Saturday, 27 June 2015

Losing Dad

A year ago today, my gorgeous father passed away.

It was a complete shock to us all. In many ways it still is.

For this past year, there has been something very comforting about knowing that 'a year ago today' he was still with us. I don't know why and I can't explain it but it was comforting none the less. I didn't expect to find this week harder than any other time as I haven't missed him more on significant dates and milestones than I have on any other day. I miss him every day but I miss him most when I'm somewhere or something is happening that I know he would have loved - because I'm just gutted he's missing it. But this week has been tough and it's because I know that from today, 'a year ago', he wasn't here. 

I remember everything around the time my Dad died so clearly. I was still stunned from losing my first very close friend. This also came as a complete shock. Perhaps it shouldn't have. My friend, Shirley, had been battling cancer for just under a year. She was such a fighter and one of life's inspirations. I knew the situation was not good but I never believed for a second that Shirley wouldn't beat it. She was one of the fittest, most positive people I had ever come across and we even had plans for her to come and visit in a few weeks. I noticed she had gone quiet and sent her a text to check if we were still on for a visit late April. I received a reply from someone that wasn't Shirley asking me to call and my heart truly sunk. When I called, I received the news that Shirley had passed on. She was just 39 years old and had so much to live for. It was at that moment when life suddenly started to feel very fragile.

I called my Dad right after I received the news. At this time, he was fit as a fiddle and none of us could ever have imagined that just 2 months later, we would be faced with a situation of losing him too. Of course, he had no idea either. I remember sitting in the garden the night after the world lost Shirley and being so very grateful for everything I had and noticing that I was truly content. This has never changed to this day but it was a real moment of clarity and a stark reminder of the importance of grasping life.

Mid June, I received a phone call. I wasn't worried. My Mum wasn't worried and she is, by her nature, an extreme worrier. She told me that Dad had suffered minor symptoms of a heart attack but that he was fine and was going to hospital to get checked out. Blissfully unaware of what was going on inside his body given the state of his health at that time, I was relieved he was getting a thorough health check and awaited the results. My Dad was kept in hospital - just a precaution we thought - and a few days later, an angiogram was performed and this was when the magnitude of the situation began to surface. It turned out, despite being a keen cyclist and very active 64 year old, my Dad's arteries were in trouble - big trouble. With the 4 main arteries serving his heart being almost completely blocked, a decision was quickly made to operate and perform a quadruple bypass.

By now, we were starting to worry a little but I continued to reassure everyone else he would be fine as I was certain he would be. His spirits remained high and, as he did throughout his whole life, my Dad managed to remain positive, learn more about life (he never stopped learning - one of his greatest traits) and form new friendships. Everyone loved him on the ward. Why wouldn't they?

About a week later, further investigation was carried out to check the state of the carotid arteries in his neck. I was staying with Mum at the time and Dalton and I were playing in the playground just round the corner from the house and then mum came over distraught and told us that one of his arteries was completely blocked and the other was 90% blocked. Essentially, without intervention, he would have just dropped dead and it was felt that without addressing these arteries first, a quadruple bypass would have likely caused a major stroke. 

I started to worry a little more but I still believed he would be fine as I couldn't possibly imagine a world without him in it. We waited about another week until a slot became available to have the operation. I visited him as often as I could and spoke to him every day. He was always so positive and making the best of everything. It was the beginning of the World Cup and he was looking forward to watching the games with his new friends.

I called him the day before his operation. I remember every word of the conversation. I told him about Dalton, how happy I was and how my job hunt was going. He apologised for being in hospital and we talked about what we would do when he was better. I said good luck for tomorrow, I'm sure you'll be fine and goodbye. 

Dad was due to go to Glastonbury with Ron the week he died. I'm sad that trip never got to happen for all sorts of reasons. What a shame he had excitedly just bought all his camping equipment but there's always next year, I thought. I wondered if he would have recovered enough to still look after Dalton in November on one of mine and Ron's very rare weekends away. Probably not but he'll be running about and back to normal by Christmas. 

The operation went well. It was high risk but he made it through and when my Mum called to say it had gone well, I was so relieved. He was going to be fine.

And then the next morning, around 6am, everything changed. My Mum called, strangely composed, completely in shock no doubt and in practical mode and told me that Dad had suffered a major stroke some time in the middle of the night. That was the moment the bottom started to fall out of my world and when I first started to panic that he might actually die. I didn't feel like Natalie at that moment (and for quite some time after), I felt like an actor in a film or play. Or as though I was having some bizarre and incredibly vivid dream. I could hear everything and see everything that was happening but it was as though it wasn't really me / us experiencing it. I started crying and hyperventilating a little and Ron ran up the stairs. I told him what had happened and I could tell by his face that he knew it was the beginning of the end. 

