Tag Archives: Clacton

… and, as my father dies from cancer…

My parents in Edinburgh, perhaps in the 1970s. Who knows?

My parents in Edinburgh. My mother is hiding her left hand. She was born with no left hand – only a stump. As a child, her mother told her: “Keep your left hand in your pocket. Don’t let anyone see.”

Over the last few weeks, I have been posting occasional extracts from my 2001 diary, when my father was dying of cancer. Here are some more extracts:

Saturday 16th June – Clacton

The other night, my mother’s cousin Sybil phoned. Her husband Osmond is dying very painfully of cancer in Scotland and her sister Daisy is visiting from the USA. Sybil almost broke down talking to my mother on the phone. Tonight, my mother said to me: “I think Sybil might be upset about Osmond. Or maybe she was just upset that Daisy was going home.”

Sunday 17th June – Clacton

Father’s Day. My mother did not want to visit my father today: she said it was too cold and windy outside. I went on my own. He was comparatively perky: when I went in, he was watching tennis on television. While I was there, lethargy slowly took him over but then he started watching TV tennis again and his brain was able to concentrate more on that.

Monday 18th June – Clacton

A neighbour came in, telling my mother that she thinks her son has managed to sell the family butcher’s business in Walthamstow, East London. It has been in the family for 60 years and the neighbour can remember when there were 9 or 10 staff. Now there is just her son and a couple of youngsters. The business has run down particularly recently because of BSE (Mad Cow Disease), the recent outbreak of Foot & Mouth Disease and now scares even about chicken meat. She also says the area has become 75% Asian and they don’t shop in “our” (ie white) butchers’ shops.

Tuesday 19th June – Borehamwood/Greenwich

I went down to see comedian Malcolm Hardee in Greenwich. He is still living in a council flat opposite his club Up The Creek but has just bought a 22-tonne ship moored at Surrey Docks and he partly moved in today, courtesy of my Toyota’s boot. Since April, he has been sharing the council flat with another comedian. Malcolm told me the other comedian idolises him to the extent that he is now going round sleeping with women Malcolm has slept with in the past. Malcolm came home one night and found the other comedian “had just been shagging” an ex-girlfriend of Malcolm and was even wearing Malcolm’s dressing gown.

On the phone, my mother told me that my father today was “very confused and very yellow – jaundiced”. When telling me how confused he was, she got very confused.

Wednesday 20th June – Clacton/Colchester

When my mother and I visited the nursing home in the afternoon, we were told that, in the morning, my father had been bleeding a lot of “frank fresh blood” from his bottom, but it had stopped itself before the nurses came in. “Frank” is a medical term apparently just meaning “fresh” too. My father was confused, with a faraway look in his eye and slightly yellow, but not as badly jaundiced as when my mother saw him yesterday. When I left the nursing home, the matron told me (alone) that she thought the liver cancer was taking over.

In the evening, my mother and I went to Colchester for the arranged appointment with the bowel consultant and his associate the cancer consultant. The appointment – as it had been a month ago – was supposed to be with my father, but he is in no condition to travel from Clacton to Colchester.

My father was given two liver function tests two weeks apart (the second one yesterday morning) as well as one after the operation. The one after the operation was OK though not very good. The one given two weeks ago was worse. And the one given yesterday was worse still. We were told that there could be several reasons for my father’s jaundice and physical weakness.

The bowel consultant described the arteries going into the liver as like a tree. There’s the thick main trunk, then less thick branches, then thinner and thinner branches. When he operated, the tumour seemed to be tucked away, not affecting any serious part of the tree. It could have moved and be affecting a more important branch, preventing bile being drained off and causing jaundice/lack of energy. Or the cancer could have started to take over significant percentages of the liver, preventing it functioning more and more. If the latter was the problem, there was nothing that could be done.

If the former was the problem, then they could put in an ERCP – a small plastic tube. This is inserted via the mouth into the liver. It might drain away some of the bile, alleviating the jaundice and lack of energy problem.

In order to know the cause of the jaundice, they would have to give him an ultrasound scan in Colchester – he would have to come up from Clacton for the day. If – and only if – the problem could be treated by the plastic tube, then he would have to come up to Colchester again for the insertion of the tube and he would return to Clacton the following day. If – and only if – the tube was effective, then his jaundice and energy problem might be slightly alleviated and there was a chance – but only a chance – that his liver function test results might return to what they had been three tests ago and, at that point it might – but only might – be possible to give him chemotherapy treatment.

The decision for us was whether we wanted to put him through that process for the possible result. My mother’s reaction was to say: “Is it worth it?” She didn’t think so. Neither did I.

Returning to Clacton, I stopped off at the nursing home at 7.45pm where my father’s GP had been due to see him at 7.30pm. I waited until 8.00pm talking to the night supervisor. She was horrified at the very thought of my father being subjected to any trip to Colchester: “He’d never make it,” she told me. When he is taken to the commode in the mornings now, they mostly have to use a hoist for him because he hasn’t the strength to go supported by two nurses. He is basically, now, incontinent and, before I arrived, he had been again bleeding from his bottom though slightly less so than this morning.

