Hospitals are appalling places. Entering, my heart was assailed by a long forgotten dread, my stomach seized by the grip of fear. Prisons, schools, and hospitals. The institutional architecture speaking of institutional control. Hand over your clothes and put on the uniform; scrub clean and sit in a room; silent until spoken to; tests, investigations, and examinations; interminable time between; communal toilets, communal catering; waiting for results; the fear of failure. And the smell of disinfectant, flavour enhancer of decay. Nobody visits the sick with hope in their heart.
Somewhere in this sprawl there must be an old building, otherwise it wouldn't be called the Victoria Hospital. Surrounded now by an endless sprawl of lightweight buildings, lean-tos, and Portakabins. A temporary metropolis, as if the authorities were making do, expecting the sick to go away in time. A tawdry refugee camp squatting on the edge of this city of fresh air and fun. Cars circling endlessly in search of parking space. The endless trudge through echoing corridors. Porters wheeling recumbent forms submerged beneath bottles and tubes. People weeping silently in corners. Somewhere in this suffocating machine my father was gasping out his life.
I had walked through these doors once before. My mother and I had sat at my father's bedside waiting for the end. That was cancer too. But Dad had made an almost miraculous recovery and gone on to many more years of active energetic life. Could history repeat itself twenty years later?
We found Dad weak and tired, pale and thin, but mentally alert. And still in control, or as much as was possible tucked into a hospital bed with a tube in his arm. He began by telling me how he came to be there; about Margaret bringing him in for his check-up and the doctors saying he had become very dehydrated; he must be kept under observation whilst various tests were carried out and his condition stabilised before he was sent home. I knew that Michael must have been told the same story. It reminded me of Mum's death. Each of us had gone home and been sat down in turn and told exactly what had happened. The same tired voice, the same rehearsed official position. He might be feeble and distressed but Dad was still in charge. It was both reassuring and infuriating.
The three of us chatted for about an hour before Dad began to nod off. His speech was punctuated by the occasional long, deep sigh, culminating in one so deep it was almost a groan of despair at a burden too great to bear. You've no idea how tired I am. Not said complainingly, just with an enormous weariness, almost a surprise in his voice that such exhaustion was possible. He asked us if we would mind leaving as he would really like to get some sleep.
It was a relief to get back out into the open air, breathing deeply to ease the tension. To be honest, Dad was no worse than I expected. I was upset but not shocked by his appearance. There seemed no reason why he should not bounce back as he had done before.
The next day Michael and I went to talk to the specialist who was in charge of Dad. He couldn't tell us much. Dad was getting no worse, but equally he was getting no better. He was simply not responding to any treatment. We established that the specialist had been quite open with Dad and that he was aware his illness was progressive and incurable. It was important for us to know that because the family fiction had always been that Dad never knew he'd had cancer in the past. It seems incredible to say that now but such things were never discussed in our family. Even at that late stage none of us had the courage to ask Dad such a direct question and he would never tell us.
It was an unsatisfactory meeting as such meetings always are. All we needed to know was when Dad would go home, and how long he might have to live. The specialist couldn't tell us. He wasn't being secretive; he simply didn't know and wasn't prepared to speculate. He did vouchsafe that we were now talking of terminal care but not what that term might be, or whether such care would be in hospital, at home, or in a hospice. Then he went on to say that Dad was currently too weak to think of moving to the local hospice.
That really shook us. It was the first indication, in terms that we could understand, as to how ill Dad really was. Afterwards we talked endlessly of what might or might not happen next, constantly replaying our conversation with the specialist to sift out fresh nuances. We were still inclined to be optimistic, but even optimism suggested Dad wouldn't last until Christmas.
It became the norm for me to visit Dad after lunch in the early afternoon when visiting hours began. He developed a better colour and some days had a little more energy, some days a little less. One day I stayed almost two hours but generally after about an hour he would ask me to leave him to sleep.
Each day I would tell him a little more about my progress around the coast. He would apologise for delaying me on my journey, and I would say that I was happy to stay until there was some news from the doctors and he could go home again. The subject of cancer was never mentioned.
Michael went back to Essex and Margaret drove over from Rochdale every couple of days. A few of Dad's friends and neighbours came to visit and some telephoned to ask after him. There seemed a general reluctance to visit without being invited. Visiting was for family who should not be intruded upon.
I took the bike into a cycle shop in Blackpool for a service. They tightened up a couple of loose spokes and sorted out the aberrant gear change. More importantly they found me a couple of first-class tyres, one of which replaced the shopper tyre on the rear wheel, the other to be carried as a spare. The front tyre was still the original tyre with which I had set out and I was curious to see how much further it would go.
