1 May, 2013
"It's okay, Dad", I lie.
It's not the first time I've lied to him, but it may well be the last. And that's okay. Sometimes, it's the lie that gives the truth to things. "It's okay, Dad." I say again, not sure if I'm talking to him or me. "You just need to be strong, you need to fight this. Focus."
FOCUS. It's been a watchword for us for months now. Far too few of them.
The first phone call had hit me like a rock. The subsequent phone calls, text messages, visits, hugs and chats all distil down a lifetime's relationship to the essential qualities. When it all goes wrong, you are your family. You are the people you love, and the people who love you, and that's it.
I pick up the phone. "Hi mum, what's up?"
"Dad wants a word". This isn't the start of a fun conversation, and I'm bracing for it. I have no idea what's going to hit, but I'm ready.
I'm so not ready.
My dad, my nemesis, my hero. I come not to bury him, but to praise him. But to bury him also. Alcoholic narcissist. Soft-nosed civil servant. Youngest son of an aged philanderer, absent father, terrible husband. Arrogant atheist. Cantankerous arse.
Loveable rogue, passionate philosopher, reasoner, scientist, romantic, tirelessly selfless civic pillar, empathetic, wonderful man.
My dad. Walking contradiction, walking reminder of all that is good and bad and good with humanity. Flawed perfection, like nobody, like everybody.
He could be your dad; I could be his.
And suddenly I have to grow up. I have to grow up so damn fast because there he is in a tiny room, looking so small in a bed that seems too big, too real. Tubes in him, machines beeping at him, struggling to focus, struggling to see. And there are no children permitted in this ward. None. Not even me. And I feel so childlike, so alone, because what is a child without a father? He has to grow up. And I don't want to grow up.
Not at this price.
But I swallow, grow up, and walk through the door.
I hear my mum handing the phone over. "They've found something, son, in my back"
SOMETHING. The word punctures my side, an unexpected stiletto. I was braced, but not for this, not for this, not for this. Oh please no no no no, not for this.
"What do you mean?" I close the board room door with one hand, phone in the other, and scrabble for a pen and paper. "What do you mean, 'something'?" I know what he means, he knows what he means. Not his arthritis, not a hip, not a slipped disc, not sciatica, not indigestion, not simple old age.
I'm crying into a pint. It's my third or fourth or sixth, and so far I don't think anyone's spotted me sobbing. Which is good. This isn't helping anyone, and besides, nobody knows anything yet. Nobody has said "dying", it just looks like he's got a growth, and maybe it's spread, and maybe it's serious, but everyone's happy, and everyone's positive, and everyone's telling us it's treatable, and it's the kind you walk away from, if it's even what they suspect it is, which it might not be, it might be something totally innocuous, it might be a mistake, a misunderstanding, a "what on Earth are you doing here, Mr. Barrett? We're awfully sorry, but we must have been reviewing the wrong chart. Not you. Go home to your wife and tell her you love her".
It might be nothing.
"I love you Dad, you hear me you fucking bastard? I love you and you can't do this to me. Not yet, you lying bastard. Not yet! You promised me you'd live to 100. You PROMISED."
I want to scream at him, tell him he's a coward, but how can I? He's sleeping for the first time in days, he's peaceful, he's resting, and he needs his strength. He needs to fight it, he needs to fight this for himself, for me, for mum, for Josh, for Jess, for all of us. He's never walked away from a fight in his life.
How dare he walk away from this?
I remember a story he told me.
He was 65, crippled by arthritis for more than a decade already, but still out walking the dog. He loved that dog. We all did, but sometimes I worried he loved her more than me. It wouldn't have been the first time he'd had to cycle through the names of all our old dogs before landing on mine.
There he is, a young-looking 65, but still. Walking slowly, taking his time in the park. He's walking behind a building in the park when his way is blocked by a guy in a hoodie.
He gets a bad feeling and turns to walk the other way. Two others appear at the other side of the building, blocking his way. Sasha is off chasing rabbits. He could call, but he doesn't.
He just slowly starts swaying her long metal chain leash.
The guys close in, their intentions fairly clear. Dad stares at them in turn, the leash swaying more obviously. He looks down, then back up.
"I'm old, and you'll probably knock me down pretty easily. You'll get my wallet, my phone…”
The leash swings wider, longer, the solid steel clasp at the end for Sasha's collar flashing with each turn.
"But one of you is crawling away blind".
He came home shaking, but he still had his wallet and his phone.
"Fuck you dad, fight this. FOCUS"
My phone beeps with another text message. "I'm feeling good son. Lots to discuss, lots of options, but we'll discuss them and make the right choices. I'm focussed and we'll beat this."
He's finishing the radiotherapy that should save his legs. Spinal compression is not good, and it looks like they've caught it in time. His messages have been more and more garbled, but I put that down to the morphine, and to the fact that he's continually interrupted. I'd seen him a couple of days earlier and something wasn't quite right. He was him, but he wasn't him. He reminded me of the days before Josh, the days when a litre of vodka in a night was called "taking it easy". He'd lasted till Josh was three days old before putting the bottle away.
He hadn't picked it up since.
"Was I okay with him?" He asks me, as the consultant walks away. "Did I come across okay?".
How do I respond to that? I'd just seen my dad in "work mode" for the first time in my life. Confident, accurate, precise. He'd rattled off drugs and dates and names and prognoses and times and procedures covering the last three months in painstaking detail, correcting the consultant's use of jargon and drug names, and it was impressive. The man's mind was like a steel trap. I'd chosen a good hero.
"Yeah, dad: you did fine".
"Oh. Good". He smiles, and I feel five again.
And yet something isn't right. There's something that's either absent, or maybe too present. He's almost hyper, almost euphoric, but still grounded. Here and not here. We steal a zimmer frame and sneak out for a cigarette. He smokes, I watch. And listen.
We talk about politics, about independence, about Alasdair Gray, about life, about my grandma, about my kids. We talk about everything and nothing. I can remember everything and nothing.
It's a fitting conversation to be our last.
He's going to miss so much, and I'm going to miss him.
"No children permitted" misses the point. It should have read "No children leave".