A father's death

BMJ 1997; 314 doi: (Published 01 March 1997) Cite this as: BMJ 1997;314:i
  1. Richard Williams
  1. general practitioner registrar in London

    The telephone call came late at night. “He's had a fall. They think he's had a skull fracture. He's unconscious–perhaps just concussion, but they're arranging a brain scan. He just faintly moved his thumb when I asked him to,” said my mother, outwardly as cheerful as ever. My voice croaked back: “I understand; I'll come as soon as possible.” Inwardly I cursed myself for not saying all the things I had wanted to say to him. I thought that he had a few more years.

    It was the end of August, and nearly the end of the languorous summer holidays in the cottage in the upper reaches of the Loire. I lay awake, mentally preparing myself for the winding mountain roads across the Massif Central leading to Lourdes where I would join my mother and little handicapped niece on their annual pilgrimage. And of course my father.

    Late next evening, exhausted after driving across France, I had to see him straight away. I knew that it was not logical as the facts would be clearer with the light of day. And then suddenly there he was in a cell-like room attached to countless drips and artificially ventilated.

    He was recognisable, but only just. I felt his bristly cheek against mine as I would do with our customary farewell pecks. I caressed his arm and shoulder and chest–so warm and life-like, despite the dehumanising surroundings. I visited the room three times. Each visit was accompanied by searing emotion and an irresistible urge to touch him that took me quite by surprise. Quickly, the facts emerged from the fog. No skull fracture, no evacuable clot. A stroke, and unconscious, though–a thin ray of hope–still sedated.

    Most of the time was spent outside the hospital. I thought that it was important to piece together my father's last few hours. How he had struggled up the hill to confession the day before; and how he had managed to spend some time with his little granddaughter who suffered from the same disabling spasticity as he, since his hemiplegia 15 years before. How after mass the next day he was seen at lunch commanding the attention and laughter of several young women whom he had managed to sit with. How he had rested in his room as usual, but had vomited and telephoned to ask the hotel staff to help clear it up. But what had happened during the next few hours before he was found collapsed on the bathroom floor? His room mate reasoned that there was no evidence of panic. His lapse into unconsciousness must have come quite quickly.

    Suddenly, after three days in a coma, he was dead. Great relief. But gone too was the hope against hope of ever seeing that mischievous twinkle in his eye again.

    Now, as I sit at my father's desk, I stumble across a photograph of him. The pangs of sadness come, but are so much less now. How important were those experiences during his final brief illness at Lourdes.

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