrowed the coat from my mum and I can’t do it up at the front. I pass the only shop window in town not decorated with fake snowdrifts and Santa. This window is full of angels and long austere crosses.
Three people wearing black suits stand behind a grand mahogany desk. They look like receptionists of a hotel for ghouls. One of them is also wearing festive red reindeer antlers. They’re laughing about something when I walk in. They stop abruptly when they see me.
I’m getting a lot of this: people look at my face with some concern, kindness even, then at my enormous pregnant middle, and let slip an expression of dismay. These weeks with Dad have broken me and I guess it shows. I don’t care.
In his final days, after the hospital sent him home, Dad had become anxious about falling out of bed. He kept trying to slide out of it deliberately so that he couldn’t fall. One night, I dozed off in the chair and he managed to drape his spindle legs on the floor. I couldn’t haul him back up; he was already a dead weight; I had to phone the doctor for help. He told me to grab Dad from that side, under his arm, that’s it, just so, and heave. ‘I can’t,’ I said. ‘It hurts my bump.’ The exhausted doctor hadn’t noticed my pregnancy in the gloom. He stared at me then, with that look, and told me to sit down for heaven’s sake. A nurse came to the house every night after that. I could sleep in the spare bed upstairs while she clattered knitting needles next to him, watching. I didn’t have the stamina for the battle between Dad and Death.
One of the undertakers steps forward. He is tall and wide. A build like Dad’s. Before.
‘I’m here to see Roger Hunt. I’m his daughter,’ I say.
‘Ah, the daughter. Certainly.’ He walks past me and gestures with an open hand. ‘This way.’
I follow him up a large carpeted staircase and along a corridor with doors on either side. I am worried about smell. I’ve showered many times since Dad’s death, and yet the stench of that stuff in his body still clings to me, my clothes, and especially my hair. Pregnancy amplifies it. I fret that Dad still smells of cancer. I’m trying to get rid of it.
When I was a child, I owned a book called ‘Bad Men of the American Wild West’. I loved that book and spent many hours turning its pages forwards, then backwards, pouring myself into every story. There were pictures of famous outlaws – Billy the Kid, the James Gang and the Dalton Brothers – on wanted posters and from the graphic novels of the day, but more fascinating to me were the grainy photographs of them in upright coffins, sporting impressive facial hair and bullet holes.
As the undertaker puts his hand on the doorknob of Dad’s small room, I imagine that I’m going to see Dad’s thin corpse upright in a coffin for the public to gawp at, bent cowboy hat on his head and a few holes in his chest. And, when the door opens, I see it just like that, until I look again and realize it is the lid of Dad’s coffin leaning against the wall. Dad is next to it. No cowboy hat, no holes, just his best blue suit and his Leicester City Football Club tie that I’d bought him for his birthday one year.
I don’t know when the undertaker left, closing the door behind him. He said something I think, but I didn’t register what. I am alone with my dad.
We’d lived together, just him and me, for some time after Mum left. It was comfortable and easy. I wish it had stayed like that now, but you have to leave the nest, don’t you? I flew too far away when I left mine.
I hold my bump. It aches in that little room. My baby has been kicking me relentlessly all day, probably feeling my grief as much as I do. Whenever I felt sad, coming home with a broken heart or low grades, I used to tell Dad all about it and he’d tut, shake his head, and call everyone involved a bunch of bastards. He’d make me a mug of Yorkshire tea and hand me a bit of homemade Pork Pie with a dollop of English mustard on a small plate. I’d be fully healed within the hour and lying back on the sofa enjoying a Bond or Carry On film with Dad.
And now here he is.
My eyes flick to the ornate coffin handles, to the picture of a lake on the wall, to the fringe of the cloth under his coffin as it skims the floor, to the maroon velvet curtains, to the little brass plaque on the coffin lid that bears his name. Eventually, I look directly at him.
‘You are not you,’ I say. He isn’t. If I hadn’t watched him die, witness what the cancer and the chemotherapy had done to him, I would be complaining to the ghoul receptionist that they’d got the bodies mixed up here. But, this is his corpse, wasted and empty. His nose is too big, his skin is the wrong color and he is hollow.
‘You are not you,’ I repeat.
I begin to pace the tiny room.
‘I’m not handling this very well,’ I tell him.
‘You’ll be alright.’
‘I won’t. I’m not handling this very well. I’m not handling this very well at all.’
A small table in the corner grabs my attention. On it is a Bible and a small vase of flowers. A posh little chair, upholstered to match the curtains, sits next to it. I imagine myself settling into that chair and picking up the Bible, maybe find that psalm about the Lord being a shepherd or some-such. But I don’t. I keep pacing.
‘I’m not handling this at all well, Dad. I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.’
‘You’ll be alright.’
‘I smashed a plate. At Mum’s. I smashed a plate.’
‘I know you did. You shouldn’t have done that.’
‘You tell your mam you’re sorry.’
‘I will,’ I say. ‘I will. I am sorry.’
‘You’ll be alright.’
I stay for a while. Pacing. Looking. Being with this corpse that isn’t Dad. I leave when it feels right – hunger, bladder, baby prodding prodding prodding.