Wednesday 22nd March
Phil’s thought at first that his father, the Doctor, was a bit of a coward at the end. Or maybe he wasn’t so much a coward but a realist. He had cancer, and of course being a Doctor, he knew early on that that was what he had. He also knew the procedures, the radio-therapy, the poisonous drugs and the invasive surgery he might have to endure. He also knew the likely chances of his survival, and what sort of a life he might have left if he survived at all. And he decided not to tell anyone but to suffer in silence until it was far too late to do anything about it; the very thing he would have complained about from one of his own patients. But he was on the other side of the fence now, on the side of the fence where there was no clambering back from either; he knew now that he had a short and painful journey to the end of his life. Actually Phil was wrong, as he had been so often about him, his father was no coward, but a very brave man, to have known the pain he would suffer, and to have chosen to suffer it alone without telling anyone; his beloved wife, Phil’s mother, and of course Phil, his son. Well, even the brave Doctor had to seek help near the end, when his condition got so bad that he couldn’t hide it anymore. He was admitted to hospital, Ipswich General, the very hospital he had recently retired from, just three weeks before he died.
Phil’s mother phoned him, and as usual tried to protect her boy, saying that ‘Dad was in hospital, but not to worry, he was looking better than he had lately.’ Phil hadn’t seen him since Christmas, and it was July now, so he hadn’t even known he was getting ill. He had been so busy wheeling and dealing and being so wrapped up in his own life he hadn’t given him a second thought in months. But he saw through his mother’s words straight away, and told her he would be at the hospital that night. He told June that evening that he thought it was serious, and she asked if she should come with him. He said no, he would go tonight and see how bad he was, she should stay at home with the girls.
But Phil was quite shocked when he saw him. He seemed so wizened and so old and shrunken into himself. He had always been on the slim side, probably all those cigarettes he had smoked, but now he was pitifully thin, the bones and veins in his hands and arm almost protruding, the skin stretched and parched and mottled and a dull yellow. You know how it is with your Mum and Dad; you are so used to seeing them every day that they never look any different, and even when you are so busy that you only manage three or four visits a year they never seem any different. But suddenly his Dad looked thirty or forty years older; all of a sudden he had become a very old man, a real shadow of the man Phil had known. He couldn’t stop the tears from streaming down his face. His mother put her hand on his arm to comfort him.
“I’ll be alright in a minute, just let me sit here for a moment.” he said trying desperately to stem the tears.
After a few minutes, she said “Phillip, I’ve been here all day, I’ll just leave you two alone for a bit. I haven’t eaten all day, so I’ll try to find somewhere to get a bite. I’ll be back in an hour, don’t get up.” And as she left Phil saw his father give her a slight nod, as if to say, ‘Well done my dear; that was just as we planned.’
He was alone with his father and was lost for words. What do you say to a father who is so ill that both of you know it is the end? And they had never really spoken, this father and son – not about anything that mattered; they had lived together all those years when Phil was growing up and he couldn’t ever remember really talking to his father at all. They sat in silence for a couple of minutes then his Dad broke the silence by reaching out his skeletal arm and Phil took his poor thin hand in his and stroked the back of his hand. It was the first time they had actually touched each other since that perfunctory handshake when Phil had got married, years ago. His hand was like a child’s in Phil’s, but not like his own children’s hands either. This was a hand that was past being a hand; his Dad had no strength left at all, even in his hand. As Phil stroked it, it barely responded, but he looked at his face, and his father was looking at him. The same face as he had seen in his dreams, the same face he had imagined looking over him when he had been studying Law all those years ago, the same face that Phil had been running away from all his life. That face, so familiar to him, that used to scare him as a child, that used to quell his childish excitement with one glance, that same face that he had wanted to slap so many times when as a feckless teenager he had tried in his own quiet way to rebel from his authority. And now that face, was looking at him, weary and at the end of its life, looking for a response, for some compassion, for a flicker of love that might show that all his efforts had not been for nothing. He was trying to speak; he hadn’t said a word since Phil had arrived, just a mumbled ‘hello’ when he first sat down.
“Don’t speak Dad. It’s alright, I understand.”
And then suddenly he found the strength to say in a thin croak, a ghost of his own voice, “I hope so Phillip. I really hope you do.” Phil was crying again now, crying for the poor shell that was all that was left of his father, but crying for himself too, for the way he had let him down, for the fact that he saw him as a success, when Phil felt it was all such a charade. He would never be half the man his father was. “Don’t cry Phillip, this is meant to be, we have no choice in life. We all have to die. I just hope I have the bravery to get through it.”
“Oh I am sure you do have Dad.” Phil said, still holding his hand. “You know I have always admired your strength. Your inner strength I mean, your quiet way of dealing with the world, no histrionics, no shouting. You know, you never ever smacked me as a child. You know why that was, don’t you? It was because you never had to. You only had to look at me and I would stop being naughty, and even when I was at school I always had that look at the back of my mind to stop me from doing anything stupid, no matter how Grice or those other idiots tried to goad me on.” Phil paused, then continued, “You were always my rock Dad; I couldn’t have done it without you. I would have flunked my exams without you there standing behind me. You kept me going when I was desperate to give up. And even now, you are my inspiration Dad. You know that, don’t you?” He just looked at Phil, with almost a smile hovering behind his eyes. “I’ve never told you, because, well because we weren’t that sort of a family, were we? But I always felt it Dad, I always loved you, even though it would have seemed foolish to have said it, but I am saying it now Dad.” And Phil was crying as he said again “I am saying it now.” And all the while Phil was stroking the back of his hand, and he hadn’t notice that his father’s eyes had closed, so he wasn’t sure if he had heard him.
The nurse came over and pulled the bedclothes up a bit higher and felt his forehead. “He is sleeping now Mr. Wilkinson; the painkillers help him sleep. Would you like a cup of tea, you weren’t here earlier when tea was served.”
“Yes, that would be lovely.” And he still held this bony thin child’s hand in his, and squeezed it occasionally and kept stroking the back of it. He was not sure if it comforted him, but it meant more to Phil than he could say. This reversal of roles, Phil now the father stroking his Dad’s child hand gave him such a feeling of peace; it was as if at last they were beginning to understand each other, at last they were talking to each other – talking without words.
Phil saw him every day until he died peacefully in his sleep three weeks later. His mother never left them alone again, and besides by that time the old man could hardly talk, or barely open his eyes to see if anyone was still there. But every time Phil went he held his hand and stroked the back of it. He stroked his father’s hand as their roles were reversed and this little child whose hand he held in his own large father’s hand grew younger and younger and lighter and lighter before his very eyes until he ceased to exist at all.