The GP eventually came around at 9.15pm after going to an emergency elsewhere. He has prescribed daily 30mg doses of pain reliever MXL, which includes some morphine… and three 2mg doses per day of the steroid Dexamethasone to try and relieve the liver. When the GP saw him, my father was very confused, saying he lives in Thorpe-le-Soken (a village several miles away), is eating very well and is going home soon.

The night supervisor had told me that, this morning, my father looked at her and said fatalistically: “I’m not going anywhere, am I?”

Back home, my mother partly broke down in my arms. After I had phoned to tell my aunt (my father’s sister) the news, my mother said to me: “She’s hard as nails. Last night she said to me…” then partly broke down again.

Last night, my aunt told my mother: “We’re going to lose him.”

Breaking down, my mother told me: “That doesn’t help…”

“The meeting with the bowel doctor was a big shock to you?” I asked my mother.

“Yes,” she told me, “I’d hoped against hope.”

I think this may be the first time she has fully accepted he is going to die. She blamed herself (unjustly) that he cannot come back home because she cannot cope. And she is deeply upset at the decision she has now taken not to drag him to Colchester for the ultrasound and possibly also the ERCP treatment. “We can’t put him through it,” she told me, partly breaking down.

Thursday 21st June – Clacton

The matron told me that the GP last night found my father so confused he thought there might be secondary tumours in the brain. I noticed my father was no longer wearing his wedding ring. I guessed his fingers had become so thin that it had simply slipped off.

Friday 22nd June – Borehamwood/Clacton

As soon as I got back to Borehamwood, my mobile phone rang – it was the matron at my father’s nursing home. My mother and aunt had walked in to see him and found him lying back with his mouth open, apparently not breathing (and, as I later found out, his false teeth dropped down from his upper gum), a spoon in his hand and a bowl of jelly in front of him. My aunt, a former nurse, found he had no pulse.

The nursing home matron was up in the room within about a minute and found he had a strong pulse but, by this time, both my mother and aunt were in tears.

I drove to Clacton from Borehamwood in the early Friday rush hour – about 2 hours 45 mins instead of the normal 90 minutes – to find my father looking dramatically thinner, bonier than he had when I saw him yesterday afternoon. I got there around 6.30pm by which time my mother and aunt were dry-eyed but still twitchily upset. I drove them back to their homes around 7.00pm – my mother broke down in my arms – and then I went back to the nursing home where my father was asleep. When I had left, I told my father:

“I’ll be about half an hour.”

“You’ll be back – and the boatman?” he asked me.

“The boatman?”

“The boatman.”


When I got back, I asked my father if he felt hot.

“I really don’t know,” he replied.

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Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow… No, it’s not about the death of Steve Jobs. It’s about the death of my father.

(This blog was also published in the Huffington Post)

Yesterday, there were reports of how Apple boss Steve Jobs died, as told by his sister:

“His tone was affectionate, dear, loving, but like someone whose luggage was already strapped onto the vehicle, who was already on the beginning of his journey, even as he was sorry, truly deeply sorry, to be leaving us. He looked into his children’s eyes as if he couldn’t unlock his gaze…

“His breathing changed. It became severe, deliberate, purposeful. I could feel him counting his steps again, pushing farther than before. This is what I learned: he was working at this, too. Death didn’t happen to Steve, he achieved it.

“His breath indicated an arduous journey, some steep path, altitude. He seemed to be climbing. But with that will, that work ethic, that strength, there was also sweet Steve’s capacity for wonderment, the artist’s belief in the ideal, the still more beautiful later.

“Steve’s final words, hours earlier, were monosyllables, repeated three times. Before embarking, he’d looked at his sister Patty, then for a long time at his children, then at his life’s partner, Laurene, and then over their shoulders past them.

“Steve’s final words were: ‘Oh wow. Oh wow. Oh wow.”

I remember my father’s death, ten years ago, in June 2001. It was the same but different. You might want to re-read the description of Steve Jobs’ death after you finish reading what is below.

The day my father died I had been staying out at my parents’ bungalow in Clacton, on the Essex coast but, that afternoon, I was in London for my own two-hour medical check-up at King’s Cross. London was sweltering in extraordinarily hot weather but, inside the building, it was cool and relaxing.

I sent an e-mail to my friend Lynn:

“After my check-up, the doctors told me I am getting into the start of being dangerously overweight and very slightly too cholesterolly. I do wonder if it was really necessary for the short Chinese gent to put his finger up my bottom to test for prostate cancer. Surely there must be another way to do this or was he just ‘avin’ a larf? After all, this is the 21st century; we landed men on the moon last century.”

The rest of this blog is what I wrote in my diary the next day, a decade ago:

Tuesday 26th June 2001

I phoned my mother around 6.00pm and she told me that, when she had visited my father in the afternoon, there had been no response to anything she said. His eyes were open but staring ahead.

