After her mum suffered a life-changing brain haemorrhage, the bond between Helen Whitaker and her father grew stronger – only for cancer and Covid to force them apart. She reveals why she’s counting the minutes until they can be reunited.
With Boris Johnson’s roadmap laid out and the vaccination programme well underway, we can start reuniting (albeit outdoors) with more loved ones from tomorrow. However, the year lost to Covid has cut particularly deep when it comes to being separated from my dad Dennis, whose cancer has been advancing in line with the pandemic.
‘Is this a reasonable quote for car repairs?’
‘What questions should I ask the man coming to build my fence?’
‘How far into the soil do you plant tulip bulbs?’
‘A baby bird has fallen out of a nest in front of me – what should I do?’
This is just a small sample of the questions I have bombarded my dad with over the years. He’s always been the first port of call for my practical questions, even now when I’m 40, have a child of my own and have (so far) managed to hold down several jobs and homes all without (major) catastrophe.
I don’t think this situation is unusual. Many children who have a good relationship with their parents can relate to the feeling that no matter how old they are, their dad has all the answers. I see it as a consequence of my happy childhood in Chesterfield, Derbyshire.
Growing up in the early 1990s, my dad, my elder brother, his two friends and I had season tickets for Sheffield Wednesday. Every home match, my mum Kate packed us off with crisps and flasks of hot chocolate for half time and my dad would drive us to a road with free street parking that was a 20-minute walk from Hillsborough. From there, we’d troop to the ground, the crowd building as we went. When the match finished, the 30,000 attending tipped out in one noisy mass and we’d make the reverse journey to get back home in time for a chicken casserole and Gladiators on the TV.
Results aside, I remember those football outings as some of the happiest memories of my childhood. It was only as an adult that my dad admitted that, for him, these Saturday afternoons were tinged with potential peril: being responsible for ferrying four children through a busy football crowd, while also feeling the emotional responsibility of our upset when Sheffield Wednesday got hammered (the season we drove to Wembley four times and won no cups springs to mind). I obviously had no idea of that at the time; in his capable charge I always assumed everything would be all right.
As I grew up, he drove my friends and I to every gig location in the Midlands so we could see Blur, Pulp and Supergrass, patiently waiting for us outside in the car until we turned up, sweaty and giddy, to be driven home again. We were close, but I’d say he handled the practical side of things. It was my mum, a supply teacher who was at home before and after school, who dealt with the emotional stuff: the fallouts with friends and the dramas with boys. When I got my first ‘proper’ boyfriend at university, she was the one I talked to about it, while Dad studiously ignored all mention of him.
That changed in 2001 when I was weeks away from finishing my degree at Leeds University and my mum suffered a subarachnoid brain haemorrhage. After a dash to A&E, we spent weeks not knowing whether she recognised us, and after that her recovery was painfully slow: an operation, intensive care, then weeks on a ward followed by a year at a rehabilitation clinic where her fellow patients had all suffered heartbreaking brain injuries. Physically, it left her right-hand side disabled, while her brain couldn’t process the words she wanted to say, leaving her frustrated and stuck on the same phrases that didn’t articulate what she meant. But my empathetic mum was still in there. Rather than being upset for herself, the only time she would cry was after the regular visits a young boy made to his dad, a fellow patient on the ward with a severe brain injury following a motorcycle accident.
I moved home to be with my dad, finished my degree by correspondence and got a temping job. Dad and I both worked from 8am until 4pm every day before heading to the clinic to visit Mum. Our world was very small: work, then hospital, then home. So many hours spent together in cars and hospital waiting rooms meant Dad and I had a lot of time to fill. We talked more than ever – reminiscences he had of my mum and their life together away from being parents, or what I wanted to do now I’d finished university – but more often we would sit in companionable, worried silence.
It felt as though the pause button had been pressed on our lives, but I’d been planning a gap year in Canada and it was Dad who encouraged me to go, despite Mum still being very poorly. He was insistent that my life should not be paused. While I was away, Mum came home and Dad became her full-time carer, modifying the house so that she could still live there now she needed a wheelchair, and giving up his job to look after her. Anyone who is a carer knows that it is exhausting and relentless. There’s no sick leave or days off.
When, a couple of years later, he had a heart attack and needed a triple heart bypass, his recovery required him to go in a convalescent home while Mum went to a separate nursing home for the duration. Throughout, Dad’s biggest concern was not for his own recuperation but whether Mum was all right.
