The long goodbye
The past six days have been some of the most poignant and purposeful of my life.
As regular readers will be aware, since returning to England from New Zealand in March 2013, I’ve spent a lot of time negotiating processes to support my dad, as he became less able to care for himself.
One of the first things he said to me when I arrived was to ask me to sort out all his paperwork, as he’d been shuffling it from pile to pile unable to comprehend it anymore. I obtained Lasting Power of Attorney, along with my younger sister, that summer, and have filled in numerous forms for Attendance Allowance, Carer’s Allowance, and negotiated as much support and financial assistance as possible for dad and mum.
My sisters and I had a rota to visit every weekend from June to December, as dad slowly deteriorated after his small stroke, to the point where his quality of life was sadly lacking. Overcome by the debilitating diseases of Vascular Dementia, Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, he became a shadow of the man he’d been.
Someone who’d travelled widely, always kept fit cycling, playing squash and tennis, and whose active mind continued exploring all sorts of diverse holiday and leisure pursuits. I researched and wrote a Walsh family history in 2002, and was surprised to discover an application for a ‘£10 passage to New Zealand’ he’d completed, but not sent, before he met mum in 1954. He didn’t pursue the application because he felt unable to leave his elderly mother. Thirteen years ago, at the age of 81, he got the chance to visit when he travelled to see me in New Zealand with mum for a five week holiday, when I initially lived there for nine months. I wasn’t aware then of his unfulfilled dream.
I vividly recall at the end of me and Barry’s six-month visit to UK from NZ in November 2010, mum and dad taking us to the train station. We’d left it a bit late and I’d gone to get a ticket before the train arrived. I had to run across the bridge to get back to the platform and jump on the train before I missed it, and dad had walked to the guard to make sure he didn’t let the train go without me. Because of that, I wasn’t able to give him a hug and kiss goodbye before we left.
I was beside myself, not knowing if I’d ever see him alive again. He was 90 years old at that time, and we weren’t planning on returning to England for another 18 months.
Thankfully I did, and have many treasure memories since then.
The final destination
Exactly 48 hours ago, 0904hrs Monday 9th February 2015 (I know it will be this time because the wonders of technology enable me to schedule the post to publish then), my amazing dad reached his final destination. He died peacefully and as far as it’s possible to know painlessly, surrounded by his wife and four daughters.
He’d been lovingly cared for at the most amazing nursing home, Latimer Court in Worcester, run by Barchester Healthcare. As much as we’d all resisted for so long dad going into care, mum and I felt reassured from the outset he’d be looked after there.
For the first three weeks or so, he was offered and graciously accepted a cooked breakfast EVERY morning, and enjoyed a three-course lunch and evening meal. It may have taken him around two hours to eat each one, but he was never rushed – to be fair this was his biggest pleasure in life in recent times.
Everyone from the housekeepers to the management in this establishment showed nothing but the utmost respect, love and care to dad and his family. We’d never have been able to afford such a fantastic final resting place for dad if it hadn’t been for his fully funded ‘discharge to assess bed’. I guess things generally happen for a reason.
Succumbing to a cold and chest infection just over two weeks ago, dad soldiered on with rest, regular antibiotics and paracetamol, and lots of support to continue eating and drinking. Sadly his frail and almost 95 year-old body was overcome by this final blow.
Feeling his vulnerability, I kept him company from Thursday evening until late yesterday afternoon when he left the home accompanied by his ‘guardian angel’ – a story I’ll relay briefly later in the post.
My three sisters arrived on Friday and we all kept a vigil with him. Mum stayed too for much of the time, and was there on his last night. That was one of the many aspects of this home that we’ll always be grateful for. His room was so spacious three of us could sleep on quilts on the floor, whilst we took it in turns to sit next to him and hold his hand. We swapped over every time one of the carers and/or nurses came to turn him.
We’d all spent time alone with him, saying what we wanted, and some of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren had also visited.
I’ll treasure forever the memory of him taking his final breaths as I lay next to him holding his hand and stroking his head, reassuring him all was well and it was okay for him to leave us. A few minutes before he died, I’d shared a couple of breaths with him, a form of NZ Maori Hongi. It was surreal, and without meaning to be dramatic it felt like his soul passed through me.
Preparing for death
I realise some people find talking about death so blatantly abhorrent, uncomfortable, or unreal. It’s a subject so many avoid at all costs, in the mistaken belief they can avoid it. It’s become more of a taboo topic than sex in many ways.
However as you can maybe see, I’ve been preparing for dad’s death for many years – as has he considering he pre-paid and arranged his funeral in 2008! Anything to make things easier for his family.
