This is a continuation of The strange story of John begun in an earlier post. As I wrote the history of John’s final months I found it was getting too long for one post. The final days will come in another installment.
He called me from England. He was in a residential Hospice with terminal bladder cancer. He said, “Get over here.”
His daughter, Sarah, drove him to the airport to meet me. It was a damp spring morning with a watery sun. He looked pale and thin.
We drove to the tiny apartment he had shared with his wife, Sheila, until she died. This was the place I would spend the next 3 months; a place where I knew nobody but John and 2 of his children, Peter and Sarah whom I had met once before.
Sarah had cleared the apartment of all Sheila’s personal things. The only signs of her were framed pieces of her needlework, neatly done from standard patterns of flowers and birds, before arthritis prevented her from holding a needle. A collage of photos commemorating Sheila and John’s “ruby” (40th) wedding anniversary hung over the bed in the larger of two bedrooms. Later I saw a photo album with pictures of their celebratory cruise along the east coast of the US. Sarah told me they both hated it. About the time John and Sheila had been married 40 years, he was conducting affairs with 2 women, each of whom he lived with part time. He “traveled a lot for his business.”
The furniture in the apartment was sparse, with few ornaments or books. There was a brown leather sofa and chair, a big TV, a small dining table and 4 chairs. There was a washing machine in the tiny kitchen and in the back parking area there was a clothes line and a huge dumpster. I did the cooking, laundry, and dealt with the rubbish. A cleaning woman, Jenny who had cleaned for Sheila, came once a week. She was a good looking woman in her 50’s.
The apartment was part of a large recent development (the Brits call them estates) with various levels of housing, from small apartments to small townhouses and a few well kept duplexes. Little streets wound around in a confusing maze with a bit of green common here and there. The gardens were tiny and mostly well kept, with roses, flowers and ornamental bushes. Behind the complex was an equally confusing tangle of walking paths between back gardens and alleys. The development was about a 20 minute walk from Leighton Buzzard, an ancient market town.
Peter, who was unemployed, came sometimes and drove us to the shops. Sarah came on weekends at first, and later, as John got sicker, she took time off work. Otherwise, my transportation was my feet.
I quickly got acquainted with the British health system. John’s doctor’s practice was a couple of miles away, on the other side of Leighton Buzzard. We saw the doctor at his office once, and after that he came to the house. In England they make house calls. The district nurses came when we needed them. Toward the end one or two nurses came every day. There was also a Marie Curie cancer nurse from a private cancer charity. She checked in once a week to see how things were going and to talk. I felt he was well cared for.
The main difficulty was with prescriptions, mostly pain pills. The practitioners were quite willing to allow them, but there were a lot of rules about getting them. I can’t remember now exactly why, but I had to walk to the medical practice to get a prescription, then walk to Boots Chemists to have it filled, and usually they had to send out for it, so I had to walk back to town to pick up the pills. Prescriptions couldn’t be called in the way they are here in the States. I got a lot of exercise. I also walked to town to get groceries when Peter was unavailable, and sometimes I went to browse the book store and get knitting wool. There was a good wool shop in Leighton Buzzard. I went once a week to the post office to get John’s pension check of L110.
It was a good walk, past council houses, small shops, the fish and chips shop, across a bridge over the Union Canal at Linslade. The canal was lined with residential and transient narrow boats. They interested me, and one day I read in the free newspaper that was pushed through the mail slot once a week about a boat that had been broken into by a vagrant and burned by a fire he started. The boat had just been refurbished by its owners as their retirement home.
My daughter lived in a village about 30 miles away and she came occasionally. I took the bus through lovely English countryside and sleepy villages for a day visit to her a couple of times when Sarah stayed with her father. For a brief period I had my daughter’s poodle, Fluffy, with me while she visited the States and I took him for long walks through the pathways overlooking back gardens of the development.
I guess this sounds quite ordinary, but I felt as if I had been dropped into somebody else’s life on another planet. Nothing was familiar, nothing could be taken for granted.
