This is not a post about teaching per se, but it does relate to how being a teacher, or something as simple as even being me, feels like wading through treacle. This is a post about my dad.
Much like @kevbartle, I am mindful or being mawkish or overly sentimental, so the aim is to just tell the story of my dad, and more specifically, his loss on the 5th November 2005 and how the ripples of that moment return, to a greater or lesser extent each year.
The loss of a loved one is not something that is unique to me, but how we experience that loss is as unique as the DNA that codes our physical and mental being.
A little bit of hope
My dad had had liver cancer for 5 years in 2005 and we were all hoping, come the next hospital visit, that the doctors would pronounce that he was in remission. Instead, they informed him that it had returned. Dad was given the normal treatments of chemotherapy and anti-sickness drugs, warfarin etc - the main purpose of which is to buy him more time.
In March of that year, the doctors told us that this medication was having little or no effect. He was offered a 'last chance saloon' round of treatment which involved him participating in a drugs trial, which of course he did.
In April of that year, I ran the London Marathon. Well, I say 'ran'. I ran for 18 miles, then my heavily fatigued legs jogged and walked that last 8 miles and I finished in the, ahem, time of 5 hrs and 27 minutes. Dad, my mum and sister all came down to watch. I never saw dad en route, which is probably a good thing, as when I saw him at the end, his face was covered in painful red lumps and he was barely recognisable. I was pale from fatigue. We had a picture taken together which looks like a competition for, 'Who looks the most wretched?'.
Despite the fact I could not walk properly for a week afterwards, I was so glad my dad got to see me do it. He was a keen athlete himself when younger; it is, I think, something he would have liked to have done. I admit, just going by the look of him, I was scared of thinking that this new 'wonder drug' was not really working.
Hope takes a hit
As the May Bank Holiday approached, and as we were in the bad old days of SATS, I was grateful of the extended weekend after preparing a less than co-operative mixed ability Year 9 class for those irritating tests.
Then the phone rang. It was mum. She told me to sit down. This was not going to be, by any stretch of the imagination, a good phone call. In a calm, and in as gentle a way that she could, mum told me that there was nothing else the doctors were able to do for dad. I crumpled in a heap on the floor; sobs enveloping me while my poor mum tried to find the words to make me feel better, or at least stop crying. I spoke to dad, but I was tongue tied. What do you say to your loved one when you both know, but do not want to comprehend, that death is around the corner? HOW do you speak to them? I think, although this is hard to remember, that I asked if him if he was OK. Seeing it in black and white looks absurd, but it was all I could think of to say.
May half term came around and we spent time doing things that dad enjoyed. Steam trains seemed to feature heavily. When I was very little, dad was a model train enthusiast. He had a room in which he had built and made a train set, which he took great joy in. Fortunately, as dad and mum had moved back to his childhood village of Penrhyndeudraeth (easier to say than it looks, honestly) there is an abundance of real, big, beautifully restored steam trains. We did our best to be 'normal', to keep calm and carry on, but underneath there was the question of, "How long have we got together?"
Never have I been so grateful for the six week summer holiday. That time was well spent, going to North Wales to visit mum and dad; dad coming and staying with me and putting up picture rails in my tiny terraced house; dad returning to come and fix my immersion heater (my only source of hot water, yes really) when it yet again, conked out. Travelling to mum and dad's with my friend Jo and her beautiful Staffordshire Bull Terrier Molly which, on reflection, was a stroke of genius. Dad loved Molly, cuddled her, spoiled her rotten, and busily snapped photographs on his digital camera. He smiled; he laughed. Little Molly the Staffy bought him some joy. Ironically, for those few days, he seemed to come to life again, and that in turn bought us a slice of hope.
My dad and I had never had a great relationship. From my teenage years onward into much of my adult life it, was often distant, and sometimes strained. At this point, we both knew that there was no rhyme or reason for this to continue; it served no purpose. Time spent together helped us heal the rift.
September came around all too quickly and as is the way with schools and teaching, time cantered by at speed. Before I knew it we were into October. My sister was teaching in a school in Leicester at the time, so her half term was a week earlier than mine. In this week, dad was taken to hospital to have an operation to drain fluids from his abdomen. His organs were really beginning to fail. I remember speaking to my sister on the phone, her voice reedy and quiet, a little wobbly. Whatever she had seen of dad that week, she had been really shaken. She was supposed to come out for my birthday meal (12th October) but she just couldn't. I still had a week of work to get through, thus the brave face was firmly entrenched and I got through the week and went out for my birthday meal anyway. What else was I supposed to do?
