Sometimes in life you have to learn to accept that there are just some things that you are not in control of. On of those factors that we all wish we were able to control or be able to affect are the things that happen to our loved ones as they grow older, or fall prey to one of the many horrible ailments that plague our world. I know many people have written about these things, and it is something that an awful lot of people can empathise with when reading about the suffering that others go through while on their way out, as the majority of us have either been through it or watched a family close to them have to go through it.
I was bitterly reminded this week in watching the in your face coverage of Steven Gately’s untimely passing that this world we live in is a feeble and frail place. The reality for us as humans is that much of our time on earth is spent preparing for the inevitable, and yet we are never ready for it when it comes. As family I have always been pretty sheltered from the hurt of death within my own family. It wasn’t until I was in my late teens that I had to deal with death face to face when a close friend of mine lost his brother. I watched then as a family fell apart, torn up by the loss, confused by the questions that were left unanswered, totally unable to say goodbye or prepare to deal with the loss. I believe that when it is an unexpected loss that the impact is quite unreal in many of the ways that the loss of a loved one touches you. It is quick, sudden and sever. You either recover from it or you don’t.
And so for me, when it came to dealing with the fact that my father had been given six months to live a number of years ago, I struggled to come to terms with the fact that it was his time. My dad was diagnosed with prostate cancer two years after arriving in the UK, and underwent a gruelling round of radiation treatment. For many reasons my father was never the same man that he’d been before I’d left Zimbabwe, and it was difficult to see a man that’d climbed the ladder to the very top, a successful business man in his own right, have to start all over again as he watched much of what he’d built up stolen and pulled from under him. Two evil and diabolical men took advantage of a man I didn’t always understand and was never really very close to, but one that I cherished for all he’d done for me as his son. To watch his life’s work be pulled out from under him, reduced to nothing more than an employee at 70, fighting to earn enough to survive killed me, and I can honestly say that I hope the men that never honoured their debts to my father choke in their corruption and ill gotten gains. What hurt him more than losing it all was the fact that it was even family that deprived him of what he was owed. And so as an employee, my father struggled to cope with having to work while under going treatment that would result in hours of being ill, feeling unwell, unable to eat, and in excruciating pain, strong in his resolute commitment to ensuring that his family had enough to live and survive in a decent home.
Our move to Wales in 2003 was probably the best thing that would come out of living in the UK for my father. Living in Basingstoke was a dead end for him. As a blue collar man, finding decent work in Hampshire was difficult, and the place he did find work was so posh that most people turned their nose up at dad. But he persevered. Twice I was ready to visit the scum that employed him for the way in which they treated my father but he always stuck his ground that he could deal with it. The truth was that they couldn’t really break and already broken man. But in Wales we were able to survive. Dad found a job in a company that he loved. He was surrounded by men and women that respected and encouraged him, a fundamental difference between the Welsh and English. The Welsh are warm and welcoming people, willing to help and listen and engage with people, and that enabled dad to thrive at work. He loved telling stories of Africa, going out fishing with the guys from work, he even won on a boating trip they did once. It was a great feeling to see a sparkle in his eye when he’d come home and want to tell you about his day and talk to you about his plans for the weekend. I just wish looking back I’d been a bit more interested.
Wales for dad was a brilliant move, and mom was a lot happier here too. For me it was a move backwards. While Wales is blessed with beauty that God clearly didn’t want the English to enjoy, it is one of the most difficult places in the UK to get decent work. So I struggled for a while, doing this and that. When we got news that dad had been given six months, it was a blow that none of us really wanted to confront. I remember the day he told me going for a walk along the beach and wondering why this was happening. I’d always accepted that looking after my folks in their end days would fall to me, something that I’d decided I wanted to do for the simple reason that they’d done so much to pull me out of the gutter and set me right so many times before. I owed them that. But that day as I walked along the sand in Swansea, I was angry that this was happening now. It just seemed that since leaving Zimbabwe it’d been one up hill battle after another to try and survive in this hell hole we now call home. It was hard.