Soon after we arrived the district nurse and the Marie Curie nurse came to see that John was settled in at home. Peter and I stood outside in the sunshine talking to the nurses. I asked them how long they thought it would be. Of course they didn’t know, but one said, “the next three weeks will tell.” I wondered what that meant.
The first week I was there John was well enough to walk down to the convenience store, 10 minutes away. We would get a bag of chips, a Coke and a newspaper. After a week he was not strong enough for such a long walk. I tried to cook things he liked to eat, but mostly, though he would think he fancied something, he could only eat a bite or two. He listened to the radio. He liked a program called “Desert Island Disc” which interviewed famous people and got them to pick music that they would take to a desert island. He followed the Archers, the world’s longest radio soap. We watched some TV; Wimbledon tennis was on for a while. As the days passed he slept more.
I encouraged his children to visit. His son David came from France and Sarah and Peter who lived nearby were often there. Leon, his son by Meloney (a black woman originally from Jamaica) came a few times, and Isabelle, daughter of Erika, came from Germany once. Leon and Isabelle had not known each other, and they knew very little of the other 3.
Melloney came a number of times and gave John massages. She annoyed me by giving him a book about an alleged government conspiracy to withhold cancer treatments. I didn’t want him to lose faith in the people who were caring for him, but I shouldn’t have worried. He paid no attention to the book. He and Melloney had many giggles together as she was giving him “treatments.”
At first John seemed uneasy about what people might think about all this. After all, he had maintained a lifelong fiction of being a conventional husband and family man who “traveled a lot for his business.” He dropped the pretense abruptly one day when the doctor was chatting with us in the living room. The doctor asked John how many children he had. For the first time I heard John say, “seven.”
After that he was open with the nurses and other visitors about his life. I think he was surprised that people accepted this calmly, though with considerable interest. People found John charming. He was intelligent, affable and friendly. And he was dying. One of the district nurses who had been coming for a couple of months was scheduled to go on vacation shortly before he died. She knew she wouldn’t see him when her vacation was over, and her eyes were wet as she said goodbye. The doctor, a pleasant man in his mid 40’s with a badly scarred chin, enjoyed talking to both of us, and I found that he and I read some of the same books. When he saw the novel I was reading, “Spies” by Michael Frayn, he said, “I don’t mind telling you, that’s a good book.”
When Jenny, the cleaning lady, learned the truth about John’s life she was astonished (or she claimed to be — I had suspected that John had designs on her). She said, “Why, I always thought of him as the perfect gentleman.”
John frequently talked on the phone to the mothers of his children. Beatrice, the mother of the 10 year old Louis, called from the States once or twice a week and she and John spent hours talking. Erika Isabelle’s mother, called several times from Germany, and he talked to Amanda, the mother of 6 year old Emily, who lived in Seattle. I left him alone to say what he wanted to them, and I suspect that he told each of them that he would love them for eternity. He often talked to Louis on the phone. He loved Louis very much; I think Louis was the favorite of all his children. He tried to phone Louis a few days before he died, but at the end it was difficult to hear him and his mind was wandering.
Sometimes he would look at me lovingly and say, “How did I get so lucky?” Once he said, “I should have married Erika.” That was after talking to her on the phone.
After 2 months I was scheduled to go home. My ticket which had been bought with John’s frequent flier miles couldn’t be changed. I had thought there was no possibility that he would live longer than 2 months. Besides, I was worried about my mother who lived with me and needed care. I had hired people to stay with her, but I felt I should be there myself. I told John and Sarah that I had to go. John said he understood, but I could see he was frightened. He said, “It’s sad we have to part.” Sarah found a nursing home where he could stay until the hospice had a bed for him.
As it came close to the day of departure I wavered. I told Sarah that I couldn’t afford a new ticket, and she immediately said that she would buy me another. The day before I was to go I told John that I would stay with him. For the first time in days he actually looked happy. He lived another month.