In 2013 I read Elizabeth Kubler Ross’s seminal book ‘On Death and Dying‘, and Jennifer Worth’s ‘In the Midst Of Life‘. Two books that were instrumental in my determination to advocate for dad to have a ‘good death’ (yes there seriously is such a thing).
After spending four weeks visiting dad in hospital, experiencing people dying in ways that were really not ‘good’ (understatement of the year!) in the hustle and bustle of a busy ward, the last thing I wanted was for dad to be kept alive artificially by intravenous drips, oxygen and antibiotics, in order to die alone and unnoticed, or behind curtains in a six-bedded ward.
Being able to stay with him through his final days made it a very special time for us. We were encouraged help ourselves to drinks, and each day a different home baked cake was in reception – little touches like that really made a difference. We could come and go at any time during the 24 hours, and were always welcomed and supported. The staff even formed a guard of honour as dad’s body was taken to the chapel of rest on Monday afternoon.
Meeting people for a reason
Last week we had two friends from NZ on the boat for a fun-filled 24 hours. During their visit we took them to Worcester Cathedral, where I lit a candle for dad and wrote in the book that I wished for dad a peaceful and pain-free death. I sat for a while quietly in the prayer chapel, and talked to his family who passed before him. His dad William Dixon who died when dad was 14, his mum Alice Maude who lived until she was 88, and his younger brother and grandfather, both called Thomas Inglis, neither of whom he’d met as they’d died before dad was born.
I told them how immensely proud of him I was, what a wonderful father he’d been and what an adventurous life he’d had. I said it was time for him to join them. It’s odd really as I’m not ‘religious’, I just felt compelled to do these things for him and it gave me comfort.
A couple of hours later, Barry was walking our friends back to their car while I stayed with the boat. I’d picked a large tree branch up off the side of the canal, and was breaking branches off. But it was obvious that it was too ‘green’ for our fire. A very friendly gentleman walked by, with a black labrador dog, and he started chatting.
We were still talking about all manner of things when Barry returned, and our new friend offered humorously to take the branch to work the following day to dry it out. It turned out he’s an undertaker at the very funeral home dad pre-paid his funeral to in 2008. He subsequently told me it’s one of the best in Worcester, and reassured me he’d look out for dad when the time came.
People may believe this is a ‘coincidence’. I prefer to believe the universe works in mysterious ways, and people come into our lives when we need them, if we’re aware and accepting of them. This compassionate and kind man made sure he came to collect dad yesterday, and assured me he’ll care for him during the next few weeks before his funeral. I can’t tell you how comforting this is.
I’ve no idea how dad managed to time his admission to hospital and his subsequent death so perfectly. He fell and was admitted to hospital in Worcester ten days after Barry and I moored up in Worcester Marina, and died just under three weeks before we’re due to leave.
It’s meant I’ve been able to use mum’s car to yoyo from their home in Ombersley, the hospital or care home, and Barry aboard Areandare. I’ve been ten minutes away from the hospital and care home, so have been able to visit frequently with and without mum.
He was due to move to another nursing home in Droitwich yesterday. I do believe that he’d have been cared for well there too, but moving him again would have undoubtedly discombobulated him adversely. Maybe he knew this and couldn’t contemplate the possibility.
Whilst I would’ve loved for him to live for many more years, and I do and will miss him immensely, the man he was hasn’t been present for a long time. It’s been heartbreaking watching his character slowly fade away, feeling powerless to help when he can’t understand what’s going on, or find the right words to be understood; to walk far without falling over, and to do much more than sit in his chair day after day watching tv, eating and drinking but very little else.
Rest in peace my amazing daddy Donald Inglis Walsh – I love you so much and am so, so proud of you. I’m also grateful beyond measure that I had the knowledge and maintained the strength (some would call it storminess!) to advocate for you to have a ‘good death’, one I’ll always remember fondly without fear or regret.
And you’ve left us with so many magical memories. Here’s a tiny selection to savour, mostly narrow boating related …
Finally for this post, one of my treasured friends in New Zealand posted the following after I shared the fact that we were holding vigil with dad, on Sunday evening. So many loving and heartfelt messages were written – they all made a difference to me and my family. Thank you so much. At our wedding reception at the Dog and Doublet in 2009, dad said to me “Sandra how do you know all these people?” I am immeasurably blessed to have inherited my dad’s sense of adventure, and now have an abundance of friends in both hemispheres. You are all my taongas.
Kua hinga he totara I te wao tapu nui a Tane. A Totara has fallen in the great sacred forest of Tane. Arohanui x
Kia ora Tungane, thank you, you are spot on! He visited the mighty Tāne Mahuta with mum and I in 2002, and will understand and appreciative your words.
Haere rā dad ❤