I also took the opportunity to buy a new waterproof jacket and overtrousers. Sooner or later my journey would eventually continue. The longer I stayed here the deeper into winter I would be cycling and the less would my leaking running suit be able to cope with the wintry weather.
Other than that I did nothing constructive. I was poised between two stages of my life on the road. The road was my reality. Here I was in no-man's-land, unable to go forward until Dad came home. Unable to do anything for him except sit by his bedside for an hour a day and wait for something to happen. Wait in the house. Walk along the sea front, waiting.
I still thought of visiting that house as going home but in fact it never had been my home. Mum and Dad had retired there shortly after I had gone to work in London. St Annes was a very familiar place but without Dad the house was my lodgings but not a home. As always it was immaculate. Almost every time I visited another room had been redecorated or a new carpet laid. After Mum died Dad had done all the cleaning himself and kept the house as trim as he still kept the garden. I felt as if I was house-sitting for somebody. The house was familiar but empty, waiting for the true owner to return.
The constant redecoration was typical of Dad. Not for him to make do and mend. He could afford to buy a new car every few years and did so. He could afford it, but it was more an attitude to life, constantly going forwards into the future. Before going into hospital he had ordered a new stereo system and to house it had commissioned a new walnut cabinet to match the walnut china cabinet and the nest of tables already in the lounge. If they made a good job of it he was intending on his return home to commission another new cabinet to house a new television. Life goes on. Does it, would it?
The next weekend Michael and his family returned to St Annes to visit Dad. They had a big decision to make. On the Monday he and his wife were due to fly out to Los Angeles to begin their winter's teaching at the university. Should they go? We all went out for a big Sunday lunch and then afterwards in shifts to visit Dad in hospital. Michael and Nicky went in first with their children and came out with their eyes shining with relief and excitement. Dad was so much better, sitting up in bed talkative and alert, asking all the right questions of the children, about the courses they were taking at school and the instruments they were playing. Michael and Nicky drove off back to Essex to pack their bags for America in no doubt of Dad's resurgance, confident he would survive for many weeks and months yet.
But when I went in with Margaret and Brian and their children and grandchildren we found Dad his usual tired self. After all it was far more people for a far longer period than he had been able to cope with previously. We left disappointed but not surprised.
As Dad's condition continued unchanged it gradually dawned on us that he may well have put on one last effort for Michael and his family, summoning up whatever strength he had left, so that they would fly off to California next day just as planned. He would not have wanted their normal lives disrupted by his little difficulty. He probably knew he would never see them again.
So it went on until the Thursday of my second week. I found Dad very weak and not wanting to talk. It was in any case difficult to talk to him as he hadn't put in his hearing aid. Nor had he put on his glasses or combed his hair. He had always been very careful of his appearance and these subtle changes were quite shocking. It was as if he could no longer be bothered. The doctor on the ward advised me that if Dad continued deteriorating it might be only another forty-eight hours before the end.
I telephoned Margaret at work and she immediately drove over. I awaited her arrival in the corridor, trembling with fear, unable to go back into the room until I had calmed down. Why does the half-expected inevitable still come as such a shock? Dad brightened up a bit when Margaret arrived but was still not up to talking much. Though now much worse than we had ever seen him it was some comfort that his mind was still sharp and that our presence was of some benefit, if only for a short while.
That night Margaret stayed with me in Dad's house and it was all we could do to force down take-away fish and chips by way of an evening meal. We returned to the hospital in the morning, the first time we had been outside normal visiting hours. Dad knew that we were there, that it was us, but after a short time urged us to leave and let him sleep. We tried to stay but our presence distressed him, making him restless and disturbed. All we wanted was to be with him to the end, but he had his own way of coping, we could only fall in with his wishes.
We returned again in the afternoon and this time he did not know we were there. He was sleeping fitfully, talking quietly to himself, fighting off whatever was dragging him down. We noticed the drip had been removed from his arm. One of the nurses hugged him carefully and lovingly, trying unsuccessfully to evoke a response. Where it is difficult to prise information out of doctors, nurses speak volumes, though with actions rather than words. Throughout that long afternoon and evening they sustained us with smiles and cups of tea. To our shame we did not recognise Sister Margaret Jones, though she had recognised Dad instantly having cared for him twenty years earlier in this same hospital.
Margaret's husband Brian came over after work and then returned home about ten. An hour later Margaret and I were also on the point of going home when the nurses returned with armchairs and blankets to make us comfortable for the night. Margaret and I just stared silently and numbly at each other. Was this it?