My Dad

Dad Portrait 2

Geoffrey A Saunders 10th March 1929 – 8th August 1982

It has been a while since I wrote, and there is a lot I could write about, but today I have written about my Dad, it was 33 years last Saturday that he passed away and I felt the need to talk about him.

In October 1977, my family and I had our last holiday together, my Mum, Rosemary, age 47, Dad, Geoff, age 48,  Nana Rose, age 76, my eldest sister Sharon, age 24, then my sister Nicola, age 19 and lastly me age 14.  We went to the Cotswolds, Nicola was to be married the following July, I remember we spent what felt like ages wandering around Bath looking for a Wedding Dress for her. On one of the mornings, my Dad and I were in the kitchen eating toast for breakfast, Dad started to cough, and was then choking, I panicked and ran to find my Mum. I can’t remember what happened next but Dad was fine so he must have managed to clear the toast from his throat. We were all completely unaware that the reason Dad had choked was that his oesophagus was narrowing.

Then in January 1978, when I was almost fifteen years old, having finishing school for the day, my friend Lorraine and I were chatting at the end of the drive to my home.  My neighbour, came out to tell me that I had better go in as he could hear someone was being sick in my house.  I thought it was probably my Mum as she was always getting ill and I was fed up that I had to go and help out again.

When I got inside, my Mum was fine, it was my Dad being sick, he had put his car in the garage which was why I didn’t know he was at home.

Over the next few days, Dad didn’t get any better so Mum called the doctor.  When he came, the doctor phoned for an ambulance to take my Dad to hospital as his heart wasn’t beating normally.  My Dad had some tests done in the hospital and they found he had Endocarditis – inflammation of the heart valves and he also had Septicaemia – a blood infection.  My Dad was put on intra-venous antibiotics to clear the infection in his blood and drugs to reduce the swelling in his heart.

Whilst he was in hospital, the doctors did more tests as it was not normal for a healthy 48 year old man to have his immune system depleted enough for him to be so vulnerable to these infections and they wanted to find the cause.  They discovered that my Dad had a tumour in his lower oesophagus and upper stomach.  My Dad needed an operation to remove the growth, which he had within a few days. On the day of the operation, Mum stayed at the hospital with Dad and Sharon and I went to visit him that evening, on the way there, she told me that the doctors had confirmed that the growth was cancerous, but she didn’t need to tell me, I had already worked that out for myself.

My Dad had an L shaped wound which went down from his breast bone towards his abdomen and then turned across his chest to just behind his back.  The doctors said that this type of cancer normally only occurred in old men who smoked pipes, my Dad had started smoking when he left school at 14 and had later swapped cigarettes for a pipe.  These were the days when smoking at work was commonplace, although Dad’s job took him outside to inspect building work, the time spent in the office was probably smoke filled.

He was very ill, I don’t remember how long it was until he was well enough to come home.  When he did come home, he could only eat liquefied food but even then he struggled to keep anything down partly because of the operation but also because of the chemotherapy.  He looked awful and his hair began to fall out.

I feel that I lost my Dad the day he got ill, he was never the same person again, the Dad I loved had ‘died’ for me then.  I remember the happy times, silly things, like Dad making my sisters and I laugh by telling us fairy stories in a funny voice and with his own silly bits added in, or details changed. And the times Dad would fall asleep in the armchair when he got home from work, my sisters and I would torment him by throwing cushions at him to wake him up.  And there was the time he and I were messing around on the way to buying my new PE kit for Secondary School, I was trying to walk along the kerb stones and Dad was trying to pull me off, I fell and twisted my ankle so badly Dad had to take me to casualty and I started at my new school on crutches.  I could go on, there are so many happy memories.

Dad had always been a strong capable person, just the week before he got ill he had been playing football with his work team.  Dad did his national service in the RAF, he was a mechanic.  Mum and Dad were married on 7th July 1952, they lived in Kent, near Dartford, I was born at Starboard Avenue, Greenhithe, Kent. Dad worked as a shipwright at the dockyards, working on the London Barges.  My Dad was ambitious, he wanted more than this, so in the evenings he studied to be a building surveyor.  He would sit in the dining room studying, my Mum would lock the door so that my sisters and I couldn’t disturb him.  I don’t remember this as I was a toddler at the time.  My Dad achieved his qualifications and got a job working in the Building Control Department in Chelmsford, Essex, this is when we moved to Brook Lane, Galleywood.  This is the first home I can remember, I was two years old.

When I was four, we moved to Beehive Lane.  The house was a 1930’s semi, it was in a poor state, very little had been done to it since it had been built, but it meant that it was cheap enough for my parents to afford to buy.  The wiring was so dangerous, Mum got an electric shock when she had been cleaning the house ready for us to move in. So, as soon as the money was scraped together, Dad re-wired the whole house. My Dad could turn his hand to every job needed to renovate our home, it seemed that nothing was beyond him.  We had very little money at that time, after paying the mortgage, bills, groceries and essential clothing, what little remained went on modernising our home.

For the first few winters of living there, when it was frosty outside, the house was so cold we would wake to beautiful frost patterns on the inside of our bedroom windows. ‘Jack Frost’ visiting to draw on the window panes was very exciting for a young child!  When my parents had saved enough money, Dad installed gas central heating, there was a lot of mess and upheaval with fitting all the radiators and laying the pipes under the floorboards but it was worth it, we were lovely and cosy when it was finished.

