We Need To Talk About Dad... (06 March 2017)
My husband died six weeks ago. Sorry for this bald opening sentence, but I don’t find delicacy the best option. Speaking to various organisations (tax, banks, DVLA etc) in the last month has made me snort (inwardly) at the hastily assembled ‘passing away’ language they have been told to adopt by their managers.
Our relationship was complex, although whose isn’t, when you get down to it. I won’t say any more here, it’s not appropriate, especially as he’s not here to defend himself. However, I can say he was often away, putting me in that unenviable group ‘of single parents who aren’t single, yet they might as well be because their partner is frequently absent and frustratingly they don’t get the support and understanding that actual single parents get’. Now, however, I am a bona fide member.
He had a top of the range cancer – pancreatic, which had already spread to the lungs when it was diagnosed (over six months after he went to the doctor – a fact that will forever make me cross). We don’t know what the prognosis was, because he refused point blank to countenance hearing one. He didn’t want to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of ‘a few months at best’, which is what Google will tell you is the most likely option, and in fact lasted eighteen months after diagnosis. He tried so hard to get better, seeing a whole host of specialists, travelling to Germany for treatment not available in the UK and taking every supplement he could find. The predominant reason for this, as he said in his blog, was because of his role as Dad to our two boys, aged twelve and nine. He was very reluctantly on Twitter and by chance I found a tweet of his from all the way back in 2009. ‘Children run at you after you or they have been away. After a while, they start running into your heart. No one told me this would happen.’
Beforehand, he was always off somewhere creating projects. The notion of himself as family man didn’t sit that well with the cavalier man of the theatre, bringing social justice via the medium of improvisation. However, if every life contains a Book of Revelation, his was the realisation of how important the boys and I were to him. When he got ill, he was full of regret and remorse that he hadn’t been around more. In those months we went on holidays, picnics, to the cricket, dog-racing, theatre, started an allotment. Oh, and we got married. What might have been little more than a way to stop the taxman gobbling up all the cash became a romantic and elaborate three tiered event of celebrations.
So what do you tell your children when your partner is diagnosed with a life limiting illness? He didn’t want them to know it was cancer. Even though it has seriously depleted the stock of celebrities in the last year or so, people can, and do, get better from cancer. However the word puts people into a paroxysm of fear, as if the Grim Reaper is scratching at the door with his scythe. Closer to home, the father of a friend of my elder child died from bowel cancer a couple of years back. It shocked our little community who were used to him refereeing the Sunday morning football in the park and hosting impromptu drinks at their house. For some months, Dad just had ‘stomach problems’. However, as he got more ill, the notion that the medicine was making him better seemed to hold even less weight than he did. I’d wanted to tell them the full facts earlier, but he didn’t. He was so convinced he’d be able to get past it and he didn’t want it to define him or their relationship. I finally decided to tell them it was cancer and that he was seriously ill when he ended up in hospital after a heart attack. On some level it was a relief for them. They knew they had to be worried about Dad, but was there something else they had to be worried about as well?
There’s no good time to lose a parent, but their ages are probably slightly better than much younger when they really wouldn’t be able to comprehend that he wouldn’t eventually come back in the door as he had always done before. (Hell, I find it difficult and I’m 46!) Also, better than older when in the grip of teenage maelstrom, distancing yourself from your family. A cuddle from Mum is still a welcome thing. (NOT IN PUBLIC, THOUGH. JEES!)
So, we trundle along. I’ve booked holidays to give us new experiences. When they have a strop or look sad, you ponder if it’s just that or something completely unrelated. How much to let slide? We can only all do our best. The elder has thrown himself into guitar playing and has progressed at an astonishing rate. The younger is fond of magic tricks and cunning plans. I talk about Dad quite a lot. Somebody wrote to me – ‘Always talk about him as if he’s just next door’ – which seems sound advice. I’ll end with an amusing bit of advice. Yes, I use humour as a way to distance myself from awkward situations (I am Chandler Bing...). If you want to get out of a mobile phone contract and aren’t really bothered about keeping your number, call and tell them you’ve died. After their initial consternation EE cancelled Chris’ contract immediately with no further charge.