I have never been very good at dealing with emotion. One of the reasons I don’t talk much. I am either too direct and too the point, or too weak to keep it together. Watching dad go through Chemo and Radium Treatment in those last days was sickening. I watched my proud, loyal and strong father be reduced to a frail, weak old man, and it killed me in a way I’ve never really been able to deal with. Cancer is a wicked illness. So many people suffer so as a result of this disease that I am not the only one who’s had to watch as my loved one was eaten away by the killer within. For me those days were more than I could bear, and I was grateful to get away to work in the day as mom took the role of carer for my dad. He didn’t make it easy for her, and I used to get mad at him for it, but looking back on it now I understand more of why he was that difficult man. I used to get home from work and try to sit and spend time with him, but more and more it became too hard to sit with him. I would be unable to talk for the lump at the back of my throat, and I didn’t want to show the world how much watching my father suffering was eating me up inside. I was desperately trying to be calm and rational because I knew that it was the only way to keep both mom and dad calm and rational. Its funny. In a way the family kind of all retreat in on themselves, trying not to let the other see how badly effected they are, so we all appear strong for each other. The crazy thing is that you just need to look at each other to know that the situation is ripping away at each of you. The extra long pause at the end of a hug, the words “I love you”, as you leave for work, the searching look of concern and regret that you each have in your eye as you look at each other. The unspoken words are there.
There is only one thing for which I am grateful through those last days. I got the chance to say goodbye. Maybe not on the day that dad died, but in general we knew that we’d settled our differences, buried the hatchets that we needed to bury, and frequently told each other that we loved each other. For that reason alone, I am glad I got to close those chapters of my life, and in a way that makes it easier to carry on, even though I still hurt when I think back to that time. There are many things that we wish we did when we had the chance, but life has taught me that its pointless wishing now that its too late. While I miss my father, I see so much of him in me that sometimes I think that he lives on in me. I am not so sure that is the greatest thing, but for me I have to learn to live with it, and in some ways it means I am able to deal with things a little better. Whereas my father would at times be lost to how to deal with things, I can draw from his experience and my understanding of him to try be different. Whether that works or not I am not sure. My life is very simple and quiet as I do not associate myself with huge numbers of people who would be close enough to tell, but the fact of it is that despite his absence for five years, I feel close to my father still, and that is something not everyone can say.
But now as I reflect back on the times and difficulties of those days, the reality is that the next major challenge of my life lies before me as I have to learn to cope with Dementia. Mom and I have always been very close, probably because as the last of her children, when all my brothers and sisters had sprung the coop, I was significantly far enough behind them to become the centre of her world, and as a kid growing up with dyslexia, much of her time and effort was spent tutoring and encouraging me to do better. We share an awful lot in common, have a very similar sense of humour, enjoy a lot of the same foods, both love to read, have a flair for adventure and travel, but also maintain our differences. We get along really well, something that I treasure when I see how some families are unable to speak and deal with their parents. My mother is a very special person in my life, a strong gentle wisdom, huge ability to care for people, loyal beyond measure. I could go on and on… I guess like most of us, those that are dear to us are easily the hero’s in our eyes, and my mother is certainly one of them to me. So it has not been easy to learn that it will be to Altzheimer’s that I will more than likely loose my mother.
It has been obvious for a number of years now that mom’s memory was slowly going, and our hope was that it was just due to old age, and not something more sinister, but slowly it becomes more of a fact that this is the route that god has chosen for us to walk down together in these twilight years, and I have to be honest in saying it is not a road I willingly walk down, for it scares the hell out of me. If I thought that dealing with cancer and watching it take my father was difficult I shudder to think of what lies in store in the years to come. Thankfully, my mom has a very positive attitude about things, especially seeing as I know she is terrified by the concept of not being able to recognise her own family. For now we laugh and joke about things that will in time become real issues as her illness progresses along its path. In my mind I frequently ask where I am to find the strength to deal with these things. My mother is the kindest, nicest and most amazing woman in the world. Anyone who meets or has met her can attest to that fact, and again, as I was angry that night as I walked along the beach when I knew that my father was going, I am angry again that it has to be to such a devastating illness that I must now learn to face up to. If I found it difficult to put on a brave face when I confronted dad, I shudder to think how I’m going to deal with this.
Learning to live with death is something that takes a terrible toll on us as human beings. Emotionally I don’t believe we have the skills to deal with it properly. The way in which someone dies and the things that we have to go through while dealing with that death alter us as people. Nothing about this life on earth is easy, and some is far more difficult that other stuff, but in the great scheme of things I guess we have to learn that come what may we are all headed to a grave, and then to what ever lies beyond. My faith tells me there is a heaven after death, and I would like to think that this is true. But I have to admit that as a human, that faith is frequently tested, and I am probably not the strongest Christian in the world, so frequently question why. There is no answer to that word. I know. I’ve stood on cliff tops and shouted it out to the sky above me, I’ve sat quietly listening to the waves and wondered over and over again. For whatever reason this is our lot, and we have to learn to be strong and make it through. As so arises the next question… How?