To earn extra money, at weekends and after work, Dad would use his surveying and draughting skills, drawing up building plans for his clients to submit when applying for planning permission.  After a few years, we were a bit better off, the renovations on our home had been completed, so the money from this would pay for a family holiday each year and Nana Rose Billing would come along too.  This was years before computers and CAD packages, Dad would draw up the plans by hand using technical drawing instruments on a huge draughting board. Once completed, Dad got them copied, these copies then needed to be hand coloured to a specific scheme indicating the building materials to be used etc. I am good at colouring in and enjoy it, so would sometimes help Dad with this and in return he would give me a bit of extra pocket money. I recall many evenings spent with Dad at the dining room table, Dad drawing and me colouring, in companionable silence.

My Dad slowly got better and started to go back to work part time at first and then full time, life almost got back to normal but the cancer hadn’t finished with him yet.  I can’t remember the exact sequence of events and time scales, these things happened, but I may not have got them in the right order.

The scar from my Dad’s first operation developed a small growth on the left side on his abdomen.  It looked like a lumpy boil and it started to discharge but it wasn’t puss coming out it was cancerous matter.  The growth got bigger and bigger eating away under the skin.

My Dad’s case was referred to London as he needed more specialist treatment.  He went to Hackney Hospital in East London to have the second growth removed, it was a cancerous cyst.  He had to have more chemotherapy but the growth came back again.

By the time the doctors decided to operate on the cyst a second time, it was the size of a melon, the cystic cavity would fill with cancerous matter which when it had nowhere else to go, would discharge, it was horrific, you could see it when Dad’s dressings were being changed, I can’t imagine how it made him feel.  Dad was referred to an even more specialist hospital, St. Bartholomew’s Hospital in central London.  Mum, Sharon & I spent the day of the operation sitting waiting at the hospital in the corridor outside the operating theatre, the operation lasted all day, it was about 8 ½ hours by the time Dad went to recovery.  I believe that my Dad died and was revived during this operation, I have no proof of this, but I just felt it at the time, I have no logical explanation for my certainty that this had happened to him, it is a feeling which stays with me to this day.

My Dad was critically ill after the operation.  He had had a massive amount of skin removed from his abdomen along with the cyst and this had been replaced by skin from his thighs.  His abdomen looked like a patchwork quilt.  Some of the skin graft didn’t take well, it started to go dark but fortunately recovered and began to grow normally.  I think my Dad had to have more chemotherapy and was able to come home when he was sufficiently recovered.  The operation had done nothing to prolong his life expectancy, it was only ‘to improve the quality of remaining life’ the cancer was now widespread in his body.  When my Dad first got ill, he was given six years to live, he didn’t quite manage this and I would question whether towards the end it was a life worth living, he was ill and in pain for most of it, but he never gave up hope that he could beat the cancer until near to the end.  I remember an awful day when the doctors had to put in a line for my Dad’s drip for his medication. Dad had already had so many needles in the veins in his arms and legs that they had collapsed and couldn’t be used again, so his neck was the only place left to successfully get the needed in properly.  Most of the time my Dad spent in hospital, which was a lot, he had needed a drip for fluids and the chemotherapy and other drugs.

My Dad was having trouble managing the stairs at home as he was getting so weak, in the New Year of 1982, we moved from Beehive Lane to a bungalow.  During the last few months, my Dad was increasingly ill, he couldn’t do much at all, he looked awful, his face and body had hollowed out, he was skin and bone, except where the cancer was growing, the cancer was eating him away.

Our GP visited regularly to check Dad’s drugs and monitor the progress of the cancer.  In August 1982 he told us that Dad had probably only a few days left to live, he was only 53 years old.  I took compassionate leave from work, Sharon, her husband Mike and baby Andrew came over and Mum got in touch with Nicola for her to come from her home in Nottingham.  We spent the next day sitting by my Dad’s beside, he was asleep most of the time, his breathing was laboured and there were long gaps between each breath.  The next day my Dad stopped breathing, we knew this was going to happen but it doesn’t make any difference to the amount of pain we felt at losing him.  I had lost a parent and if I’m honest, he was straightforward, uncomplicated and reliable, he was always there, a solid, steady presence in my childhood.  Of course there were times when we disagreed, he was quite old fashioned in his moral beliefs and this caused some conflict between us in the last few years of his life.  But I always knew where I was with him, I didn’t have to worry about what sort of mood he might be in, if he was having a bad day then we would know it, but once he had had a bit of a moan, he was OK and in all the time he was ill, he never took his pain, discomfort and feelings about the cancer out on us.

I loved him and I had lost him, I was 19½ years old, I have now been without my father for 33 years, I still miss him, the thing with the death of a parent or indeed any person you dearly love, is that the pain never quite goes away, it gets easier to live with over time, but there are still occasions when the sadness bubbles up to the surface.  For all the biggest events of my adult life, I haven’t been able to share my joy with my Dad, Ray and I were engaged before Dad died but he never saw us get married, he hasn’t met our children.

At times when I have needed him I haven’t had the benefit and comfort of having him to talk to, I haven’t had the reassurance of his love.

I really need him now, but he’s not here.