Inevitably, as time passed, John’s physical condition worsened. He was supposed to have palliative chemotherapy, but in this instance the British Health system showed its weakness. The wait for his evaluative appointment was too long. When we were finally notified of an appointment Peter was unavailable to drive him. The clinic was about 15 miles away, so we were provided with a taxi. John was so ill it was difficult for him to walk when we got there. The clinic was old, dilapidated and chaotic, but I managed to find a wheelchair. When we finally saw the doctor, a young Australian, she told me that he was so ill the treatment would almost certainly hasten his death.
After he gave up walking he would dress in the morning and sit up on the bed with his radio, tape player and other electronic toys spread around him, wires criss-crossing the bedspread, and he entertained himself until he got tired and slept. Twice I collected his children and a couple of his grandchildren for an afternoon meal of sandwiches and salads. That seemed to make him happy, but he didn’t have enough energy to talk much. He sat and smiled.
The tumors were spreading all over his body. The cancer was in his lymphoid system, and he could see and feel lumps on his torso, neck and groin. His voice was reduced to a whisper; the doctor told me a tumor was growing on his recurrent laryngeal nerve. But he still managed to talk on the phone to Beatrice and Louis.
I asked him if he had any wishes with respect to his funeral. He said he would like all his children to be there.
Sometimes he was confused. Once, when I came back from a ramble with Fluffy on the back walking trails, he said to me, “You look different.”
“What’s my name?” I asked.
“Gwendolyn,” he whispered, “You’re my mother.”
Another time he said, “Are we dead? Are we stuck here forever?”
John claimed he was not a believer, but he was afraid death was not final. He and Beatrice had studied “A Course in Miracles” together. I don’t know how much of it he absorbed, but one day, near the end, he urgently whispered something that at first I didn’t understand. Finally I thought I heard “C of E”. “Oh,” I said, “Do you want a clergyman?” He nodded vigorously. So I put in a call to Sarah and the family Vicar.
During the last days Sarah often stayed with me all day. John slept most of the time, so we talked and talked. Sarah was a capable, intelligent woman in her late 40’s. She was small, dark, not really pretty but trim and nice looking. She had married late but happily to a man with grown children; she had none of her own. We talked about John and his escapades. She was bitter about his treatment of her mother. She couldn’t fathom his attraction for women or his need to collect them.
“Why did he do it?” she asked.
I said: “I think because it was the only thing he was really good at.”
“Well,” she said, “He was a good father to me. He saw me through university.”
The district nurses now came morning and evening. John took a lot of pain medication which constipated him: that had to be dealt with. He was incontinent and could no longer walk to the bathroom, so he needed some washing up every day. It was hard work for the nurses who were patient, cheerful women.
I was getting tired. I slept in the double bed beside John because I was afraid to leave him at night to sleep in the other room. He might need something and he was unable to call out or walk. He tended to be more restless at night, even though he now had a morphine pump. The dose it delivered was low.
One night he kept trying to get out of bed. I was afraid he would dislodge the morphine pump, and if he fell on the floor I would be unable to pick him up. Even though he was not a large man, and by this time looked like someone from a concentration camp, I couldn’t lift him. The district nurses had said we could call them anytime, so I did, at about 2:30 in the morning. I was told there was no nurse available, but there was a doctor on call who would come. I continued to try to calm John and keep him in bed, and ultimately succeeded in getting him quieter, but by no means asleep. At about 5 in the morning there was a knock on the door. The doctor was African and spoke with a heavy accent. I explained the situation to him and took him into the bedroom where John was lying rigidly still in the bed.
“How are you feeling, Mr. Ash?” the doctor asked.
“Fine!” said John, smiling cheerfully.
I told the doctor how agitated John had been all night and asked him to please give him something to calm him down.
“I can’t do that,” he said, “the patient says he is feeling fine, and if I give him something it might send him off.”
“And so?” I said.
“I’m not here to do that!” he said with indignation and he left in a huff.
As soon as he was gone John began trying to climb out of bed again. At 9 o’clock in the morning he finally succeeded in pulling out the morphine pump and getting out of bed. He immediately fell to the floor, and as I was struggling to get him back on the bed Sarah came in the back door and the district nurse came in the front. It was a pretty terrible scene. There was blood all over the place from the morphine needle he had pulled out. The nurse and Sarah lifted him back to bed, and the nurse stayed until she could get authorization to increase the morphine. She tidied him up, changed the bed and she, Sarah and I had a chat.