“I think he was drugged up to the eyeballs,” she told me. “I don’t think he’s in any pain.”

Later, the matron told me the medication he was on was not that strong and that they had not given him a daytime tablet to avoid making him zombie-like.

At around 8.30pm, I was mowing the grass on my front garden. The matron phoned me on my mobile to tell me my father had deteriorated very badly and I arranged to leave at 10.00pm, to get to the nursing home around 11.30pm, telling my mother I was getting home at 1.00am and not to wait up for me. I was going to see how he was as 11.30pm and decide what to do.

The matron rang back at 9.30pm to tell me the doctor had just been and said my father only had four to five hours left before he died, so I went immediately, told my mother I had been phoned by the matron and asked if she want to go to the home to see my father.

She said (quite rightly) No, with a sad, tired, tone to her voice, and I phoned her just after 11.05pm when I had gone in and seen my father briefly. I suggested my mother take her two nightly sleeping tablets and go to bed and I would stay with my father all night and phone her at 7.00pm when she got up. She knew it was terminal because she had told me where the undertaker was. There was some surprise in her voice when I phoned her:

“Is he still here?” she asked.

When I had arrived, the night sister Shirley warned me he had deteriorated a lot since my mother had seen him in the afternoon and she warned me “his eyes are open”.

The first thing that shocked me when the door was opened, though, was the sound. I had never realised the words ‘death rattle’ were anything more than a colourful phrase. But they are an exact description. I had also thought it was a brief final sound rather than an ongoing sound.

It was a rhythmic, rasping sound.

His face was side-lit in the darkened room by a yellow-cream glow from a bedside table lamp sitting not on a table but on the floor of the room with old-fashioned floral wallpaper. It was lit like a Hammer horror movie of the late 1950s in slightly faded Technicolor.

His bed was behind the door and when I saw him lying there on his back in bed I was shocked again because his face was like Edvard Munch’s painting The Scream.

His false teeth were out, so his mouth was abnormally small considering it was open to its fullest extent, the skin between his upper lip and nose seemed wider than normal; and there was an indented line on his nose between his nostrils which, in profile, made him look like he had two noses.

He was lying on his back staring straight up at the ceiling with wide open, unblinking eyes as if he was shocked by something he saw on the ceiling. His head was tilted back slightly from his torso as if his head had been dropped into the soft pillow from a great height.

This tilted-back head, the shocked eyes, the open mouth all combined to make it look like he was frozen in a silent scream yet the sound coming out was a death rattle from his throat, as the air mattress beneath him made discreet little isolated cracking sounds presumably caused by the slight movements as his body made the rattling rasping breathing and his distended stomach rose and fell under the bedclothes.

The rattle was like a machine breathing through a very slightly echoey plastic tube partially blocked by air bubbles in water. I wondered if he was dead already, inside. It was as if his brain or heart must be telling his throat and chest to desperately gasp for air even though they knew it was pointless.

Towards the end, the rattle became less pronounced as the sound of the breaths within the rattle became slightly more human.

Towards the very end, the rattle slowly died out and human light breathing returned, getting gentler and gentler as the life ebbed away. When the breathing ended, I pressed the buzzer for night sister Shirley.

When she arrived, there was some slight breathing again, but only for 40 or 60 seconds. For perhaps the last 15 seconds of his life, his mouth – until now rigidly open – partially closed then reopened three times, then his eyes slowly closed, his mouth partially closed and reopened twice more and he was dead, his eyes closed and mouth open. It was 00.35am and 22 seconds on Wednesday morning. I had arrived at about 11.03pm.

After he died, I went downstairs to the nursing home office with Shirley, whose father-in-law had died in the same room – Room 11 – of the same disease. I then went back up to the room where my father lay for 15 or 20 seconds during which time there were a couple of tiny surreal flashes through the window from the outside world.

When I went outside to my car, the black sky was flashing white with lightning. Every few seconds, the whole night-time sky was silently flashing white with increasing – but still silent – violence. On the drive back to my parents’ bungalow in Great Clacton, the flashes became whiter and more frequent and the thunder sound arrived. On the drive beside their front garden, small surreal white specks were being blown across the tarmac. When I got out of the car at my parents’ – now my mother’s – house, there was a neon-like flash of vertical lightning and a sound of rustling which continued for 60 or 90 seconds.

I took my bags inside the bungalow and then the rain started. Torrential rain thundering on the streets and windows and roof. Violent and angry rain.

It all struck me as unfathomably dramatic. My father’s death… then immediately the heavens in turmoil… then strong winds… then thunder crashes and angry, violent rain… As if the heavens, in turmoil, were protesting.

It reminded me of Julius Caesar.

I looked up the quote later:

There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.

When beggars die, there are no comets seen;
The heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes.

My father was a very ordinary man. Yet it was like the heavens were protesting.

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