I was due to come down the following day anyway to visit my Dad in hospital but throughout the morning, my Mum called and the situation changed from, "perhaps you might want to drive down this evening" to "if you don't leave now, there's a good chance you won't see him alive again". I literally couldn't believe it and at that point, I wondered if I would ever see my father alive again. 

We raced to pick up Dalton and drove straight to the hospital. Terrified by what I would find when I got there, I ran to the ward and there he lay. Handsome as ever but unable to move the left half of his body at all and on his right side, all he could do was squeeze our hand and wiggle his toes. He seemed fully aware of what was happening around him and responded with 1 squeeze for yes and 2 for no. He didn't seem panicked at all. A little frustrated perhaps and almost seemed annoyed with himself for being in that situation but not scared and not in pain. He was such a strong character, I will always believe that as he lay there with his family surrounding him, he truly believed that he would beat this and that it was just another one of life's challenges that he loved to embrace. He always approached even the shittiest of things as an interesting challenge. 

The doctors sat with us and told us the harsh truth. Because he was so young, there was no room for his brain to swell and we were informed that it was highly likely that he would suffer a secondary stroke and it would kill him. We were given the option of operating to remove half of his skull to allow the brain to swell but it was made clear that if he lived, the chances of him living anything other than a severely disabled life were slim to zero. I couldn't bear the thought of my father suffering this existence and it was at that moment that I started to pray for him to die. The alternative just didn't bear thinking about. I knew he wouldn't have wanted to live that way and I know we made the right decision that day to let nature take its brutal course. 

We sat with him as much as we could over the next 36 hours knowing it was the end. I found these 36 hours the most challenging and heartbreaking hours I have ever experienced. I didn't know what to say to him. I was never very good with that kind of thing. My brother and Mum were amazing but I just couldn't speak. What do you say to the man you love more than anyone else in the world who has been your biggest inspiration knowing that each word you say might be the last one? I just kept telling him I loved him, that I was proud of him and that we would talk more when he was better. 

My brother and Mum stayed with him until his final moment on this Earth. I couldn't watch him like that anymore and, I don't know why, but whilst we were waiting for the end, I felt an overwhelming need to be with my baby so I went home to Ron and Dalton and we sat, completely dumbstruck, waiting for the call. Shortly after 9.22pm, it came and he was gone. I was devastated but relieved the alternative was now an absolute impossibility.

My Dad was the greatest man I have ever known. He was the closest thing to a soulmate I will probably ever have. I completely understood the way his brain worked and he completely understood mine. He wasn't perfect, of course he wasn't perfect, but because we were so similar, I always found it so very easy to be in his company. And, really, he had the death this great man deserved. Relatively free of pain, relatively quick and when I thought about it soon after he died, I realised that he had never really experienced any heartache or tragedy in his life. I couldn't think of many people I knew who hadn't suffered great loss and heartache at some point in their lives. He was a lucky guy. He was truly content and whilst I will miss him until the end of time and forever have a hole in my heart, I couldn't feel more grateful for the life he had, the opportunity to share just over half of it with him and for the way it ended for him.

In the two weeks that followed, I worked tirelessly to deliver the project of my life. To give this great man the send off he deserved. I think we pulled it off. Approximately 400 people turned up to his funeral. I have never seen anything like it. He could never have imagined the impact he had had on so many people's lives and everyone had a story about Derek. About how he had quietly supported them, helped them, advised them. He never shouted about it - it wasn't his style. And I don't think he ever realised how special he was. Utterly non-judgemental, overwhelmingly positive and with a wholly admirable desire to always learn and to be better. Although he was unable to accept how special he was, everyone that knew him knew. I hope he was watching. He would have been blown away!

A lot has changed for me over the last year. I try very hard to focus on the positives (it's not my natural demeanour so this has taken a lot of effort on my part over the past few years). My Dad's death has given me a total appreciation of life that I just didn't have before. I've always felt fairly content but something clicked when he died and it was a good thing. It was as though a part of him jumped in to me and I, quite suddenly, became a lot calmer, a lot less judgemental and a lot more appreciative of my surroundings. Strangely, and I kid you not, it was around the time he died that my eyebrows started going off the rails. Completely out of control. There are many of my Dad's traits and characteristics that I am delighted to have inherited but, well, I'm a bit pissed off with him about the eyebrows still!

