The alarm is set for six a.m. but I wake at five because that’s what happens when I set an alarm. At 5.30 I put on nitrile gloves and separate the tests. At six I wake Dad in the dark, he remembers that this is happening and why, which is good but he can’t keep his tongue still while I swab his throat but it will have to do.
More surprisingly, at 6.15 Mum remembers why I am in her room but also does the tongue thing. Neither of them complains though, nor do they retch and splutter as I do each time I am tested. I am impressed, and the tests are in the fridge now waiting for the courier and so at least that is done. I take some pride in this pre-dawn accomplishment, like I were a wartime bomber pilot, but the truth is I am not the pilot. I am way down below, far from the decisions. The truth is something heavy is going to drop on us.
It has dropped already in fact; we just don’t know it yet. Not for the first time I am like the cartoon character running as if on solid ground, but really out in thin air and fated to fall.
The courier comes mid-afternoon and takes the tests away. The stoic climate collapses early evening when Dad says he has a sore throat. He is a constant symptom reporter ordinarily, calling out that he is too hot/ too cold/breathless/hungry/something all the time.
“I swabbed your tonsils, maybe it’s that?” I counter.
Seems reasonable. I mean they’ve both been vaccinated, once. This is all you need, the government say. Mum is up and about now after her flu. We’re doing these tests just to be sure really, out of politeness almost. It’s a busy house. A small care home, in effect. It doesn’t seem likely that anyone could have…
“I can’t swallow.” He says an hour later, raising the stakes.
“This is palliative talk,” I say to him, “of course you can.”
I give him a Strepsil. He cheers up, briefly.
The evening carer who helps him to bed also judges him OK, and he is closer to Dad than me in some ways these days. That said, this is the same carer who has argued at length with me that vegans eat eggs and wasps take holidays.
Whatever the truth of any of this, the Old Man gets horizontal again and we call it a day.
In the night I can hear him coughing but that’s normal. It would be more worrying if things were quiet. I get up around six and he sounds different. The daily drama in his lungs sounds suddenly aquatic. Swampy. I go into his room and his lungs bubble like a bong.
The dawn phlegm spasm is a daily thing, so I somehow convince myself that this nothing to worry about. Not totally though, in some secondary sector of my mind bells are ringing and sirens blare.
Morning carer comes and Dad, heroically, lets himself be dressed and paraded to his chair. Once there he can’t swallow his porridge, though he tries. He gives up so easily on small things sometimes that to see him press on is blowing my mind. My sister calls. I tell her what’s up and she calls the doctor to see if they are even sending people out anymore. An hour later there is one at the door, dressed like a welder in a nuclear war*.
Chernobyl MD takes Dad’s SATS. If they are less than your age you are in a lot of trouble and his are well under 90.
“He needs to get to hospital as soon as possible,” says the Dr, gravely.
“No hob spittle!” gurgles Dad.
Here we go.
The doctor has his laptop out and explains that though he can see Dad has expressed a wish to die at home he feels if he had some oxygen under supervision he might pull through this.
“He’s strong enough to have a shot.”
“Give it a go?” I urge Dad.
“OK,” he acquiesces through the rising fluid. It sounds like the Poseidon Adventure in there.
“You might be back in a couple of hours.” I say to Dad. I don’t know where I’m getting that from, but no one corrects me.
My memory becomes sporadic as does my consciousness at this point but seconds later me and the doctor are in the kitchen and his tone is quite different.
“You should understand, there is a chance he will die and, if that were the case… you will not see him after this. So you should prepare yourselves for that.”
There are things you know in life and then there are the moments when you feel them. This would be the latter category. The doctor will call the ambulance from his car, he says, and goes.
My challenge now is to explain to Mum who can barely hear and whose short-term memory has been mislaid that her husband of over 60 years might not be coming back this time.
Tough at the best of times but perhaps, mercifully, comical. Plan B is to write “HE MIGHT DIE” and an arrow on a piece of paper and hold it next to Dad’s head. Happily, Plan A succeeds, which is me pointing at him and yelling “HE MIGHT DIE!” until she nods her head.
She shuffles over to his chair; we do a kind of group hug. They start saying goodbye. This is too much. I go to the kitchen but can hear Dad gurgle-yelling, “SIXTY YEARS! IVE HAD A GOOD LIFE!” and Mum yelling “YOU WHAT?” until I don’t know what my tears are about.
I’ve had a couple of scrapes myself, and my sense of what dying felt like was clear enough to think that the real thing might not be that bad – as of itself. Quite amazing, in fact. I run back and tell him. He looks pleased to hear this. Like he’d found money in his trousers.
I call my sister and brother. If they can make it here before the ambulance then they might want to try.
There is a pause in the drama, we all sit there for a bit and then Dad makes an announcement.
“Take to me to the toilet. I’m not going to soil myself on a trolley.”
I am not about to question what might be his last request, and I can see his point. If this is the final thing we do together then so be it. No one can say we didn’t keep it real. And so having posited some kind of heaven I heave him onto the toilet perhaps for the last time. It occurs to me I might miss this. But then many things occur to us, and few of them are right.
The paramedics come in a less severe version of PPI than the doctor. One of them offers three potential diagnoses: heart failure, secondary infections from his rotting foot, or Covid. They give him oxygen and he reanimates entirely. As they wheel him out he rises from the trolley.
“I’ll be back!” he murmurs. I’m not sure he’s seen Terminator.
“Hasta La Vista!” laughs the paramedic, who clearly has.
My siblings arrive just in time to bid the Old Man farewell as he is heaved into the ambulance.
As exits go. If this is that. It isn’t bad.
The ambulance leaves, and there are now loads of us in the house. Not wise. Now the admin is done the emotions queue for processing. My sister deals with her anxiety by reeling off a list of unanswerable questions about care arrangements for the following week. Eventually I have to say I don’t know.
“Ooh.” She says to our niece. “Men under pressure.”
I am sincerely worn out by that kind of analysis and so refute it as politely as I can under the circumstances:
“This is not about fucking gender!”
She flees into the extension and starts loading up the washing machine, which somewhat undermines my thesis. Then Mum trundles in.
“He said he had a good life,” she reflects, kindly. And then her tone hardens just a fraction.
“Well he would say that. He did what he wanted.”