Real Living: Why my father had to die

Julia Sinclair's father was forceful, heroic and brilliant, but he died a crumpled man, bowed by cancer. She spent the last weeks at his bedside and the experience transformed her attitude to euthanasia
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It was an April afternoon when my father fell ill. My mother came home to find him asleep. The air in his bedroom was hot and meaty. He had drawn the curtains tight against the spring sunshine.

She knew something was wrong because only the day before he had been striding round his beloved garden, pruning shrubs and training clematis as usual. He was usually in the garden by six in the morning and stayed there till it was dark. Taking to his bed was an aberration which suggested we should worry but nothing could have prepared us for the weeks that followed.

By the time my father was diagnosed with cancer, a few days later, it had spread from his liver to his spine. There was nothing that could be done to stop it. All we could do was wait for his death. That wait was to turn my attitude towards euthanasia upside down.

Initially he was taken to a local hospital. The young ambulancemen who came to carry him away were reassuringly strong and jolly but my father would not let them touch him till he had "tidied up". His hands trembled as he tried to drag a comb through his fine raven hair, streaked with silver. I felt sorry for him and angry with these intruders, bulky in the little bedroom, with their professional smiles and polished bedside manners. They joked as they carried him down the narrow staircase. He looked as if he weighed no more than a dry leaf, tiny and crumpled in the stretcher, ashamed rather than frightened.

The local hospital failed to diagnose the cancer straight away. They dismissed the symptoms as typical of a dehydrated geriatric. The word "geriatric" was a shock. My father was 73 and proud to have been in hospital only once, to remove a piece of shrapnel which had stuck in his gut, unnoticed since the war. He was a bully, a superb raconteur, an intellectual show- off, a roaring drunk, an articulate opinionated writer, a voracious reader. And now we were confronted with a forlorn old man smelling of fear and rot.

The day he was diagnosed he told my mother not to tell us, his children. He never admitted he had cancer to my brother or me before he died. He only told my mother because she had recently been diagnosed with breast cancer herself and was undergoing treatment. He made a great show of being cheerful and pretended he felt marvellous.

He came home briefly before being moved to a London hospital for specialist treatment. Our local doctor came round for a drink and a chat. My mother, brother and I gathered in the drawing room to entertain him. We all felt rather hysterical and laughed a lot. It was a glorious, golden May day. The doctor told us that there was nothing he or anyone in his profession could do. He drank rather a lot of whisky. We smoked cigarettes ceaselessly and poured wine as if we were having a party. Like so many people who knew my father slightly, the doctor had grown to admire him and now counted him as a friend. We ended up comforting him as much as he comforted us.

My father's stay at the London hospital was short-lived. I visited him there one muggy Sunday afternoon. The windows of his room were closed and the room stank. All the flowers were dead, the water slimey and putrid in the vases. In the bathroom a pair of soiled pyjama-bottoms lay on the floor. The bedclothes had not been changed. He was sweating. One of his ears was infected and oozed a sticky brown discharge onto his pillow. A nurse told me briskly it was up to the relatives to worry about patients' clean pyjamas. Furthermore, she said, my father was a "difficult" man. What he was mainly being difficult about was being bathed - he loathed his frailty and having to depend on nurses to wash him. He preferred to wait for my brother to come and give him his bath. He was miserable in that expensive, efficient, cold-hearted hospital. Our old family doctor, long since retired but still a friend, told us it was too late for medicine. He told us we should take him home.

So we did. Once home, my father was quite determined to dress and come downstairs daily, if only to sit in his favourite sofa and look out at the garden. He negotiated the stairs on his bottom, clutching whomever was at hand to break his fall while shouting at us to stop fussing. Each night he crawled upstairs to bed. When the skin on his knees and shins gave way and made this impossible, he sent us out for cricket pads.

