The tree was up and decorated in readiness for my Dad coming out of hospital.
He’d always played a huge part in Christmas as a kid, so it seemed only right to get it ready to welcome him home from his umpteenth stay in hospital. Yet it wasn’t right. He wasn’t right. Of course we wanted him home but he wasn’t well. For the last 10 years of his life he’d been in and out of hospital, each time something else was wrong and he was a little weaker.
This time was no exception. He’d been on a nutritional ward before more surgery, his body unable to take food. To look at he was disappearing before our eyes. Infection had gotten hold of him and this time it had gone to his brain.
One minute he was fine, chatting away as normal, the next he was seeing things that weren’t there. As much as he was weak, at over 6ft, he still found strength from somewhere when frustrated. We worried how we would cope when he came home, but believed the hospital wouldn’t discharge him if they thought he wasn’t ready.
Late at night on the 9th December 2001 the phone rang. ‘Could we get to the hospital?’ He’d gone into respiratory failure. We were no stranger to calls or information like this. ‘He needs an operation, we don’t know if he’ll pull through’ or ‘We can operate but he could lose his legs’. We jumped in the car and I drove as fast as I dare down the Boulevards, cursing the speed cameras.
We hadn’t realised that ‘Respiratory failure’ was the end. He had battled and come through so much. What started with a misdiagnosis of a hernia, turned out to be Cancer, the treatment which saved him, ultimately killed him.
Radiotherapy in those days wasn’t as targeted, and it appeared to have damaged other organs in his body, leading to 10 years of ultimately slowly dying.
When we arrived at the hospital his eyes were closed but he was aware. We told him to breathe and he did, not knowing it was fruitless. His body couldn’t take anymore. After a few hours a Doctor came and explained to us that this was the end. They unhooked him from the machines and monitors to let him go peacefully and with any remaining dignity he could.
We - My Mum, brother and sister-in-law, held his hand, told him we loved him and watched as his breathing became shallower and he took his final breath on the 10th December, aged just 61. He’d hung on for almost a day, a fighter until the end.
We’d arrived at the hospital in the dark and left in the darkness of the following day. Tired, numb, drained, passing a blur of Christmas lights. Arriving home I felt a sense of peace. It was strange – I felt guilty for feeling it but at least he couldn’t suffer anymore.
The next day we had to make funeral arrangements. We didn’t want to seem like we were rushing, but none of us wanted Dad laying in a mortuary on Christmas Day. He’d once loved Christmas, but for the last 10 years he’d either been ill, in hospital for Christmas, or fearing being taken ill at Christmas. This was the one last thing we could do for him. Resting in peace at Christmas.
We headed into the local town. Past the Christmas tree where the Salvation Army were playing carols, tears rolling down my cold face in the icy December air, to the undertakers.
Dads funeral was arranged for the 20th December. Apparently high demand for funerals this time of year, but at least it was before Christmas.
Cards of condolence arrived at the house alongside Christmas cards. At first they made me angry. ‘Why are you sending me a card? It won’t bring my Dad back!’. After a few days I realised that people just meant well. I also found out you could get ‘Sorry for your loss at Christmas’ cards. Who knew?
On the day of the funeral I felt guilty for having the Christmas Tree up when relatives arrived, that it looked like we were carrying on as usual when really my heart was hurting. I felt the need to explain that it was up before.
Dad had grown up in the Elvis era, modelling himself on him in his younger days (though to be fair he had a quiff until he died, even in the coffin) Elvis’s Christmas Album had played in Dad’s car in previous years. His favourite track being ‘Peace in the Valley’, it seemed fitting it was played at his funeral, and so Dad was carried in as the sounds of Elvis echoed around the crematorium.
There were just a few flowers at our request. Dad hated to see anything die; animals, plants, he preferred to see flowers in the garden alive, so instead we suggested donations towards a bench at Mablethorpe which we had planned. It was where he’d holidayed for many years.
In later years he couldn’t make it over the hill to the beach without sitting down, it seemed fitting that that’s where the bench should be for others feeling the same. It still sits there now but in the garden to the side.
That Christmas was strange, It was quiet and Dad was missing and we went through the motions, almost on autopilot, because what are you meant to do? A death or grieving is always hard. There’s something about the emotions at Christmas that make it harder.
Christmas will come whatever is happening in the world or your life, so we made the best of it that we could, and this is the way I’ve seen it since. Love it or hate it, you can’t avoid it. For years after I hated it. A constant reminder of losing my Dad. As time has gone on my feelings have changed from wanting it to go away to embracing it, going overboard on the decorations and Christmas activities. The only way I can make sense of it is that I’m trying to recreate the magic of my childhood Christmas’s. When everything was OK and you thought those days would never end. I don't pretend to know the secrets to dealing with grief at Christmas. You survive because that's all there is to do.
It’s also taught me to make the most of those we do have around us at Christmas. So welcome those relatives, let them know they’re loved this Christmas time.