When I was 8 years old sitting in my classroom at school, the school secretary (I think her name was Catherine, it will be for the sake of this post) came into the classroom and spoke to my teacher before instructing me to gather my stuff and come with her. I left the room where she told me calmly that my family wanted me to go into Bath to see them. I thought nothing of this request; it was an ordinary sunny day (July 14th 1998 to be precise), I had celebrated my dads birthday with him, my sister Leanne and her boyfriend Ollie a few days before and I was looking forward to lunchtime with my friends as always. I was too young to really wonder why I was being taken into Bath.
Catherine drove me in her car from my school in the village of Kilmersdon to the RUH in Bath, somewhere I had been only once or twice before. My oldest sister, Rachel, met me from the car and walked me to a bench by the entrance. She was crying. We sat there as she told me that our dad was going die, and probably die today. We went into the hospital to the ward where my dad was resting. I didn’t know this at the time, but he was rapidly losing a battle with cancer.
He lay in a bed, awake but motionless and unable to make much of an expression on his face. He was drinking by sucking water from a star shaped sponge that was wedged on the end of a straw. I had been to this ward a few days before to visit him; his smiling face showing signs of pain, but only through an overriding determination to smile at his son and daughters.
Time to back track just a bit. My parents had recently divorced, they were living in separate homes and my dad liked to go out and drink like any other middle aged man, maybe finding help or acceptance at the bottom of a bottle. After one night he decided to drive home and he crashed his car, apparently skidding on some ice. I later learned he was probably over the limit – DON’T drink and drive, even if it’s just you it affects initially, the ripples can last forever. Cancer can be triggered – fast – by any combination of events (smoking, bad diet, whatever); I learned in later years that the inevitable stress from the divorce, a (slight) decent into alcoholism and a car crash were likely triggers in my dads body and cancer had also killed his dad too so it was already in the bloodline. Back to July 14th now.
We stayed in the ward for about an hour, talking to each other and to medical staff who were passing. After lunch we returned where a doctor told us he had improved so I asked if he was going to live, I think this was the first time I’d really said anything. I still didn’t understand the gravity of what was happening. I wasn’t given a straight answer. That evening I went back to my mums house for dinner and to sleep and in the morning I started to prepare for another day of school. My dad made it through the night but died that morning, needless to say I didn’t go to school and we went straight back to the hospital.
Rachel was there again, along with Leanne and Ollie as well as my dads friends Dolly and Johnny who had driven up from Plymouth as soon as the news reached them. Turns out the plan was for me to go and stay with them (I fucking LOVED visiting Plymouth so I was fine with this) when we were done at the hospital. We all went to see my dad in his bed (now in a private room) where we stayed for some time talking before we left. We were half way out of the hospital when something triggered in me and I finally realised what was happening. I ran back to the room in tears and threw myself on his bed and cuddled him, kissed him once then left back into the corridor. I asked a nurse if she could walk me back to my family. I was at Dolly and Johnny’s house in Plymouth less than 3 hours later.
After a week I came home, just in time for my last day of school before the summer holidays. July 23rd, also my 9th birthday. I was happy to see my friends and teacher again and enjoyed my last day before summer. Two days later was the funeral, a room filled with my mums family (none of my dads family lived in the UK, they had a funeral of their own in Australia), and his friends and colleagues. I sat between my uncle Robin and cousin Bob (my choices) who both comforted me as Here Comes The Sun by The Beatles was played at the end of the service and a curtain was closed in front of his coffin. I stayed with old family friends that night, Crisp and Nora, who were like grandparents to my sisters and I. Loving, beautiful people who are now sadly long gone too. My life as a child is a blur from that evening, into what has now become normality for me. One year later we spread his ashes in a field and a stream just outside the village of Holcombe, the specific place is somewhere I have intended to but never visited since.
In the months between his crash and his death I would spend most of my weekends with him. We would walk to school (almost an hour walk together and probably why I love walking so much now) singing Harry Belafonte, Fats Domino and Neil Sedaka songs as we walked. We would go swimming on Saturday mornings. One day he stopped coming into pool with me and would watch from the side instead, as I showed off in the water. I knew something was wrong one day when I looked up and he wasn’t in his seat, but I still never knew he was ill. My family did a brilliant job of shadowing his sickness until it was absolutely necessary for me to know he was dying. I hated this for years after but have learned now that your parents and older siblings are there to help you create happy memories and will never let on to negativity to the family’s youngest.
Before he got sick he used to keep my sisters and I in a healthy supply of sweets and chocolate, taking us on tours of the Cadbury’s factory he worked in. We would play Vikings in the garden (whatever that was), make water slides with sheets of tarp and the garden hose and ride bikes together in a disused quarry nearby, a place I still visit today with friends sometimes.
I inherited the diary he wrote on the year he moved to the UK (he was about 21 or 22) and lots of letters between him and his family back home in India (before they moved to Australia). He drew me pictures and gave my birthday cards, all of which I still have, along with certificates of his qualifications and RAF credentials. I have some of his jewellery too, including a ring engraved with his initials that I am wearing on a necklace as I write this, on July 11th, his 76th birthday, 4 days away from the 19th anniversary of his death.
When I am reminded of him nowadays I am only ever filled with positivity, as I have inherited his ability to use happiness to overwhelm darkness, at least when I am thinking of him if nothing else. I can still see the pain in his face the last time I saw him alive but I can also see the happiness in him on the day he gave me my first bike or the day I completed one of his Easter Egg hunts in the garden.
‘It’s your life, do what you want with it’ is a phrase I’ve started using. I use it when people ask me “should I have a latte or a flat white?’ or ‘should I buy tickets to see *a band* in September?’ I mean the answer literally; if you want to see that band in September then buy tickets, worry about the money later. Grab life by the horns and all that shit, and make it your own. Make decisions to benefit those you love and for a cause you believe is right, but remember to look after yourself too because you are just as important. It is okay to put yourself first sometimes. Most importantly, make decisions that will allow you to build happy memories with people who you know will want to remember you when you are gone. Do things for people that you will be remembered for 19 years after you have gone, even if they are so small.
When I was young, he wrote me a story which I can assume he made up on the spot as I can’t find it anywhere on the internet. I can’t find the original anymore but it went something like this:
‘Once upon a time there was a fifteen minute dragon. When it was born it was so tiny that you would’ve been able to hold it in the palm of your hands. As it got older it grew and grew and grew until it was the biggest dragon you’d ever seen, full of colour and breathing flames as hot and bright as the sun. It kept on growing for a whole fifteen minutes until it couldn’t grow any more, and at the fifteenth minute it exploded in a ball of flame and colour then into a million shimmering dragonflies, each one fluttering and glimmering in the air. Now whenever you see a dragonfly you know it came from the fifteen minute dragon, the most beautiful creature to have ever lived.’
I used to love that story. I know now that he was my dragon.
This photo is from (I think…) 1977, a couple of years before my oldest sister was born.