Seven years ago, I was asked by the PE Department at my previous school to accompany them on a trip to some army barracks in Yorkshire. We took a small group of Year 10 students and stayed for three nights.
It was in January so as you can imagine, it was cold, wet, muddy and tiring – as school trips always are. Teenagers on school trips believe that sleep is for the weak.
I shouldn’t have gone.
I shouldn’t have gone because I didn’t teach PE and was accustomed to the warmth of a stuffy English classroom.
I shouldn’t have gone because I spent the week in layers and layers of army khaki.
I shouldn’t have gone because it was cold, wet, and exhausting.
But mostly, I shouldn’t have gone because a week after returning, my Dad died.
I knew it was coming so why did I go? Where on earth did my priorities lie? If I could go back, I would tell myself to stay at home and spend some precious time with my family. I would convince the younger me, the me who was not in a good place, that I would not find the mile run across some scenic countryside in army camouflage and heavy Timberland boots invigorating. I would explain that I hated sleeping in a grotty twin room on camp beds in a borrowed sleeping bag. I would tell myself that the long walks through the woods chatting to my Year 10 students would not take my mind off things and I would tell myself that standing in darkness beneath a clear sky glittering with beautiful stars would not make things all right.
But still, I went.
I went because running in khaki got me outside. I went because sleeping in some barracks took me away from hospitals. I went because talking to my Year 10s about their lives, took me away from mine and I went because looking up at a sky filled with a multitude of stars made me realise how insignificant I was and how amazing the world could be if I just stopped, looked and took it all in. Beauty around us doesn’t fade when life gets a bit tough – it just becomes distorted and it’s up to you to find it again.
My Dad would have been okay with my going, I think. I don’t know. I never got around to ask him.
A day after returning from the trip, my colleagues and I had a Friday drink in the pub down the road from the school I was working at. I received a phone call from my Mum:
“Your Dad has fallen. He is okay, the ambulance has taken him to St Gemma’s Hospice.”
The plan was for him to leave the hospice and come back home.
He never did.
Throughout next week I continued to go to work as normal. I was lucky enough to be teaching a phenomenal Year 10 class (some of whom had gone on the army trip) and without knowing it, they made my life normal. I laughed with them, at them and they laughed at me – in between me instilling them with a love of English Literature and good grammatical skills, of course!
One Tuesday morning, I had stayed overnight at my Mum’s and she told me not to go into work that day. She advised that we should both spend the day with Dad. The sad thing though was that she had to talk me into not going to work. Like my Father, I have a very strong work ethic, and phoning in sick is just something that I do not do. Reluctantly, I called my Head of Department and obviously she was insistent that I spend time with Dad.
I took some GCSE essays with me to mark.
I am ashamed to say that as we sat around my Father’s bed waiting for the consultant to come and see us, I sat with my head bowed low reading my students’ GCSE Film Reviews. What kind of daughter does that? My Mum told me afterwards that the Macmillan nurse asked her why I was marking and wondered if it would help if I had someone to talk to, someone to share my fears with. My Mum assured her that this was my way of coping. She told them that I wouldn’t want to talk to anyone – and she was completely correct. Reading this back now, I sound heartless, but this is how I dealt with my grief. Gathered around that bed on that Tuesday afternoon, the grieving process had properly begun; we all knew that the inevitable was upon us. Nothing could change that, so the essays that needed marking might as well get marked.
I returned to work the next day.
Friday afternoon had arrived and it had been a week since the PE trip. I was with my tutor group and I received a call from an unknown number.
I hung up.
I shouldn’t have hung up.
Instantly after hanging up, I knew I had just missed a call from the hospice. After dismissing my pupils, I raced downstairs into the PE dept and I found the Other Half (as we worked together once upon a time). He held me down in the eye of the storm and for a brief moment there was only us and silence.
My phone rang again and this time it was my Mum.
His time was almost up.
She told me to get to the hospice. I had one big errand to run first: I had to pick up my 89 year old Grandma.
Grandma was sitting and waiting patiently for me dressed in her coat, head scarf and patent shoes. Throughout Dad’s illness, my Grandma, his Mother, barely lost face. I think I saw her cry twice. She was a fiercely independent woman who, despite being 4ft 11 with a dodgy pair of lungs, was incredibly strong willed and, like me, wasn’t good at sharing feelings.
We left for the hospice.
But the detour meant we were too late.
I missed you go Dad, I’m sorry.
Looking back, would I have done it differently? Would I have picked up the phone? Would I have left school without running to see my partner first? Would I have left t’old Grandma to catch the bus?
Of course I wouldn’t.
I don’t think seeing Dad take his last breath would have made things easier for me. It couldn’t possibly have made the end more final than it was or given me the closure I needed.
I sat with him for a long time afterwards.
I think it was all for the best really. My Mum was with him and she was enough. More than enough. Throughout Dad’s short battle with Cancer, my Mum was a hero. Like my Grandma, I never saw her break or falter. She carried us completely.
As the first few years passed, I felt like I had just not seen Dad for a while. Seven years, however, feels like a life time. In that time, I have had my family, mourned my twenties and even hit my mid-thirties. I have forgotten what Dad’s voice sounded like and yet I know that I would recognise it in a instant if I heard it. He visits me in my dreams every so often and especially at this time of year. Only last night, we were sitting at the dining table in our old house and he was ill (he is always ill in my dreams) and I was telling him how much I missed him. Wiping away tears, I woke and instinctively I felt at my cheeks and they were dry – they always are. The dining room, the talking and the crying are never real. As distressing as they are though, I welcome the dreams.
On the 29th January – Dad’s birthday (he passed on the 30th), I will draw a heart around the date on my white-board at school – as I do every year. It’s my little way of telling him that he will be in my thoughts all day. No song and dance in my remembrance, I’m afraid; a little heart will suffice.
Perhaps I shouldn’t have gone on the army trip.
Perhaps I should have picked up my phone.
I am sorry that I marked essays beside his bed.
After losing Dad, I returned to work after two weeks. Some might think it was too early and maybe it was. I returned to my classes and I returned to my Year 10s. We started studying GCSE Literature and began to read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’. I had never read or taught it before – but boy, did they get some good grades and do me proud! It remains now one of my favourite books, not because it is so universally well loved and one of the ‘greats’, but because it reminds me of the time when teaching a bunch of Year 10 students saved me.
And I don’t think Dad would have questioned that.