I am sad my Dad hasn't known me this past year though. A lot of people talk about hoping that their parents were proud of them when they die. I have never had to consider that question. It was abundantly clear to me that he was very proud of me (and Jamie, and Mum) and whilst I have always appreciated how proud of me he was, I didn't require it to feel proud of myself. The thing that makes me particularly sad is that the person I am and the person I have become particularly over the last year is mostly down to him and I didn't want him to see it to be proud of me - I wanted him to be proud of him. 

I'd like to finish by sharing some of my favourite memories about my Dad that made him so special to me. I am still in relative disbelief about him not being here but I know he's not and I am starting to think of him and smile rather than cry. Here are just a few of the many things that I loved most about him.

His Complete Commitment to Everything He Did

My Dad never did anything by halves. If he was going to do something he would throw himself 100% in to it. He, like me, wasn't the greatest fan of fancy dress but if he was going to get involved, he would be the guy with the most spectacular outfit and immerse himself fully in his new character. My favourite fancy dress costume of my Dad's of all time was on a school ski trip. For those of you who don't know, my Mum taught at the secondary school me and my brother went to so they both came along on all of my school ski trips. I don't remember if there was a theme but my Dad had decided to come as a bunch of grapes. He was wearing skin-tight brown tights, a slim-fitting brown polo neck top, a little brown stalk hat and had covered himself with purple balloons! He looked hilarious. It was genius. I am so sad that I don't have a picture of this to share with you - I was so proud of him being my Dad!

His Absolute Support for His Children's Passions

I don't remember how it happened but when I was at secondary school and our team were playing in netball tournaments against other schools, my Dad became our resident mascot and coach. He attended all of our big matches as camera man and total enthusiast. He was so proud of me and the team and, again, I was so proud of my Dad being our unofficial coach.

His Belief in Positive Thinking

There are so many occasions I can recall when my Dad just believed a good thing was going to happen. He honestly believed that with the power of positive thinking, you could make anything happen. There was the time when he was watching me play in a football tournament when I was about 18. The final against our biggest rivals. We had finished second in the league to them but they were our opponents in the Hampshire Cup Final. It was a close match and came down to penalties. My Dad truly believed that the game would be won by me scoring the winning penalty. I was crap at taking penalties. I was a defender. I had justly earned my nickname of 'The Wall' (which I seem to remember giving myself) but he was right and we won the cup on my penalty.

There was another time when I was at my regular Sunday evening quiz in Eastleigh with two of my closest male friends. We had been going along for a couple of years but this particularly evening, my Dad wanted to come too. At the end of the quiz they always had a 'snowball' round. Half of the quiz entry fees went in to this round where you were asked a really random question you couldn't possibly know the answer to like, how many meters high is, I don't know, the Empire State building or something. It was a bit of a pluck a number out of the air round and only if a team got exactly the right answer did they win the money. If no one got the right answer, the money was rolled over. We had never won the snowball round in all the time we had been taking part and on this particular evening, it hadn't been won for quite a few weeks so the pot was significant. My Dad came up with a random number and when they read out the answer he said, watch this, we're going to win that snowball. And we did!

He applied positive thinking to pretty much everything in life. Where most of us would be saying, "I bet there won't be anywhere to park", he would say, "I bet there will - come on everyone - positive thinking". He was always right.

His Advice

My dad was really gifted at giving advice. He never gave it unsolicitedly, only when asked, and he had a talent for saying something hugely impactful in very few words and mostly in a way that made you believe the idea was actually yours.

I've been sharing the nuggets of advice he has passed on to me over the years with many of my friends but there's one particular piece of advice he gave to me about ten years ago that has had a particular impact on my life as it applies to so many situations. I was working at a startup (which funnily enough was where I met Shirley) that was struggling and we hadn't been paid for a couple of months. We were encouraged to stay on with the hope that we would be paid the next month but I had rent and bills to pay and couldn't work out what to do for the best. I e-mailed my Dad at work telling him I just didn't know what the right decision was. He responded very simply with the below:

Any time in life I am faced with a decision, I remember those words and it takes all the anxiety out of making a decision and puts the control back in my hands.

There are so many other memories I could share about this lovely man, my Daddy, but some of those are just for me.

So, on this first anniversary of his death, I'll leave you by sharing just a few of my favourite photos of my Daddy. Love you Dad. xxx

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