This is, to my knowledge, the last photo of my father alive.
It was taken just 48 hours before his death.
You can see he is frail but well enough.
My father infuriated me and I totally mystified him.
He was old school, straight up and down and by the book.
I was always throwing the book away and coming up with a new way.
He had never understood me and I didn’t understand him.
We had not been talking much since my business had gone broke.
He had reluctantly backed me into it with all his meagre finances after extracting a begrudging assurance that everything was going to be fine, and had lost everything with it.
When I was doing OK again, I had offered to pay him back but he had refused. I’m not sure why – stubborn pride or maybe because I had let him down so often before he didn’t want to believe only to be let down again?
He was happy that I was doing well but our relationship was still strained after too many arguments when the business failed over where the money had gone.
And I could understand. He had worked all his life to get the one thing my mother and he were most proud of – a home of their own. And they lost it all in a few months.
In fact it was nothing short of amazing that we were speaking at all given the circumstances.
Then came the call. He said simply, “You’d better get home. We’re having a family conference”
I knew immediately that it was serious. We were not the type of family that had conferences. We were not the type of family that even talked!
I walked into their rented flat and sat down with my mother, father and brother present. The mood was sombre.
“I have cancer,” my father announced, “It’s in my throat. The doctors said it was from my smoking which I have to give up, but the good news is that I have an 85% chance of beating it and I’m going to take those odds and fight!”
My father was a strong man. If anybody could beat it he could, but I could tell by the wavering in his voice that he wasn’t totally convinced.
That was it. End of family meeting, and so I decided the best way for me to deal with this was to follow what I had learnt in the last couple of years.
My first ‘weapon’ in the war to save my father would be knowledge. So I started researching the disease and how to beat it. I consulted the doctors and they said that anything I did probably wouldn’t help much but if it made me feel better than it wouldn’t bother them if I tried. “Quacks!” I thought and turned to nature. I put him on a special diet of fruits and vegetables, and high doses of anti-oxidants and cancer fighting vitamins and herbs and bizarrely cottage cheese.
If nothing else he was eating well and this would help keep up his strength for his body to fight, and it seemed to be going well, until one day, some months into his radiology I had a call from the hospital – my father was “not responding to the treatment.”
As I walked through the oncology ward I thought it was a marvel that anybody got out of there alive. It was painted grey and lit coldly with fluorescent light. The Doctors and Nurses were trying hard, and they seemed to have a soft spot for my dad – after all he was a funny and charming man – but I guess years of being surrounded with death and disease had dulled their senses a bit and you could tell they were detached just to cope.
I walked into my father’s room and he was ghostly white. Where he normally sat up in bed waiting to pass a sassy remark to one of the nurses he was slumped down, staring at the window, looking into space.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
“It’s not shrinking. The treatment isn’t working. Look’s like it’s got me.”
“No it hasn’t Dad,” I cried, “You’ve got to keep fighting. For me, for mum.”
I don’t think he was expecting the emotion from me. I crawled up on the bed and hugged him.
“It’s just no good he said, and I just don’t want to be a burden.”
All of a sudden his life made sense to me. All our fights, all our disagreements, every time we had clashed wasn’t about him trying to control me, it was his way of trying to help. His whole life had been working for his family, to give us what he thought we needed in his own way.
In his simple way he had tried to do what every good parent tries to do, look after his son. He was looking at me in the same way he always had, an expression on his face that I had always interpreted as disdain, but now I realised it was just quizzical, trying to see if I shared the same feelings of love for him as he had for me.
The fog had cleared and after 25 years I was able to see what a wonderful man he was. His parenting skills were limited but he had tried as hard as he could to do the right thing in a funny sort of way, and all of a sudden instead of ‘hating’ him for his interfering and domineering ways, I loved him for the help, assistance and guidance he had always been there to give.
“Dad, you have looked after us all your life, now it’s your turn to be looked after. We’ll beat this thing – together.”
We held each other tight and I could feel his tears dripping on my shoulder through the fabric of my shirt, just as my tears dripped on him. We stayed like that for a long time, not wanting to break the moment, until a nurse came in with his dinner. Our outpouring of emotion had helped but I could tell that there was a different sense about him, one that I hadn’t experienced before, and I realised he was making his peace, finishing things up and putting things right. But that wasn’t good enough for me. Now that I had experienced having a father that I loved I wasn’t ready to let him go so soon.