That’s always been who he is. Despite his own responsibilities, when I moved to London to be a journalist, he was always on the end of the phone with words of either advice or – when needed – sympathy. When I got made redundant, I called him. When I got told off by my first boss, I called him. When I met a man who asked me to move with him to Los Angeles in 2007, I called him – and Dad was the first to tell me to go and have an adventure.
Our time as each other’s hospital confidantes, and with Mum no longer able to play that role, had shifted us to emotional territory. Which isn’t to say he didn’t still deal in the practical, too. When, in 2010, the day after my 30th birthday, I discovered my boyfriend in LA was cheating, my dad was the first person I called. He dropped the C-bomb for the first and only time in his life while helping me make arrangements to fly home. Back in the UK, I moved in with my parents again, this time heartbroken in a different way.
Despite the limited respite care he received to help with Mum, he also insisted on driving down to London to retrieve my belongings from where they were stored in my ex’s parents’ loft. Mum and Dad hadn’t had a holiday since before the millennium and one of Dad’s few times out of Derbyshire in a decade was a six-hour round trip to London to help his emotionally shattered daughter extricate her paltry things from someone’s attic. On the drive back up the M1, as I cried and analysed my ex’s potential motives for cheating, Dad just listened. Eventually he said, ‘I don’t care about him. I care about you.’
A few weeks later, having landed a great job on a women’s magazine, I moved back to London and started saving for a flat. Again, Dad was on the end of the phone for both the practical as well as the emotional.
Then, in 2013 I met Ian, the man who would become my husband. Intelligent, kind, funny and with a high threshold for chat with Dad about his Sony HD recorder, we just clicked and 18 months later got engaged. The wedding was scheduled for five months after that at a venue on the edge of the Peak District. The location was beautiful, but being fully wheelchair accessible and only ten minutes’ drive from my parents’ house was the clincher. My parents had their first night away from home since my brother’s wedding ten years earlier.
Shortly before the wedding, Dad had a diagnosis of his own: prostate cancer that had spread into his bones. For the following few years, it was kept under control with hormone treatment, followed by Radium-223 treatment and courses of radiotherapy on parts of his spine, neck and hip. Much of his treatment necessitated travelling to hospital in Sheffield, a 40-minute journey, sometimes followed by long waits for his appointments. My brother John and I helped as much as we could, but after my son came along in 2016, we both had young children and jobs in different cities, which made it difficult. Arranging carers for Mum was an added layer of stress, and the days were draining even without going home and immediately picking up the 24/7 caring responsibility.
Along with Dad’s health issues, Mum’s needs were increasing. By early 2019 we were holding family summits about whether she was so frail as to need residential care, but as ever, Dad’s first instinct was to cope, even when we could see things were getting too much for him.
In the end, the decision was taken out of our hands when Mum was hospitalised in October 2019. In a mirror of 18 years previously, we spent a lot of time sitting together in hospital as she received palliative care, talking and worrying, before Mum died at the end of that month. I was in the middle of writing my latest novel at the time and while the main storyline is about a marriage in crisis, there’s a father-daughter relationship at its heart, as it weathers grief and illness. It’s a plotline that feels personal, having experienced my own relationship with Dad evolving from a more ‘traditional’ dynamic to getting to know him on a deeper level. One positive outcome from a tough situation.
But life had more plans in store. After my mum died, a few well-meaning people clunkily mentioned to Dad that at least now he was ‘free’ to do more. Sadly not. His cancer returned, just as Covid was starting to run rampant.
When someone receives an advanced cancer diagnosis, you anticipate that you will have the lofty ‘big conversations’ and ‘make the most of your time together’. And you do, to a point. The combination of cancer and Covid certainly made me more aware of the time we might have left with him. But even when you spend months of lockdown waiting to see someone, you quickly revert back to your usual roles. Between lockdowns and shifting regional tiers, we managed a trip to an area of Norfolk that meant a lot to Dad – as well as discussing the Sony HD recorder as much as ever.
In October, Dad started chemotherapy and began shielding again. As with everything, he bore it stoically, calling off our family Christmas long before Boris Johnson did, and telling us to sit tight for the vaccine, the first dose of which he thankfully received in January, with his second booked for next month. As he is wont to mention, we haven’t come this far to risk him getting Covid now, but I haven’t seen him for almost five months, a length of time even more agonising when it comes to his diagnosis. He’s also spent the majority of his first year without Mum not just living alone, but confined to his house and with few windows for visitors. As the roadmap unfolds, and people look forward to travel, my only priority is a trip up the M1 to be able to look after him the way he looked after Mum for all those years.
Helen’s latest novel I Give It A Year is published by Trapeze, price £8.99. To order a copy for £7.91 until 11 April, go to mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193. Free UK delivery on orders over £20.