Finally, the skin on his knees could not take the pressure, even through the padding. The flesh on the bone turned to a yellow septic pulp which seeped blood. So he retired upstairs to die. By now it was June and the weather was glorious. In the yellow bedroom we combed his hair each morning and tried to make food tempting enough for him to eat. He ate melon and sugary cereals and smoked, often burning the sheets and scorching the blankets when he fell asleep, stub in thin, fluttering fingers. He was skeletal and his skin so fragile that just touching him could break it and draw blood. Turning him was terrible because it hurt him so much. He had a morphine drip inserted permanently in his arm.

We were grateful for the nurses who came to live with us towards the end. The last was an Australian called Katie. We were acutely aware that she must have a life outside our house of illness and impending death, though we found it hard to imagine the ordinary pulse of daily life. We'd spent weeks in limbo, circling my father's bed. Because of Katie we sat down to eat regularly and forced ourselves to talk about the outside world. Such mundane routines kept us sane.

My father still refused to admit to us he was ill. Even now, we all went along with the idea that this was a minor illness. Contradicting him make him furious and his anger, even now, was potent.

My relationship with him had not always been easy and there were times when we had violently disagreed. His approach to fatherhood was old-fashioned. He felt his role was to provide for us and keep us safe and with me, his only daughter, he was passionately protective. Imagine then how he felt when I had to lead him, tottering and brittle-boned, to the loo and minister to him. I felt his whole body tremble with the shame.

During the last few days the pain became unspeakable. Till now he'd only admitted being afraid to Katie. But as the pain worsened, the fear began to show. He became agitated about knowing where we were. He told me he thought my latest television documentary, which had been broadcast while he was in hospital, "wasn't at all bad". He showed an interest in my brother's marketing business. He stopped shouting at my mother when she fussed lovingly round him.

Our house was a small old cottage and at night the slightest sounds were loud. My bedroom was across the corridor from my father's. During the last nights he started to scream with the pain. He swore too in a thick stream of filthy words. He was utterly humiliated by his loss of control. None of us slept but he wouldn't abide us in his room at night.

I was relieved because I couldn't bear to watch. This was my father, a man who'd flown Spitfires in the war and here he was boiled down to this shrunken, crumpled bundle of sores and bones. It was simply unbearable. In the wardrobe his immaculate suits hung pressed and in a chest of drawers, his silk shirts lay in their pristine wrappings, his Garrick ties folded, his handkerchiefs ironed. It was the pathetic sight of his shoes that finally cracked me. Those old-fashioned, lace-up, hand-made shoes, buffed till they gleamed, were redolent of status and importance. They were the shoes of a swaggering, thriving man with people to see and places to go. And they were lined up like soldiers just inches from where my diminished father lay dying.

Then my father cracked too. He just wanted the pain to end. He begged us to make it stop. The third night none of us even pretended to sleep. Our regular doctor was on holiday in Spain. We called another. He arrived at 2am, tired and hot on this beautiful summer night in a rumpled pair of shorts. He looked no more than about 20. He was confronted by two women, begging for an end to the pain. My mother, in a shabby pink dressing gown that made me weep, produced my father's Living Will and begged the doctor to act upon it. The doctor said he couldn't up the dose of morphine without it being "dangerous". What were the alternatives? For my father to hold out for another day perhaps and die, unable to focus on anything outside the constricted corner of his pain?

The young doctor could see there was nothing he could do for my father except to give him a lethal dose of morphine - any less would not have stopped the pain. He knew he was doing something illegal and therefore "wrong" but in the face of being such pain, his moral certainties withered. He administered the necessary dose.

My father died the next morning. He regained consciousness and smiled - it seemed weeks since he'd done so. My mother and I held a hand each and he looked into our eyes for the last time.

He died at home, surrounded by his family. He'd lived to be 73. Really, compared with millions, he was very lucky. Yet when it came to dying, choice and dignity were officially denied him even though his Living Will clearly stated what he wanted. My mother, who has recovered from cancer, is now terrified of being denied a dignified, pain-free death. I have a copy of her Living Will plus detailed instructions of how to find the spare copy in case she falls ill. If she becomes terminally ill and experiences pain, why shouldn't she have the death she's asked for in advance and in writing? Who is anyone to play God and deny her?