Update 21-02-18: Sadly, Dad passed away. Scroll to the end for an update.
On the 17th of August 2016, life changed for my family. My dad, Ian, who is one of the fittest people I’ve ever known and who never gets ill, was admitted to hospital in an ambulance.
Dad’s 78 years old and has only seen a doctor once or twice in the last few decades. The last time I can even remember him being ill was when he had the ‘flu for a week about twenty years ago. Until early this year he was still walking three or four miles through the countryside every day. That’s the kind of man we’re talking about here, so when Mum called to tell me that Dad was in hospital, it was a shock.
Actually, let me rephrase – it wasn’t a shock. It should have been. But with the clarity of hindsight, I suddenly realised that my subconscious had been aware for some long time that not all was well. Dad had been slowing down. His manual dexterity had deteriorated, and he’d been having trouble breathing, with a nagging cough. He wanted to give up driving and they replaced their car with a smaller model Mum would be able to drive. I rationalised it by telling myself he was just getting older, of course.
When he collapsed in the kitchen and refused to let Mum call an ambulance, saying he would not go if any paramedics turned up, he also insisted that my brother and I should not be told anything was wrong. But a couple of weeks later we knew everything.
It took a few days before anyone dared mention the frightening word cancer. Everyone had been trying to avoid it. Nurses spoke of an underlying disease, as yet undiagnosed, we must run tests; various family members kept repeating the fact that he was never ill as if clinging to it like a mantra; and the consultant smiled hesitantly before mentioning nodules or masses in his lymphatic system. By the time we’d just about become comfortable with the word lymphoma, we were ready to start talking about cancer.
I didn’t realise how much waiting there would be. Waiting for a room of his own, waiting for blood test results, waiting for a biopsy, then waiting for the results of the biopsy. For the first few days, Dad would sit upright in his bed, perfectly cheerful and reading his way through a pile of books as usual. Occasionally he’d be short of breath or would find speaking difficult, and he looked thinner than usual, but in general he was no different to how he always was, and we all found the visits quite easy. We chatted and laughed as if nothing had changed.
But as the days wore on Dad became more unwell. He suffered from a high fever that made him hallucinate vividly and sometimes we would find him barely coherent, rambling about being abducted by Germans on a Scout camp or falling through piles of farm machinery. Invisible ants everywhere. A group of eight Americans were having all-night parties on the ward, apparently, and making such a noise. He became weaker, his voice receding into a whisper, and sometimes he would be asleep during the middle of the day, uncertain of the time (or the year) when he awoke.
His sense of time became severely distorted. I think the experience of being in hospital for the first time in his life was a huge factor, compounded by hallucinations. Sometimes he felt certain that years had passed between individual hallucinatory experiences.
We go and visit him almost every day (my mum every single day without fail). Some days he’s better than others. Some days he’s almost like his old self – except he’s starting to grow a beard, a subject of laughter given that today is apparently World Beard Day – and we’ll talk about mountaineering, or literature, or current affairs. Some days he’s weak, delirious, and confused.
When a person is admitted to hospital for a lengthy period, decisions must be made about the items they take with them. I believe this is a test in minimalism – perhaps the most austere most people will ever undergo. You can only have so many possessions with you; they must fit into a small cabinet, and they must be carefully chosen. Only items with real value, real purpose, can earn a place in that cabinet.
I have been thinking a great deal about the items Dad has chosen to keep with him during this extended hospital stay.
Dad’s a lot like me (or I’m a lot like him). We both like books, and read constantly. We both write almost as much as we read. Dad’s a far more dedicated diarist than I am, though, and he has kept a comprehensive diary for many decades now. We both like photography, cameras, and computers.
Dad doesn’t have a computer with him. He has a phone, but it’s a basic Nokia, and it’s kept switched off. He has a few items of clothing, and a notepad he sometimes scribbles in. While he read quite a bit during the first few days, he has found reading more challenging lately, both due to the constant interruptions of hospital life and the fact that his concentration and eyesight are not always up to the task.
But do you know what the most important item is? Do you know what the one thing is that anchors him to reality?
It’s his Casio watch. A Casio F-91W, that most ubiquitous of wristwatches everyone must have owned at some point or another over the last twenty years. Dad has a better watch, but he selected the old Casio because it would not be a tempting target for theft. It turns out that the F-91W has a more important property. It tells the time with a 24-hour display.
His sense of time is all over the place. He’s often awake in the middle of the night and sleeping at noon. Nurses arrive many times a day to take blood samples or his blood pressure. He gazes up at the clock on the wall and, confused by fever or delirium, can’t tell if it’s three o’clock in the morning or the afternoon.
But that little Casio watch immediately provides a solid anchor to reality. He can look at the wristwatch and immediately tell the precise time. The watch has become a talisman, and when his things are moved around by nurses or if he’s switched to a different ward, the first thing he asks about is his Casio watch.
A lot has changed over the last couple of weeks, and we’ve all found it extremely challenging. The strain on my mum is immense. My partner Hannah and I have found it difficult as well, juggling our own full-time businesses with this ongoing family crisis. The last week has been particularly stressful for me as I fought to clear a backlog of work that built up during my busiest period since establishing Pinnacle Editorial in 2014. I’ve worked more than twelve hours a day for two weeks without a day off. My clients have all been very understanding and have made it clear that family comes before work, but I know what I’m like – I have to work to keep me going.
Right now, Dad is awaiting final results before we discover exactly which variety of non-Hodgkin’s Lymphoma he has. He’s on the specialist cancer ward where the visitors’ seats are a bit comfier, the nurses a bit more patient and understanding, and Dad will be able to receive the best care the NHS can offer. He’s looking frail, but he’s over the fever now and better than he was last week – at least outwardly.
It’s going to be a challenging time for us all. But I keep thinking about that little Casio watch – the same as the one I have worn on my own wrist for many years, actually – and I find that immensely uplifting for some reason. Those little Casio watches have featured in my life since childhood. They’re so commonplace and simple that you just never think about them, until the hour comes when a simple wristwatch becomes the most important thing in a person’s life.
I’m not sure I entirely understand this lesson yet, but through all this testing time it’s one of the things that has stuck in my mind. Perhaps it’s a lesson in minimalism, consumerism, or humanity – or maybe just one of those bright sparks of truth that burn through the human experience like a comet.
For now, we’re staying as cheerful as we can, awaiting further news, and hoping for better times ahead.
24/04/17: Seven months later
On the 12th of April 2017, Dad was declared free of cancer.
They never say you’re cured – it could come back again at any time, and he’ll need regular checkups for years to come – but I think what he has achieved is frankly amazing. My thanks to everyone who has helped and supported us over the last few months, especially the NHS staff at Boston Pilgrim hospital, who have amazed us with their professionalism and efficiency.
Now my parents face a new challenge – moving house!
21/02/18: Seventeen months later
With profound sadness, I must report that my dad passed away on the 9th of February 2018.
Read more: Ian Roddie, 1938-2018