A life slowly drawing to a close

My father, Thomas, is slowly slipping away from this life. At the age of 81 he has succumbed to the wicked onslaught of Alzheimer’s syndrome and has lost the battle for his memories and his cognitive powers. Tragically, cruelly and horribly, he has been systematically stripped of his ability to communicate and function in the everyday world. My dear dad has become what amounts to a mere husk of the man I knew, and it is too late for me to ever know him better than I do now.

He has always been a quiet man who greatly valued his privacy and who used his words sparingly unless his passion for an issue was aroused. Now he is a quiet man for an entirely different reason, one over which he has no control.

I don’t – and didn’t – know my dad very well other than as a ‘dad’. He was the kind of man who always did his duty and always did the right thing. He was brought up in a tough place and time, in a household seemingly very short on overt care or love, and as a result he found it hard to be effusive with his own children. He would usually give a wry sideways smile when a laugh was appropriate, speak softly when others would shout. Not a man for being demonstrative, my dad, but I loved him nonetheless because he was my dad and I knew he loved me.

I have never got to know him as I would wish. I would love to know about the young ‘Tommy’, as he is known outside of our family. I would dearly like to hear about the scallywag he seems to be in any photographs of his younger years that I have ever seen. The little snapshots I have had of him in those days tell me that he would have been a pleasure to have as a friend. I know, for example, that when stationed in Ceylon (as it then was) during his Royal Navy days, each week he put his hand in his pocket quite literally to help a local workmate support his family after hearing of the pitiful wage he was paid. My dad wasn’t making nearly enough money to give any away, but he did so regardless. What a man to look up to.

Despite many questions, he has never spoken freely about his life and has always – rather frustratingly I must say – seemed reluctant to share his memories. In doing so he has taught me a valuable lesson about being a father and I am very aware that my own kids must not know only the man they know as their dad – there is so much more to who I am and they deserve to know about all of that. There is no way for me to know my father any more than I do today, and I am resolved not to pass on a similar unfortunate legacy. My kids must know who I am  and who I was.

In later life Thomas has been an utterly devoted grandfather to my nephews and nieces as well as my own children. Indeed in the presence of his grandchildren he would positively light up and his true self would come to the fore. He would delight the youngsters with songs, sounds, funny faces and games. In his seventies he would still painfully ease himself onto the floor and become a silly, loving and deeply loved ‘grandad’, the man whom so many younger members of our family remember now as a kind, thoughtful, loving and playful old man.

Those are among my own favourite memories of him, together with being under the bonnet of the car on many occasions while he skinned his knuckles (my dad could accidentally break his skin performing almost any task!) and swore softly, digging up the hundreds of pounds of potatoes he was so proud of more than thirty years ago, watching him light a garden rubbish fire, or being taught to drive with barely suppressed nervousness. He was widely read despite claiming repeatedly to be ‘thick’, and in the confines of his own home was never shy to voice his opinion about topical events. A devout catholic all his life, he would exercise his wonderful tenor singing voice in church, but never considered himself worthy to join a choir.

His life changed when the angina he had been concealing from everyone for years finally caught up with him and one day brought him almost literally to his knees. The brutality of the medical intervention which followed directly affected his memory and to some extent his personality, and he was never the same person again. In his latter years this once immensely physically strong man has become both mentally and physically frail and vulnerable, and increasingly dependent upon my mother. Over the last two or three years my family has watched Thomas the man slip further and further away as Alzheimers has ravaged his personality and faculties. Living thousands of miles away I have been shielded from much of this slow decline, however seeing him only infrequently has meant that each time I visit, his inevitable deterioration has come as a shock.

Seven months ago I paid my most recent visit, after my dad had been admitted into full time care, my exhausted mother finally having no choice but to ask for the help she so desperately needed. Dad had rapidly declined in the prior six months and had experienced at least two strokes – maybe more. I found a man seemingly near the end, physically frail and unable to comprehend conversation, unable to form sentences. At least he recognized me and my children, the look on his face as he saw us approach being something I will treasure in  my memory always.

Seven months ago during that visit I held my dad for what was probably the last time. It was planned to be so – we all feared that his end was near and that this was our (mine and my children’s) last chance to see him before he passed away. Not knowing if he fully understood what I was doing, in the confines of a small quiet room I held my dad, told him how much I love him, and said goodbye for what I believed was the last time. I do think he understood a little of what was happening, and that is harder to bear than if he had not known.

My dad is still with us today, another stroke seemingly weakening him further last week. He is less and less responsive as time passes, but the agony (of watching him slip further away little by little) which my mum and brothers and sisters endure is not shared by me in all of its intensity. Of all the ways there are to ‘go’, being taken slowly by Alzheimers, drifting away with a decreasing awareness of reality seems like a peculiarly sedate way to do it. My dad, my brave, strong dad, has always been afraid of dying and through the progression of this disease he has been spared the terror of an approaching end, something I am very grateful for.

He has no pain to battle with, no terror to plague his dreams. Life seems to be a dream for him right now, and I am comforted that his terror has been taken away from him, even at such an expense.  He may continue to hang on to life for months or even years – we cannot guess accurately. I know he is slowly dying and I neither wish for a quick end or more time for him – I don’t know which is best. Time seems to not mean anything to him any more, and I feel that he is not experiencing a drawn-out final time of his life, in fact I doubt that he is even aware of the approach of what is inevitable. What will be, will be.

Thomas Anthony Simmons is a good man, a quietly great and lovely man to whom I look up. He is not perfect and neither am I (who can make that claim anyway?), but I dare to hope that my own loved ones will remember me as I know I will remember him – with love and a smile. One day I may try to properly put into words who I experienced him to be, but for now I will continue to wait for him to find a peace I know he fully deserves.

Thank you dad, for always trying and for doing your best. I will always remain proud to be your son.

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One Comment on “A life slowly drawing to a close”

  1. Truly lovely hun, and available to anyone who cares to read it for always now. xxx

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