The true meaning of caring
My half term came around and after the Saturday sleeping, cleaning and generally faffing I travelled up to Penrhyndeudraeth on the Sunday morning to see dad and was fairly clueless, maybe even in denial, as to what I was about to see. I arrived at mum and dad's house, 'Penfro' and received a warm hug from mum, but the house already seemed that little bit emptier without dad there. Dad was in the hospice in Llandudno, and they were letting him come home today. A cup of tea and a muted chat later, mum and I made the journey to the hospice to bring him home.
Mum parked up and we walked gingerly into the hospice. I followed mum to dad's ward and then I saw him on the bed. He was thin and gaunt and an un-natural shade of yellow, another sign that his organs - his liver especially, were really failing. I knew, this was 'it'. That realisation was overwhelming. I remember managing to chat for a little while and while mum was talking to the doctors, I slipped away, found a quiet corner and crouched down breathless, sobbing. Somehow, I re-gained some composure and returned to dad's bedside and we got him ready to come home. The doctors and nurses spoke in euphemism, not saying in front of us or him, that he was going home to die, but that is what the sub-text was. In reality, it did not need to be said.
The next day mum, stoic as ever, went to do her shift in the charity shop, while I was at home to look after dad. Later on that morning, the doorbell rang and it was the Macmillan nurse who was here to check on dad, and check his range of medication was suitable. I let her go into dad's bedroom while I sat, or rather squirmed in a state of worry in the living room. After she had spoken to dad, she came to speak to me about his medication and what the situation really was. She told me in a matter of fact, but kind way, that dad had about two weeks left, that she would return with more suitable morphine related painkillers for him and then she went. I sat there, both believing and unbelieving of what she had just said.
I waited a little while, with those uncontrollable sobs enveloping me once more. Pulling myself together (How, I mean HOW did I do that?) I went into dad's room, laid down next him, put my head on his shoulder and my arm over his now distended belly. He wrapped his arm around me as I snuggled up to him. Next follows the most difficult conversation I have ever had:
Dad, "So, what did she say? Do we know how much time?"
I adjusted myself to look him in the eyes, and asked him, "Do you want me to be honest, or is it better to lie to you?"
"Be honest." he said.
There was a very pregnant pause, as I struggled to formulate the words, I began with a bit of a stutter I'm sure, 'She....she said about two weeks dad."
Silence. We just remained in our cuddle. When I thought I could speak without crying, I said, "I love you dad."
"Love you too Gwennie." he said.
After that he was quite tired and needed to sleep. I think I gave him some morphine and left him to rest. I have no recollection what I did the rest of that afternoon until Mum came home.
For weeks, months and years afterwards I tormented myself with the question, was I right to be so honest with dad? Would it have been better if I had lied to him? I have even used this moment while teaching, 'An Inspector Calls', discussing issues of morality and how we find our moral compass. Was it morally, the right thing to do?
When mum eventually came home, we spoke, we cried, we cuddled and worked out what to do next. Dad's GP was brilliant and said she'd sign both me and my sister off work for as long as we needed it. Dad, desperate not to be any bother, said, "Don't get in trouble with work on my behalf." At that particular time, I couldn't give a stuff about work.
Tuesday of that half term I travelled back home, feeling guilty for even leaving him in the first place. But I had to come home, and in all my conscientious diligence, wanted to make things OK with school too. I contacted my Head of English, who told me not to worry about work and get back to dad. He'd been through exactly the same thing with his own mother some years ago. I contacted the person who was Head of Media, explaining my rather awful situation who then told me to set cover work for my Yr 12 and 13 Media classes. Now, being the fairly new green teacher I was and being in a generally vulnerable state, I did exactly that. That Wednesday I spent a good 4 or 5 hours sorting work for those classes. If there was anything I bitterly regret, and feel angry about, it is that. WHY was I so compliant? WHY didn't I say, 'No'? WHY did she even ask me to do it? My dad was dying, and there was precious little time left to spend with him. WHY? However, I did it. Fool.
I went home to re-pack, knowing I would have to pack clothes for my dad's funeral. I also brought my laptop so we could download the pictures dad took of Molly the beautiful Staffy. I began the 3 1/2 hour journey back to dad, finding the occasional lay-by to stop and cry. My sister had already returned to dad at that point so we were to all be re-united soon.
During the next 10 days, my role as a person had changed fundamentally. Mum, my sister and I became dad's carers, his nurses, each playing to our stoical strengths. I made a table on Excel for dad's medication, and what he should take and when. My sister, who had worked as a carer in an old people's home in a previous life, put all these skills to good use, taking him to the bathroom for a flannel wash, while mum and I changed his bed sheets. My sister was an early riser so she took the morning medication shift; I was the night-owl so I did the late shift while mum did what mum's do best and took care of us all. One day, when he was fed up and aching, I massaged his feet hands and back, trying to ignore the flecks of cancer rising to the surface, mottling his skin.
