Friday night, Dad is finally home. He has been gone for two weeks, well at least this time it was for two weeks. Last time it was three, and the time before that it seemed closer to a month. It’s as though every time he makes progress with his cancer something sets him back. Infection, heart problems, mobility problems, stomach problems; there is always another bump in the road. We got everyone around for his grand return back from the hospital. His two sisters, his brother, his four kids, and the rest of those who he calls family.
The last twenty four hours have been exceptionally difficult for both Dad and the rest of us. His medical team were unable to get the cancer under control during this protracted hospital admission and their tests indicate that it has been spreading like wildfire through his bones, liver and now his lungs; metastasising. What started as some abdominal pain and blood in his urine six months ago has turned into a nightmare we wouldn’t wish upon anyone. Dad has been given weeks to live, if that, according to some of the Doctors. They have changed the course of his therapy from an aggressive combination of chemotherapy and radiotherapy to comfort care; palliation. His chances of making a full recovery from where he is now are zero, any more cancer treatment is far more likely to kill him than to kill the cancer they said. At this point all we can do is wait for the inevitable. But we aren’t going to let that get us down. Tonight, just like all the other days he was discharged from hospital, is a celebration. A celebration of his resolve, his patience, his strength, and of love this family is built on. We were a pretty close family unit before all this started, but this has brought us even closer. We have our ups and downs, our fights, our arguments, but ultimately we all knew that it was what made our family so special. Tonight we are a family complete once more.
It was a slow and painful process getting Dad from the car into the house. He was still walking, but the last few months had taken their toll. Every step took monumental effort both cognitively and physically. His bones and joints ached, his heart pounded, his lungs seemed to only be working at a fraction of their previous capacity. He would never again see the upstairs of the house he worked for so many years to pay off. The hospital had organised a bed for him that now resided in the centre of the lounge room, his favourite lounge chair tossed aside and the rest of the furniture rearranged by the rest of us in a deliberate act to place him at the literal and metaphorical centre of discussion. That was important to Dad, he wasn’t going to be pushed into a corner and become a fly on the wall at family gatherings just because he could barely walk. No amount of cancer was going to stop him from letting everyone know who was running this family. It didn’t take long for the conversation to flow. Dad wasn’t going to let us ‘talk cancer’ as he liked to put it, instead seeding discussions about everything from the idiosyncrasies of foreign policy and their relation to off season football trades to Friday night’s television programming. Dad was in his element, and for just a moment, if you ignored his pale skin, the gaunt face, the yellowing sclera of his eyes and frequent coughs, you could almost pretend there was nothing wrong with him. No cancer, no infections, no failing heart and lungs. Just a man who loved to make his family feel uncomfortable with overly conservative political opinions and terrible advice for fantasy football. Maybe it was having his family around, maybe it was the cocktail of painkillers he was taking, or maybe a combination of the two, but for the first time in months he looked content.
After some time, we helped him to the bathroom. It was the thud we heard first, then a yell for help from my sister who was waiting outside the bathroom door. Dad had collapsed, he was lying face down on the bathroom floor with his upper body obstructing the door only allowing it to be partially opened. We could hear him taking long, slow breaths in and out, the kind that instilled a different kind of unease in everyone that heard them. Someone called 000 and within minutes there was a series of loud knocks at the front door followed by a proclamation that the ambulance was here. Two paramedics walked into the house carrying their equipment and were led to the bathroom. One of them reached an arm through the door and moved Dad’s shoulders enough such that they could manipulate first their legs then their upper body through the narrow opening into the room. In the short time since we first heard the thud, Dad’s breathing had stopped. The next few minutes were a blur, the paramedic had moved Dad’s body on the floor so the door could be opened and my sister and my auntie were pleading with the paramedics to not do anything and to let him pass peacefully. Everyone sat in silence in anxious anticipation in the living room for an eternity. Dad’s bed still the centrepiece of the room, now seeming more empty than ever before. One of the paramedics came out and said, "we’ve cleaned him up, we just need some help to get him back into bed." They retrieved a canvas sheet from the ambulance that had a number of handles stitched onto each side and rolled Dad’s body awkwardly in the confines of the bathroom until it was nestled underneath him. Six of us packed into the bathroom each gripping a handle, lifting Dad’s lifeless body out of the bathroom, through the hallway and back into the living room and back into his bed. The paramedics pulled up the doona and tucked Dad in, just like he used to do to us when we were kids. One of the paramedics left the room and made a phone call then returned and asked if there was anything else they could do for us. The room remained silent, my auntie stood and moved to embrace each of the paramedics, thanking them for coming.