They were both concerned about me. I was really exhausted. The nurse said she would get a practical nurse (or the British equivalent — I can’t remember the hierarchy of nurses anymore) to stay with him at night so I could sleep in the other room. Sarah said she, too, would stay the nights until he died.
The morphine dose was increased and John fell deeper and deeper asleep. That the afternoon the vicar finally showed up, though I had called him 4 days earlier. I found him smarmy and I was not impressed. He went to John’s bedside and talked to him for 20 minutes. Sarah and I stayed in the living room. When he came out I said I doubted that John could hear what he said, but the vicar opined that one never knew how much they understood.
The night nurse was sweet. She was a pretty African woman. She sat bolt upright all night beside John’s bed, never shutting her eyes. I got up from time to time to look in.
On the third morning, after the night nurse left, I was in and out of John’s room, putting away some laundry. His breathing was irregular, sometimes shallow, sometimes gulping. I was in the room, putting some things in the dresser. I closed the drawer and turned around to look at John; he was still. Gradually I realized that he was dead. I called to Sarah who was in the living room.
I phoned the Doctor’s practice and asked for a doctor. Sarah called the undertaker with whom she had made prior arrangements. A doctor came, a woman we had not seen before. The undertaker came. He suggested we say our goodbyes before he removed the body. I did so, and then Sarah and I went out to the back parking area. We did not want to see the body bag leave.
I called my daughter and asked her to come and get me. Sarah began to empty drawers. She piled up his clothes, t-shirts, socks, underwear and trousers and carried them out back where she tossed them, neatly folded, into the dumpster. She was still disposing of her father’s personal belongings when my daughter arrived.
The only feeling I had was tiredness. I called home to discover that my granddaughter had totaled my mother’s car. My daughter called back for me (I couldn’t face talking at that point) to make sure nobody had been hurt.
I began to phone the other women. I did my best to get all the children for the funeral, but Amanda and Emily couldn’t find the money for tickets, and they would not have had time to get passports.
Beatrice and Louis came and Isabelle came. Leon came with Melloney. David came from France with his wife and of course Peter and Sarah were there. That was 6 out of 7.
Sarah arranged the funeral to be less than a week from John’s death. It was held at a crematorium about 30 miles from my daughter’s house. She drove me and we started out more than 2 hours before the appointed time in order to be sure to be prompt.
The A420 is the road we take to Oxford and beyond It is a major truck route. Suddenly it was closed in both directions and all traffic was detoured through the middle of Oxford. There was no other way. I called Sarah on the cell phone and told her the difficulty. I said I was afraid I would be late since there was a massive traffic jam in Oxford.
It was a white knuckle ride. First we inched through Oxford city together with hundreds of trucks, next we raced at high speed along motorways and country roads. My daughter is normally a safe and cautious driver, but she had to speed if there was any hope of getting there before the service was over.
When we arrived the vicar, the same one who came to John when he was in a coma, was in the middle of delivering his eulogy. It must have been a chilly morning, because as I sat in the pew, shaking with nerves, fatigue and sadness, Peter wrapped his coat around me. I saw Beatrice and Louis at the back of the chapel. I don’t remember much about the service. The chapel was full of people I had never seen. I think they must have been Sarah’s friends. There was a coffin on a platform in the front partially surrounded by curtains. At some point during the service the curtains automatically swished shut around the coffin as it slid out of sight — presumably to be cremated. We sang “Abide with me.”
Afterward Sarah had a reception at a nearby pub. She told me that some people would be coming back to her house later in the day, but asked me not to mention it. She didn’t want Beatrice or Melloney. I think Melloney came anyway.
Both gatherings were on the dismal side. At the pub I talked to Isabelle who was there with her partner. She is a pretty woman and she has a diamond set in one of her front teeth. I never remember anything she says because I get distracted by the sight of the diamond. I talked to an intelligent man, perhaps it was Sarah’s husband, about biology. At some point Beatrice said loudly, “John was a bastard, but we all loved him.” That did not sit well with the Brits.
My daughter and I drove home to her house late in the afternoon. When we arrived my teen aged granddaughter was watching television.
“Did you hear the news?” she asked excitedly. “This morning a chicken lorry turned over on the A420, and they had to close it because there were 2000 chickens running all over the road.”