Time is running out
Everyday we woke up and went into see dad first of all. All of us both grateful for another day but utterly helpless that we could not make him better.
In the second week, there were more noticeable and less and less subtle signs of his dying. He was eating less and less and what he did eat often came back up, therefore he was getting noticeably thinner and weaker. He rarely got out of bed, hardly able to hold himself up. He could sometimes hold a conversation but not for very long.
The last few days were far more telling. His motor-skills were in a real decline. He was less and less able to use his hands, which became heavy weights on the end of his arm, dangling, unusable. He could just about shuffle into the living room while we changed his bed and his speech was also becoming odd, stilted and a bit slurred. This was most noticeable on his last day (not that we knew it was his last day). That night, while mum was getting him ready for bed, he said, "My body is taking its revenge." That moment, I think, dad finally accepted what was happening and what was about to happen.
Saturday Morning, 5th November 2005
I awoke to the sound of my sister yelling for help. I say awoke, but I had not slept properly for days. I dashed to dad's room to find my sister trying to manoeuvre dad on the bed. His face was contorted in pain, gaunt, haunted and his lips were pulled back over his teeth like a snarling dog. I barely recognised him. My sister explained what she was trying to do, get him (and this is ironic, no doubt) in the recovery position so he could be more comfortable.
Eventually, we managed it. His breathing was erratic, laboured, getting more and more shallow. Today was the day. Mum got on the phone to the doctors while my sister and I remained with dad. I lay myself behind him, one arm around his abdomen, both to cuddle him and to feel his breathing; the other stroking his still thick mop of white hair. My sister kept talking to him, both of us telling him, in our own way, it was time to go. Moments later his breathing slowed, became shallower and he squeezed out his last breath, and this is so typical of my dad and his bodily functions, the very last thing he did was fart.
He was gone and my heart splintered and fractured.
I felt so many things, but most immediately was the sense of relief; it was over. He was no longer suffering. This was tempered with waves of incomprehension, bewilderment and grief.
I was off work for the next few weeks so we could arrange his funeral (I won't tell you about that too) and begin trying to patch ourselves up. Dad's doctor signed us off work when we asked for it.
The aftermath and some reference to school and teaching.
I returned to work 2 weeks after dad died. I know now this was way too soon. I remember that week at school, at least the emotions of it, as clear as a bell. It took a Herculean effort of all my best acting technique, and believe me, I'm no Kenneth Branagh, in order to put on that brave face, to be 'normal' in front of classes and colleagues when for me, nothing was in the least bit normal. Nothing.
On the Friday of that first week back, I got through my last lesson of the day, made my way straight to our little work room and sobbed, big heaving, snotty, loud, uncontrollable sobs. It was a mixture of both relief that I'd made it though the week and guilt at having to put dad to the back of my mind in order to do so.
People at work were kind and supportive, with some telling me that I was brave. I always put them straight. I was not not brave. My dad was the brave one. We did what we did out of love, nothing more, nothing less.
Every October and November since has felt like wading through treacle. As the years have gone by I have coped with it better, or at least, found a way to compartmentalise the range of emotions I feel over those months. I still feel guilty if work leaves me little or no time to reflect or remember. It feels like a terrible act of betrayal.
Once I told a very truncated version of this story to my lovely Year 10 girls group as the topic of cancer once came up in a speaking and listening assessment. The girl who was discussing the topic struggled to articulate her anger and frustration about it. So I told them about dad and looking after him while he was dying. Before I knew it, I was faced with a class full of tearful, snot nosed, mascara running all over the place, teenage girls. It was a thoroughly unexpected response to his story. I could not help but think of my dad, my curmudgeonly, stubborn, some times grumpy and insensitive, cuddly daft thing of a dad, who would have been utterly bemused by their response, baffled even.
Being at work, during this time, still sometimes takes Herculean effort to be 'normal' for the benefit of all those that I interact with on a daily basis. It takes much of my mental capacity to appear 'together' when all I still want, miss, and crave is a big bear hug of a cuddle from my dad and to listen to his throaty Welsh laugh.
I taught Hamlet, for the first time in my teaching life, to a simply wonderful class of Year 13 last year. I was also lucky enough to see the David Tennant production, and I remember seeing Hamlet on stage for the first time in Act 1 Scene 2 and being able to 'get' Hamlet almost immediately, especially when he speaks of his 'inky cloak' and shows his petulance and anger at the loss of his father. Now, how could we expect a 17 year old to grasp the fundamentals of this kind of profound grief? We hope they have yet to experience it. I did understand it, I know it, I lived it, it was my job to pass this onto them.
For those of you who wish to know, 'cariad' is the Welsh word for love or sweetheart. I learned many, big, huge, fundamental things in those last two weeks with dad, but the most important was finding out, and knowing deeply and truly what that word really means.