My mind was very clear – this cancer was NOT going to take my father away from me!
I just needed a plan.
I was pacing up and down in the hospital reception racking my brains on how I could help when I literally ran into a man and knocked him over. His coffee had spilt everywhere and I was most apologetic.
“That’s OK, he said, nothing will spoil my mood today, it’s my 5th anniversary!”
“5th anniversary?” I asked still trying to dab the coffee stains off his shirt with a tissue.
“Yes, I’ve been in remission from Cancer for 5 years. I’m just in overnight for some tests to make sure I’m still all clear, but I know I am – I haven’t felt this fit for decades!”
“Congratulations,” I said with genuine admiration, “May I ask what type of cancer you had?”
“It got me here,” he said pointing to his throat.
Throat! The exact same place my father had it and here was living proof that it could be beaten.
“What a coincidence,” I said with a beam on my face, “Can I ask you a favour?”
“Sure,” he replied with what seemed an even bigger smile – the type of smile you have when you’re really happy to be alive.
“I have somebody I’d like you to meet.”
After a bit of prodding and cajoling the duty nurse allowed my father and my new friend to stay overnight in the same room together. It wasn’t long before my father’s natural affability and this man’s delight at being alive had them chatting away like they were old mates. Visiting hours ended and I went home sure in the belief that the Universe was on my side and Convergence was working for me again.
The next morning my new friend had gone but the impact he had made had not. My father was sitting up in bed, sucking on his orange juice and taking the herbal concoction I had left for him, swearing at how bad it tasted and making smart comments at the pretty nurse.
You could tell he had found his will to live.
My new friend had left me a note saying, “if you ever need my help again, call this number,” and I did, many times over the trying months ahead. Not for my father, he was determined, but for me, for strength and courage and motivation from a complete stranger the Universe had provided just in the nick of time.
9 weeks later my father walked out of the hospital free of Cancer forever. He had won!
Never before had I been so grateful for the lessons I had learnt.
In the ensuing months we spent a lot of time together and when we couldn’t be together we talking on the phone.
I leant all about my father, a man I had lived with all my life, but had never known, and he learnt all about me.
I discovered things about him that I never knew, like he wanted a little farm so he could grow fresh produce for his cooking and that he had always wanted to own a Mercedes Benz. Of course I ordered one straight away and hoped it would be here in time for his birthday and we instantly started looking for his farm.
It wasn’t long before I couldn’t neglect things at work for much longer and so we were left to catch up by phone.
One night before I was just about to hang up he caught me and said, “Son,” I had never heard him call me that before and I was so surprised I almost missed what he said next, “I just want you to know that I love you.”
“I love you too Dad,” I said, “Talk to you soon!”
As I hung up it occurred to me that was the first time we had ever said “I love you” to one another.
That was the last time we would ever speak.
In a strange twist of fate he fell over in the bathtub one night and hit his head. The aneurism killed him just before I got to the hospital.
I was so angry with him, God, the universe and anybody else who got in the way for allowing this to happen to us.
He had fought so hard only to die from a stupid fall!
I busied myself in the funeral preparations, and booked a small chapel for his cremation and wrote a little speech.
I was about to learn something else about him. The little chapel had seats for 40 which I thought would be more than enough.
Over 300 people came. Former work colleagues and staff, the state manager of the company he had worked for, friends from all over the country… People who had known him since before I was born…
And all of them knew what I had just recently discovered, that my father was a great man.
“He was incredibly proud of you,” said one of his friends.
Our new friend from the hospital was there and we discussed my anger and disappointment with what had happened.
“Peter,” he said, “I have learnt to take each day as it comes. I am grateful just to wake up each day. I know losing your father hurts, and it’s unfair how it happened, but imagine what would have happened if he hadn’t got Cancer. He’d be dead now and you would never have got to know him, and he would never have got to know you.
He would have gone to his grave with him still angry at you and you still resenting him. What a gift that disease was for the both of you.”
“Challenge creates character,” he went on, “And you have become a much greater man in the short time I have known you, and in the short time you have known your father.”
I thought about what our new friend had said for a long, long time and many years later it came home to me how very lucky my father and I were to have been given those few short months together.
And it reminded me how perfectly in order life can be.
Written by Peter Spann
Peter Spann – Film Maker | Director | Business Coach | Writer | Public Speaking Coach | Presenter | Investor.
© Copyright: 2017 Peter Spann – All rights reserved