My wonderful Dad died in January. Pancreatic cancer. It struck him hard and took him from us quickly. There had been some warning signs, not for long and yet it seemed like so long before we got a clear diagnosis – and then suddenly everything moved so fast. Today would have been his 75th birthday – last year I had so many ideas for how we might celebrate it, but instead today I’m writing to remember my Dad and perhaps raise some awareness of this aggressive form of cancer.
I’ll always remember my Dad with a beard – I’ve never seen him without one, apart from in two photos – one of him as a handsome young man by the Thames when he first came to London, and one as a very small child. Sitting in a bucket! I’ll also remember his big sneezes. His infectious, whooshing laugh. His love and kindness.
He and my Mum were made for each other and spent 50 happy years together. They were together through life’s ups and downs – mostly ups, but also a scooter crash when they were courting and my Dad’s two heart attacks in later life. Despite those, Dad had a full life and so nearly made it to 75.
Moments from Dad’s life
Dad was born in 1940 and went to boarding school in the Himalayas from the age of five. The dormitories were raised on stilts and he said they could hear tigers moving around underneath them at night. Dad’s father died when Dad was a young child. He was told the news at school, without his family around him, and I can only imagine how lonely that must have felt.
I remember my Dad said his first ambition was to be a rickshaw-wallah, pulling rickshaws on the streets of Calcutta – but Dad was always very bright and was destined for bigger things in other lands. He could have gone to university and was very proud that my sister and brother and I all did. He was in the top couple of percent for school results but by the time the results came through the system, he was already in the UK, arriving when he was 17, following his Mum and sister. It wasn’t easy being an immigrant in the late fifties and the sixties – in the early days, my Dad said there were certain jobs that had a blanket ban on employing immigrants, including banking and any job handling money. But a nice employer gave my Dad some good advice and encouraged him to become a qualified accountant, which is exactly what he did.
Dad loved most sports, including cricket, athletics and football, and supported Arsenal for nearly 60 years since coming to the UK. He was very happy to see them win the FA Cup last year after a few years without a trophy. It would be nice to see them win it again on Saturday.
Dad and Mum met 50 years ago when they were working in Accounts at a company on Golden Square in London. (A colleague once jokingly asked if their eyes met over the bought purchase ledger.)
Mum and Dad have been the loves of each other’s lives ever since. Where Dad worked later, he became friends with the man who was to become my uncle – he and Dad’s sister met through my Dad and married soon afterwards. Love clearly followed my Dad around.
Mum and Dad got married in 1968, had their honeymoon in Rome, and then spent a year living and working in Nigeria. When they came back they bought their first home together, and my sister was born a few years later. Soon after she was born they moved to the new town of Milton Keynes, with Dad getting a job at the equally new Open University. Dad was very happy working here. I came along a few years later, followed by my brother.
I remember a happy home life and some lovely family holidays in the early eighties – camping in the west country, and several visits to Cornwall and Holland.
As we grew up, Mum and Dad always supported us in everything we did in life, at school and outside of it. They didn’t expect us to be the best at everything, just to do our best.
When my aunt and uncle moved to south west France in the late eighties we bought a small but amazing house there, part of the fortifications of a walled hilltop village with incredible views. My Dad loved a good view.
At this time we had lots of great family holidays there and this led to a real love of France in my Dad – he enjoyed the food and the way of life, and was always brave enough to try his hand at the language.
In 1992 my Dad got a new job as Finance Director of a college in Wales. It was a nice chance to get back into the education sector where Dad had been so happy at the OU. Dad especially enjoyed the part of his job that involved driving between the three campuses in three towns, because he liked the beautiful countryside in Wales and was a bit of a wanderer at heart.
Dad retired in 2005 and enjoyed almost a decade of blissful retirement.
At the end of last year, my Dad started getting back pains and over a couple of months they became increasingly debilitating, while tests over the course of several weeks failed to diagnose the cause. Arthritis seemed possible but when he started losing weight very quickly my sister, who was visiting for Christmas, pushed for a proper scan.
Cancer was not even mentioned until the turn of the year; by 9 January it was confirmed as pancreatic cancer; on 12 January Dad took a turn for the worse, and my brother and I and our families dropped everything and rushed to be with him; on 13 January we were told there were no treatment options and my Dad was finally made comfortable by going onto morphine; on 17 January he had his last moments awake with us; in the early hours of 20 January he passed away.
