I Still Can't Speak to My Dad, Even Though He Might Be About to Die

I traveled home to see him, and all I could talk about was my belt.

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Oct 1 2018, 3:00pm

The author and his dad on Christmas in 1988.

This article originally appeared on VICE UK.

My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE's website thought it would be amusing to employ a 47-year-old who can genuinely remember rock festivals before NOFX and Bowling for Soup were added to the bill.

In case you were wondering, or simply too lazy to use Urban Dictionary, "menk" is slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental.

MENK 70: Won't You Spare Me over 'Til Another Year?

It is the first truly hot day of the year when my dad goes into the hospital. He is still there, tethered to machines and drips when the MET [national weather service] declares it an official heatwave five days later.

Usually, during spring, if I'm traveling up to Liverpool on the Virgin Pendolino train, the weather changes temperament dramatically somewhere around the town Crewe, but this time it's still cracking the flags by the time I disembark at Lime Street station.

Initially, when I get to my mom and dad's house in Rainhill, England, it's as if nothing out of the usual is going on. Mom tells me what all of the neighbors are up to ("A black family has moved in across the street!" she tells me proudly) while dad flicks up and down the TV channels. He looks fit and healthy for an 82-year-old watching TV.

Over the course of 24 hours, the feeling that I should talk to my dad about what is going on starts to insinuate itself. The night before, he is admitted to Whiston Hospital the silence between us builds up until it is crackling. I know I should say something for his sake, if not for my own; that if something goes wrong—and there are lots of things that can go wrong; I have been warned that I should prepare for the probability that something will go wrong—this will be my most immediate and, probably, my most lasting regret.

I develop an idea that I will interview him for some spurious work project and then with a recording device between us, talk to him about his life. I can tell him I'm thinking of writing something about the heatwave of 1976. (I am always thinking of writing something about the heatwave of 1976—that much is true.)

I just have to find the right opportunity.

He sits staring intently at the TV screen. I sit in the rocking chair on the other side of the room, deleting emails on my iPhone. Four decades' worth of minimal, just about functional conversation has left us completely unprepared for this juncture, even though its arrival was one of the few certainties that could have been predicted.

Eventually, driven to the edge of agitation, I stand up and yell: "Look at the state on this belt."

I lift up my Sly & The Family Drone T-shirt and point to my belt.

It is true that my belt has seen better days. What looked like leather under harsh TK Maxx lighting has revealed itself to be some kind of man-made material substitute that wears down in sections to a frayed, discolored mesh with little or no encouragement. It's clearly got less than a week of usefulness left in it.

He almost leaps to action: "I've got a spare belt. You can have it. It's upstairs." He hobbles into a run and practically bounds up the stairs.

In my mom and dad's room, he hands me a belt, still in its polythene wrapping. I remove the old one and replace it. And we stand there for a while, a human Venn diagram. The 82-year-old who only communicates freely by talking about driving and decorating, or by complaining about other people, and the 47-year-old who only communicates freely by talking about music and complaining about his health, with the thin sliver of overlap represented by the presence of a brand new belt.

"It's a bit too fancy for me," he says, nodding at the completely normal looking belt.

"No, it's great," I say. "Thanks a lot."

He turns around and walks down the stairs, so I follow behind him. I can feel the air thickening between us into something that is almost tactile. I feel like I could punch a hole in the distance between us.

He pauses at the front room door and his hand doesn't reach the handle. Is he going to say something?

I notice that his fingers are grabbing for the handle but are not reaching it, and I realize just in time that this is because he's falling backward. I catch him and then finally break the silence with two syllables: "Here you are."

Except I don't say, "Here you are." I'm in my father's house in the outskirts of Liverpool, so what I say, literally, is, "E.R."

Later, when he's lying down upstairs, I have a cup of tea with my mom and it all comes out at once.

