Last week in accordance with the habit of the Catholic Church, my father, 98 years and four months old, received Extreme Unction or the Last Rites, his supposed last appointment before shuffling off this nonsensical life. His mother had given birth to a 2lb 2oz runt on 31st March 1918 during the last days of the German Spring offensive, the Kaiserschlacht, the battle where they ran out of weapons, ammunition, food and staying power which marked the end of the war. For my father it was a beginning after the doctor threw the almost dead foetus to the end of the bed with the words”he’ll not last” ringing in his unformed aural cavities. He proved the doctor wrong and was now proving the religious wrong. I made arrangements to visit him if he had time to wait for me.. It was a few days before I eventually mounted the Fly Be steps at Knock Airport and flew to Manchester.
My father has been a resident of The Little Sisters of the Poor Nursing Home in Longsight in Manchester for the last few years. He was about 95 when he was inserted and the Little Sisters were most perturbed that in his transition from sheltered housing in Didsbury to their place on Plymouth Grove his medical records had been lost and it was a few days before they accepted that there were no records. He had never been ill; he had never taken any prescription drugs. He had escaped the shackles of the horrible Big Pharma. He came from an era when Big Pharma did not exist. His hospital visits had only been to visit those less fortunate. His only complaint was a busted knee that he had hurt playing football 77 years previously and he had learnt to live with that pain. He was a farmer’s son and had always enjoyed good health and as a young man thought nothing of cycling down to his cousin’s house in Vauxhall in London and spending the weekend with them. 180 miles each way and not a bother on him. He was a footballer, a cricketer, a fencer, played table tennis to a high standard, had even beaten Victor Barna and ate the best a farmer’s table could give him.
However these times were different, he was getting old and the Little Sisters was the place for him. A splendid pile of new build on Plymouth Grove in Manchester; my mother had been on the Board of Guardians there 30 years ago, so his credentials were good and as far as I know he enjoyed his life there being coddled by a caring and attentive staff and being wheeled into Mass every day. He had been born into a relaxed Church of England family in Denton and had turned to the Catholic faith in 1941 in order to marry my mother, part of a determined Irish immigrant family. This custom of conversion was enforced in those days but not so much today and he became a more sincere and devoted Catholic than most who were born into and admitted that faith.
Our relationship had never been good from my baby boomer teen age days of the 1960s. My carefree almost feral attitude did not gel with his conditioned pre-war being and my removal to Ireland had not eased the mental distance we had between ourselves, but that story is for another day and might never be told. Suffice it to say that there was an uneasiness between us and remoteness does not help.
So there he was in comparative comfort, freshly Holy Viaticumised and made ready for the pearly gates and yet he lingered, he waited and wasted. Why? There did not seem a point and I got it into my head perhaps one last visit might help. Oil on troubled waters, make peace with whatever was the niggle we had. So that was why I landed in Manchester on 28th July 2016, eight days after he was shown the road to his maker. Problems with our plane delayed my visit by another day and postponed my proposed meeting with my youngest brother, who had been a daily sentinel in this time of need.
By arrangement I stayed at Daughter No. 3’s house who dropped me round at the Nursing Home the following lunchtime where I met my brother Michael who guided me through the labyrinth of corridors and lifts to my father’s room. He was sat there in an armchair, not comfortable because he was forever moving his upper body in the chair. Blind, deaf, incontinent, emaciated and not able to walk, a death waiting to happen. He had last spoken six days previously and although not comatose, he was as good as. Michael had watched his deterioration over a few years but to me it was a total shock. His arms no thicker than his wrist, his large claw-like hands shrunk to needle-like digits, his legs no thicker than his stick-like ankles. A fit strong man reduced to his lowest common denominator. I understood that he had been on a mouse-like diet for some time. He had no flesh, just bone and tendon held together by an opaque epidermis.
Every now and then he lifted his head, opened his eyes and looked straight through us, not a flicker of recognition when I introduced myself, not a sign of pleasure or displeasure, just vacant emptiness. It had been agreed with the medics that there would be no intervention, yet after coughing up blood two weeks previously, he had been shipped next door to the brand new Royal Infirmary and given drugs that had stopped the haemorrhage, so intervention was on the menu and they shipped him back to the Little Sisters after a week. I was told there was little care at the Infirmary, a type of Liverpool Pathway philosophy until my eldest daughter, a highly qualified nurse, kicked off and put the fear of God into the ward staff which greatly improved the cleanliness of his surroundings.
He did not seem to be in any pain unless he had been dosed to withstand but on his return from hospital he started pissing blood which they had stopped reasonably quickly. There just did not seem to be any quality to his existence. He looked uncomfortable but he seemed not part of this world. He was waiting, waiting, hanging on , for what?. It was most distressing for me the newcomer, my brother had probably become immune. I stayed an hour and had to go. It was like the final flickering of a candle at it’s wick’s end, not giving any light worth having, just showing slight movement.
I returned to my daughter’s house trying to rid myself of the scene and was much relieved when ordered on to baby-sitting duties that evening whilst husband worked and spouse danced. This at least had a purpose.
Bed at 10.00pm and up at 6.00am and prepared myself for another day, another visit, stupidly persuading myself that there will be improvement. I was on my own and became alarmed when I walked in the room and found him slumped in the chair with his head between his knees. I thought he had gone but his hands moved. I pushed his shoulders back into the chair, my grip felt nothing but bone and his upper-body had no weight. He must have slumped forward and had not the strength to bring himself upright. In a more convenient position his demeanour did not change. No sign of life, no flicker of emotion, no hint of having heard, having seen or having felt, just absolute nothingness. All there was was a twitch of limb, a drop of head. It was horrible to see. The utter sadness of this extended demise made me cry. Again I stayed an hour and became more and more overcome with misery at his state. I wiped the tears from my eyes and left. If only things could have been different. It is a lesson I have painfully learnt.
Back to my daughter’s house and I just let these words spill out onto the page. I was bereft, more so now than I will be at his imminent funeral mass. I started to consider my own farewell and I hope not to tarry when that day comes. Johnny Walker, Mr Bell and Mr Jamieson will be on hand to hasten my removal, with the knowledge of having a far easier life than my father.
I am not here to champion the system of assisted death or euthanasia which some countries allow, as I fear malpractice if not securely monitored, but there must be another way. The Little Sisters said that whilst there is still recognisable life they have to continue giving him drugs but what I saw was not life. There was nothing happening in his consciousness. A fly-wheel driven heart acting metronomically not realising when to stop.