In our final week together, spare moments were spent trying to get our heads around pancreatic cancer, what it was doing and what to expect next. My wife was brilliant at finding out the important information.
The Pancreatic Cancer UK website was a useful source of some of this information: http://www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/. They have a booklet for people who have been recently diagnosed which includes questions that it’s useful to ask doctors. It says it’s also useful for family. You can print it out or request a hard copy: http://www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/information-and-support/just-diagnosed/booklet-for-newly-diagnosed-patients/. They also have a support line for people affected by pancreatic cancer run by Specialist Nurses. The email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. The phone service is available Monday to Friday 10am to 4pm and the number is 0808 801 0707. It looks like it’s a callback service. Here’s a link to the info about the support line: http://www.pancreaticcancer.org.uk/information-and-support/we-can-help/support-line/.
The other main charity for this disease is Pancreatic Cancer Action: https://pancreaticcanceraction.org/ Their focus seems to be more on encouraging greater awareness of the disease and pushing for earlier diagnosis.
My wife also found this site, which was incredibly helpful as the end neared: dyingmatters.org/page/being-someone-when-they-die. It’s not the kind of information that most healthcare professionals seem to give but it makes such a difference to know what to expect in those final few days and moments.
It was so difficult, reflecting on the fact that my Dad had never smoked and rarely drank alcohol and yet had been hit by cancer even still. By strange coincidence, this article came out around this time and Cancer Research UK quickly gave a good response on their blog:
Throughout the whole horrendous situation, one small consolation was that we had the chance to spend time together. My Dad could barely leave his bed in the final few days and my Mum, sister, brother and I made sure that at least one of us was always with him, whether he was sleeping or awake. I spent a lot of time lying face to face with Dad while he slept and I just looked at his face, memorising the tiniest details. A handsome man, his black hair and beard now almost completely white. His skin struck me as the colour of tea, the best kind of cup of tea – you know the kind? Made with milk, with a reddish tinge to the brown. It seemed apt somehow, as he was from India, and he and my Mum drank so much tea every day of their lives. I was drinking in every detail while I still had the chance.
A wonderful life
For my Mum, Dad was her whole life.
She is devastated at losing him so early, and so quickly. She always worried that he thought she fussed over him too much, but it was only because she loved him so deeply.
And before his illness, what a wonderful last few years he had. My Mum and Dad’s Ruby wedding anniversary. His 70th birthday, and then my Mum’s. My sister’s 40th, when she got engaged. In 2010 I married the love of my life, and Dad did a great job of recording the highlights on video. And that day was one of many when he told me he loved me and how proud he was of me. He made sure to say that to all three of us children.
And of course – his grandchildren – like buses, he waited for them and then three came along at once – all within two years! Our daughter in 2012, my sister’s daughter in 2013 – and in 2014, my brother’s son, named after my Dad and my uncle.
Dad and Mum have followed being great parents by being amazing grandparents, helping us out in all sorts of ways.
Our daughter took her first steps on the night of my Dad’s birthday last year. Of course we couldn’t have known it then, but when I think about it now, I realise what a lovely final birthday present this was.
It’s just so unfair that he can’t be here for his 75th birthday, or many more birthdays and family moments to come. The illness that took him struck so quickly, but we took some consolation from having enough time together, however brief, to be able to say the most important things to each other.
We wish we had had longer, but I was able to tell my Dad that I always remembered something he said to me when I was a child. He said that he hadn’t known his Dad when he was growing up but that made him more determined to be a good father – if there was anything we needed or anything we wanted to know, we just had to ask him. And so I was able to tell my Dad that he had succeeded – he had been the best Dad I could have wished for, and if I can be even half as good a man, a husband, a dad and one day a grandpa, I will be very happy. I told Dad that he and Mum have been brilliant, perfect parents – I genuinely don’t know anyone who has been so lucky, with such constant support, generosity and love.
And I know my sister was able to tell him he didn’t have to worry – we will look after each other – and that he’s done it – he’s been a great husband and brought us kids up brilliantly. He’s seen his children happy and settled in loving relationships, all of us with children of our own who he’s been an amazing Grandpa to.
So yes, you’ve done it – our darling Dad – Grandpa – Richard – and now you can rest. We were all with you at the end of your wonderful life – and we will all remember and love you forever.