It was around half-past four in the afternoon on Tuesday 2nd of March 2017, when I received a call from my Mum telling me that Dad was seriously ill. From the first words she spoke to me, I felt certain that Dad was going to die. I was at home with Rafael at the time and he was too young to leave alone, and too innocent to expose to the events that might unfold at the hospital.
It was twenty-past five before Loly returned my calls to her work. She was on her way home, she said, and would be there in five minutes. I raced to the hospital, parked my car, and ran down the corridors, past the many staff, patients, and visitors towards the critical care ward where they had taken Dad.
As I approached the swing doors, a young nurse, no more than twenty years old, was standing anxiously in the corridor, waiting for someone that turned out to be me.
She stopped me as I entered and asked me who I was looking for. “I am looking for James Dunford,” I replied, conscious of how strange it felt to be asking after someone else with the same name as me. “I’m his son.”
She looked like a child; very small, very young and obviously upset. I felt a wave of compassion towards her as I realized that she had been given the task of breaking bad news to a bereaved relative; me. She led me through the doors to the critical care ward and into a small side room.
She asked me to sit down, which I politely declined, and with a shaking voice she explained how my father had passed away, just minutes before.
The truth is that my father had died quite unnecessarily, and due in no small part to his rabid fear of hospitals. For some days he had been losing blood but had kept this information from my mum. On that morning, he woke up early, with an urgent need to go to the bathroom. The blood loss had become extensive and his blood pressure, normally high, had dropped to below normal levels. Immediately after using the toilet, he fell heavily, passing out on the bathroom floor.
Hearing him fall, Mum rushed to the bathroom and immediately called for an ambulance. By the time it had arrived he had regained consciousness. The paramedics stabilised him with fluids and told him he would have to come with them to hospital. So strong was his fear of hospitals, Dad refused to go, and it was agreed instead that his G.P. would come out to see him later that day.
By the time the doctor arrived in the early afternoon, dad was quite ill and in need of a blood transfusion. Reluctantly, he agreed to be admitted to hospital if my Mum travelled in the ambulance with him.
He was admitted to the critical care unit and chatted and joked with the nurses until the doctor arrived to assess him. The doctor began to explain the treatment he needed, and Dad became very anxious. His heart, already struggling with the task of pumping insufficient blood around his body, went into cardiac arrest, and Dad passed away a few minutes before I could get there.
For almost a month after he died, I felt guilty that despite the deep love and affection that I felt for my dad, the huge respect I have for the honest and honourable man that he was, I hadn’t shed a single tear at his passing. Surely, the very least we owe our parents and loved ones is to feel a level of grief at their passing that would move us to tears?
My Dad was a very well-known and well-liked local figure in the town of Lymington, where I grew up, and it was always going to be the case that his funeral was going to be something of an occasion. I made up my mind that I was going to honour Dad by talking about him to the congregation; not to mourn his death, but to celebrate his life.
I enjoyed writing my eulogy for Dad and the truth is that I looked forward to the funeral. It represented an opportunity to see many people that I hadn’t seen in a long time, and I wanted the opportunity to spend time with them, remembering my dad. When the day came, the church was packed with over four hundred people, all there to pay their respects to my father. I felt so proud of him, I knew he would have been humbled and moved by the number of people who came to say goodbye.
I felt emotional during the funeral, but never sad, and the tears that I had assumed I must have ‘bottled up’ since his death and would surely flow at the funeral still didn’t come.
It was several months later, when time had afforded me the perspective to understand my own feelings around his death, that I was able to view Dad’s passing not as a single point in time, not a singular event, but the culmination of a process that I knew and understood to have begun many years before.
Several years before his death, it became clear that Dad was experiencing a decline in his memory and had begun to be repetitive. It wasn’t long before Dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia, a form of dementia that usually leads to death in around five years from diagnosis.
He began to withdraw from the world piece by piece, becoming less and less talkative, less interested in the wider world. Our conversations were becoming more superficial. I had always valued his knowledge and wisdom, but I noticed a new reticence in him to offer advice, a reluctance to offer his opinions.
When I had learned that he had vascular dementia it had not come as a great surprise, I had seen the signs of his decline for several years. His once prodigious memory was becoming muddled, and he had begun to blend memories together, substituting the actors from different events, changing dates and times.
As the condition progressed, a strange new symptom appeared that initially horrified and embarrassed my mum. He began to mix up things that he had read or seen on television with his own experiences. His mind began to create new memories of exotic holidays with Mum that he had never been on, and to my mum’s utter mortification, he would regale their friends about the wonderful vacation they had had in Russia, or how beautiful the Canadian Rockies were, even though they had never been near them.
This was an especially difficult time for my mum, who was not accustomed to my dad telling lies. She found his stories distressing and embarrassing and would immediately point out to their friends that they had never been to these places.
One Sunday, after lunch, he began talking with great fondness of his visit to Ecuador, and how welcome my wife’s family had made them feel. He remembered the heat, the landscapes, and the monuments around Quito, and for a moment I almost believed he had been there too. Then I remembered a book he had bought to learn more about Ecuador, and when I went back to look at it, the things he had described from their visit were detailed in vivid colour pictures and pages of descriptive text.
Of course, they weren’t lies, he believed them to be true, and I often wondered how my dad must have felt, telling those stories about his adventures only to be told they were a fantasy. But If he was upset in those times, it didn’t last, and it wouldn’t be long before dad would be telling the same story to someone else, or possibly a slightly different one. He had, quite mercifully, forgotten my mum telling him that the memory wasn’t real.
This was a pattern that went on for a couple of years until mum came to terms with the fact that Dad had dementia and couldn’t help his tangled memory. She became less embarrassed by his stories and stopped correcting him, saving him from what must have been embarrassing and disorienting situations, learning that what he believed to be true was not real, that his own memory could not be trusted. How much of that understanding stayed with him I don’t know, but it may have contributed to his gradual withdrawal from the community.
As time passed, Dad’s topics of conversation grew increasingly narrow, focussing on a small selection of memories that he would recant almost every time I saw him. Once such memory was one that he had of my daughter Aisha, who he would carry around the garden as a baby, describing for her in detail everything that she pointed at.
One Sunday, when we were visiting my parents for lunch, Dad was telling me this story (as he had so many times before) when he came to the end of it, and immediately began repeating it to me. It was an awkward moment, and I had an epiphany listening to my dad that day, that he was already gone; that before me sat the shell of him, with just a few recordings inside it, playing on a loop, an echo of the man he used to be.
I felt profoundly sad that day, and I realised that dementia was claiming my father piece by tiny piece, memory by memory, and with each one gone, a little more of him had died. I had begun to mourn him then, to prepare for the day I knew would come; a day I would be ready for.
I have forgiven myself for the tears I didn’t shed at his death, knowing as I do now that the pain of his loss was diluted by its many years in the making. I have come to think of my dad’s illness less like a long battle and more like a slow, gentle surrender.
It was five years yesterday that Dad passed away, and I wonder what he would have made of the world today. A great admirer of education, he would have revelled in his grandchildren’s academic achievements and would have enjoyed getting to know his youngest grandson. Dementia brought Dad strange gifts; a lifetime travelling the world and a place at Oxford University, but these were poor compensation for the life that it stole from him.