It took a few seconds for me to comprehend what I was hearing. Thelma, my dad’s partner, in tears and choking on her words, was on the phone telling me that Dad had been rushed to Wexham Park Hospital ICU and I needed to get there. Fast.
The hospital was a two hour drive away. In a daze I grabbed my bag and jacket, left a brief explanatory note for George, and headed for the M4.
As I drove, dashing away the tears of worry, my mind was whirling. What had happened? Why was he in intensive care? Had something gone wrong with the triple heart bypass he’d undergone a couple of months earlier?
How bad was it?
It was November, a month Dad especially disliked because it was the 12th November that his son, my brother, had died. Every year around the anniversary of Stephen’s death Dad had tended to withdraw a little, and he didn’t fully recover until the following spring. Aside from the fresh grief each November brought him, winter had always depressed him. He loved the sun, the hotter the better.
Thinking of Stephen, I begged the Universe not to take my beloved Daddy too, and as I exited the motorway and waited at a set of traffic lights, the Universe replied. At least, that’s how it seemed. There, in my mind’s eye, I was given a clear vision of Dad. He was sitting in his blue armchair, a large, grey oxygen tank to one side, a clear plastic tube snaking from it and looping around his ears to secure the two prongs that blew air into his nostrils. He looked too thin. Diminished. And so, so sad. A soft but firm voice – I don’t know whose voice or where it came from – asked, “Is this what you want for him?”
The lights changed to green and I forcibly reined in my emotions so I could concentrate on the road and find the hospital. I couldn’t possibly risk an accident now. But the question went on echoing in my mind, over and over. Was this the future Dad faced, his last years hooked up to an oxygen machine as his life-force, his energy, slowly drained away? How he would hate that.
At last, after what had seemed like a drive of 290 miles instead of the actual 90, I turned into the crowded car park, praying that I would find a space.
I was forced to circle the car park several times, like the planes above me waiting for a landing-slot at Heathrow, and panic rose as I began to think I’d never find a space. Other cars were arriving but none seemed to be leaving. Then I spotted reversing lights just ahead of me. Yes, they were leaving! With an exhalation of relief I parked, fumbled coins into the ticket machine, put the ticket on the dashboard, all the while cursing those extra minutes keeping me away from my dad.
At the reception desk, chest heaving with the exertion of running full-pelt, I gasped out that I needed the ICU and was running again almost before the receptionist had finished telling me which way to go.
I slammed through the double doors of the unit and immediately spotted Thelma and Dad’s younger sister, Esme huddled together, their faces pale and drawn. They didn’t know much, they told me, but they’d briefly seen Dad and he wasn’t conscious. When the nurse had asked about his next of kin, they’d explained that I was on my way.
Hearing that, my knees all but gave way. His partner of twenty years was there, his sister was there, and yet they had to wait for me.
I went to the next set of doors that led into the ICU. I pushed then pulled, not realising the doors were locked, then impatiently stabbed at the bell to my right. A nurse came and I gave my name, expecting to be admitted immediately to Dad’s side, but she explained they were giving him some treatment. She would let the consultant know that I had arrived, but in the meantime we were to go to the family room where we could have privacy.
The wait seemed interminable, but the consultant arrived, accompanied by another doctor. She was, a tall, thin woman in her forties with wavy, dark blond hair, with a slight accent. German, I thought, my mind straying to inconsequential detail because I so dreaded what she was going to say.
Thelma and Esme sat side by side on the settee, I had taken an armchair. The consultant took the one opposite me and the other doctor, looking so young in his fresh white coat, remained standing behind her, a thick file with orange covers clasped to his chest as though it were a shield. My eyes blurred at the sight of Dad’s full name written on the front in black felt pen.
The consultant looked at the three of us in turn while we confirmed our relationship to Dad, and then she fixed her pale-blue gaze on me. “Well now,” she said, “You are Mr Forrest’s next of kin. That being the case I will explain the situation to you all but I can only take decisions from you.”
Esme stifled a sob and from the corner of my eye I saw Thelma drop her head into her hands, but I didn’t turn to look at her. I don’t think I could have commanded a single muscle to move at that point even if I had wanted to.
The doctor handed Dad’s case notes to the consultant and she opened it on her knees. As she cleared her throat and started to talk, that odd part of my brain that had taken in her appearance and wondered at her accent now speculated how often in her career she’d had to face anxious relatives in this very room and others just like it. How had she learned to deliver such news, such life-changing news, so calmly and with no emotion? But when she came to the end of what she had to tell us and closed Dad’s file, she looked at me with red-rimmed, watery eyes.
“You can all come and see him now,” she said, “and then we’ll talk a little more.”
The facts had been laid out before me and a decision would soon be required. A decision that only I, as next of kin, could make.
The burden of what lay ahead rested heavily on me, but I stood up, took a deep breath, and went to talk to my dad.
Next episode: next of kin, Part 2: The Decision