"It's the fourth time he's fallen. His white blood cell count must have dropped right down. It doesn’t matter how much iron he gets in his diet, none of it is being absorbed now. I was just relieved that the cancer board agreed to operate. I mean, he's 82. They’d just say, 'No way,' if he was any old 82-year-old. But he's not really 82, is he? That’s just what it says on his birth certificate. Look at him. There’s no way that’s an 82-year-old man. And they must have seen how strong he is. Things are so much better now than 15 years ago, even… when he first had it… so much better. I mean, it’s only been a week or so since he got the diagnosis and here we are… he goes in tomorrow. After the scan they weren't 100 percent sure if it hadn’t spread. There was a blotch on one of his lungs and he has been coughing non-stop for months now. But, you know, he had TB when he was 19, his lungs are probably scarred from that. It’s the same as before—you know that—but further up. The surgeon said he doesn’t know how much he’ll take out until they open him up. We’ll see tomorrow, I guess. His diet will probably be restricted. And… you have to be prepared, John, you have to be prepared. Anything could happen. But look at him. There's no way he's 82, no way at all…"

Photo: Al Overdrive

The next morning we sit in a waiting room in ward 4b of Whiston Hospital—probably only a few hundred yards from where I was born—under a large poster promoting tissue donation. There are three people waiting for surgery; each has a small group of people with them. And all of us are trying not to look at the poster. We are seen by an anesthesiologist, a nurse, and a surgeon, who all explain in detail exactly what is going to happen. All of them finish each sentence with the question, "Is that alright, Kevin?" The new credo of complete inclusion. I can tell my dad is not listening to anything they're saying. He's gritting his teeth, willing them to get on with it. 'Just get on with it, will yer?' I can practically hear him thinking.

We say goodbye, and a few minutes later we are back outside in the blistering heat, waiting for a car to go back to home. A man in a flashy tracksuit leans over a 40-something woman in a nightgown in a wheelchair as they both smoke: "I told you I can’t go over the road to get them. They’ve got a special offer on tins in St. Helens, so I need to go to the offie there. Just give us the money and I’ll go now. I’ll be back later.”"

Her head goes into her hands: "All the money I’ve given you. You must think I’m fucking stupid. Why can't you just…"

He cuts her dead and hisses: "Just give me your purse, you cunt."

"Shall we go and stand over here?" I say briskly to mom, and start propelling us both further up the path until we're out of earshot and standing safely next to some teenagers in Slipknot T-shirts smoking weed behind a bush.

Back at the house things are fine for the rest of the morning. There's plenty of housework to get done and then, after lunch, we chat on and off, but as 2 PM gives way to 3 PM I can tell she is becoming agitated. Eventually, I say: "Look, just call them up if you want."

She phones the hospital: "Uh-huh… Yep… Yep… ICU… John Kevin Doran… Uh-huh…" I feel like I’m swaying at the edge of a precipice. I can’t handle this at all. I feel like running out of the door. I could just go back to London and then never answer the phone to any numbers from Merseyside ever again.

The conversation is going on too long. They wouldn’t tell her over the phone, would they? I’d do anything to delay the next few seconds. Literally anything…

And then she drops the phone and starts crying, and her head sinks into her hands.

I feel simultaneously like I’ve been punched in the guts and bitten by a venomous snake, like there’s a poison sluicing into my veins. It is as if a door is yawning slowly open onto a world of horror.

But then my mom is talking directly to me: "Sorry… I'm sorry, John. He's OK. He’s awake. It was just... I got a little…"

I pick up the receiver off the beige patterned carpet and place it back into its cradle: "Well, we’d better go back up there then."

In a room on his own, he is at the center of a spider's web of tubes and drips. There is a mask making a loud hissing noise strapped across his nose and mouth. Blankets are swaddled round his head despite how warm the day is. Ancient Farah Sta Press pants, a lightly patterned cotton shirt, and a white cotton vest are folded on a chair next to the bed. Even now he doesn’t look that old. He looks momentarily like the man I would sit on the window sill waiting for; waiting for him to come in from work, worried there had been an accident at the factory, some 40 years previously.

He is thin all over apart from very muscular forearms. They are the arms of someone I could never beat at armwrestling.

But then Mom removes his thick bifocal glasses to adjust his breathing mask and suddenly, with that last layer of defense stripped away, he looks every day of his 82 years.

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This column was the inspiration for John Doran's acclaimed memoir Jolly Lad about the recovery from alcoholism, drug addiction, and mental illness. A new expanded edition has just been published by Strange Attractor Press.