Bright yellow gorse with its coconut fragrance lined the footpath as we pushed against the wind. He wore his old black anorak and tweed cap, and his wellington boots smeared with mud from the garden. Each time I visited we hiked the five miles over the cliff to Sandyhills, in the southwest corner of Scotland, pausing at Castle Point for a few minutes to catch our breath, as we always did, to follow the arrows carved in the stone marker with our eyes, out into the steel grey sea, towards Canada, my home of the past twelve years. Everyone said that Dad and I were “two-of-a-kind.” We’d always had a relationship not dependent on words. We knew how each other felt without needing to talk about it. And that day in 1996, just after his sixty-seventh birthday and a year after retirement was no different. We communicated in silence as we walked.
Dad was diagnosed with a Stage IV brain tumour three months after that visit. Mum called right after they got the news. Perhaps they thought I'd know what to do since I had worked as an oncology nurse for fifteen years by then. However, for me, my career dissolved during that phone conversation. I was a daughter, not a nurse then, and continuing to work with other people with cancer while my father was dying made no sense. I took leave and planned a trip to Scotland, where I spent most of the next thirteen weeks.
Sudden memory loss had taken him to his family doctor. The scan showed a large inoperable brain tumour. His oncologist said treating a glioblastoma could give him three to six months more time but the side effects would only strip him of his dignity for the time he had left. No surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation meant a sure death in a shorter time-frame, but also the hope of a dignified one.
“I have a brain tumour, deep-seated, in the centre of my brain. Is that right?” Dad asked me over dinner, the first evening I arrived.
“You do, Dad. It’s a Stage IV brain tumour, called a glioblastoma.”
“I have a deep-seated brain tumour, don’t I? Will it kill me?” His short-term memory loss made it hard for him to retain information.
“Yes, it will, Dad. The oncologist told you at your first appointment that you’ll probably only live three or four months.” I heard the quiver in my voice as my words landed with a thud into a part of his brain that still functioned.
“If I’m going to die then no monks’ urine for me," he said with a wink. That’s what people do, don’t they, when they get cancer? They travel the world looking for cures. I’m not that kind of man. I’ve had a good life and I’ll just get on with this. It’ll be harder on your Mum.” He looked at me and for the first time I saw the sadness of the leaving in his eyes.
Dad spent only one night of the next thirteen weeks in hospital. All the rest of his nights were spent at home, in his own bed. We checked him into the neurosurgery ward to have the brain biopsy that would confirm what the brain scan showed. I was relieved that the diagnosis wouldn’t be made purely on the basis of technology; the biopsy would allow us to see the cancer with the naked eye. The nurse showed us to his bed, one of four in the room, and Mum pulled the flimsy curtain closed for privacy. He looked older than he had at home, in pale blue hospital pajamas with a button missing midway down. He perched on top of crisp white sheets, covering the plastic-covered mattress, which crinkled every time he moved. He had kept his socks on. Bare feet against the cold sheets, too much vulnerability perhaps.
“See you tomorrow, darling,” Mum whispered, then kissed him lightly on the lips. We bid a hasty farewell, guilty in our abandonment.
On December 29th this year, it will be twenty years since Dad died. The family will gather in Scotland from the four corners of the earth, and we will hike the cliff path to Sandyhills and push into the wind and inhale the steely grey sea air, in his honour. The grandchildren he never met will walk too and we will tell them stories about how their Grandpa loved the sea, and golf, and the poems of John Donne, and about how he dreamed of living with his wife and four children in a lighthouse, retreating from the fast pace of the world, his longing, not ours. I will remember the man whom I was told stood by the airport runway long after my first flight had departed for Canada when I was twenty-six, and the man who wrote letters to me, in navy blue ink from his fountain pen, every Sunday evening, tucking them into the air-mail envelope alongside my mother’s.
I know I was one of the lucky ones, blessed with a good, good father for thirty-eight years.