'Come and live with me, Dad'
Date Posted: 15.07.2012
While Tessa Cunningham was being treated for cancer, her husband had an affair. Just as she was recovering from that double blow, her fit nonagenarian father broke his hip – and life took another unexpected turn.
In our basement kitchen, The Archers is on the radio but no one is listening because there is too much going on. My brother Andy is humming to himself as he painstakingly mixes a saucepan of custard. I count down the seconds until the microwave pings to announce that the chocolate pudding is ready to serve."Perfect timing," Andy announces. Then he puts on a mock formal voice. "Now do you want to take the tray up to The Gentleman or shall I?""Your turn," I say. And so, with a flourish, Andy heads up the stairs to where The Gentleman awaits: our 97-year-old father. I am left to clear up the mess, trying not to curse under my breath and trying not to remember how – until recently – the kitchen was my domain. In fact, the whole house was. Instead, at the age of 53, here I am sharing my home with my father and my brother.
Trying to explain my family set-up to strangers is no easy task. Responses range from "Gosh, you are brave" to "Hang on a minute. You've got your dad with you? And now your brother? You're a glutton for punishment."I have to admit that, until recently, I would have agreed. Everything about my situation shrieks out that it shouldn't work.
Since the day I left home at 19 to go to university, I had never lived with my father. That was 35 years ago. It has been even longer since I lived with Andy. He went to boarding school when he was 11 and afterwards was only at home fleetingly in the school holidays. That was in 1962 – a whole half century ago, when I was three.Then, in quick succession, a series of apparently unconnected and deeply dreadful things happened and life with my husband and two teenage daughters imploded.
First, in February 2007, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. From that moment, everything changed. I had to have a mastectomy, followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.As well as losing my right breast, I lost all my hair. I gave up work so I could concentrate on getting better. Besides, the chemo drugs made me feel I'd got a permanent case of jetlag and concentrating on anything for more than a few exhausting moments was impossible.
While I was going through treatment, my husband had an affair. It may sound shocking but apparently it's much more common for men to stray when their wives are seriously ill than most of us would like to believe. Richard had given up his high-flying job in London soon after we married to start a gardening business. His girlfriend was a widow in her 60s whose lawn he cut. I suspected the truth while I was ill but I didn't have the physical or emotional stamina to confront him. My life depended on me trusting him and conserving the dribbling remains of my strength to stay positive and focused. However, when Richard did finally admit the truth – 10 months after I finished treatment – I knew there was no way I could ever trust or respect him again. More to the point, I couldn't respect myself if I took him back. So I started divorce proceedings. That sounds glib. In fact, picking over the past, torturing myself about where things had gone so badly wrong, was intensely painful. Trying to hold things together was like fighting to keep a runaway train on the track.
I didn't just have myself to think about – there were my daughters: Ellen, 18, and Elise, 17. Although Richard wasn't their father, he had come into their lives when they were tiny and treated them as his own. Then, just as the final divorce papers came through, in June 2010, and I dared to imagine that I could start reconstructing my old life – albeit as a newly single woman – my father fell and broke his hip. It seemed to be the last straw. Dad had lived independently, round the corner from my house, since my mother had died in 1995, aged 77. Apart from the odd twinge of arthritis, he was outrageously hale and hearty. He had even played golf and gone ballroom dancing until shortly before he fell and still enjoyed whizzing into town on the bus for a cup of coffee.
I had never imagined him becoming weak and needy, and never planned for it. But, after the operation to replace his shattered hip, it was obvious that he couldn't live alone again. He needed a walking frame to get around and couldn't manage stairs. While Andy and my other brother, Simon, and I planned what to do for the best, Dad – a retired maths teacher – went to live in a local authority care home for rehabilitation. The staff were friendly and efficient but, as the days passed, he seemed increasingly lost and frightened.
One day, as I took Dad's hand to say goodbye and as he kissed my cheek, he held my hand just a little too long. And, as I looked into his eyes, I saw all the yearning he was too proud and loving to articulate: "Please take me home." It was the last thing I wanted or expected. But I didn't know how to say no. And so the words popped out of my mouth: "Come and live with me, Dad." His rheumy old eyes lit up and for the first time in a long while I felt a spark of hope and excitement. I realised that it was time to stop hankering after my old life. In making such a radical change, perhaps I truly might be able to move on. Besides, if cancer had taught me anything, it was that life is unpredictable.
So Dad came to live with me in September 2010 – almost two years to the day since Richard had moved out and one week after Ellen left for university. (Elise will be following her this September.) And I can honestly say it has been one of the best decisions I have ever made. Despite – or maybe because of – his great age and his frailty, Dad has given me something unexpected and priceless. Through his example, he's shown me how to enjoy life – something I never imagined I would ever do again.
Born during the first world war and a veteran of the Battle of Britain, there isn't much Dad hasn't seen or experienced in a long and rich life. He's lived through both great joy and intense heartache. Through it all, Dad has learned to roll with the punches, to grab life by the throat and never look back. Every day I'm amazed by something new that pops out of his mouth – wise, witty or just plain common sense. I've always been totally secure in Dad's love, but it's even sweeter now to feel enveloped with affection. His eyes light up when I come into a room. And I know that as far as he is concerned, I am eternally young and beautiful – his precious little girl.
Soon after he moved in, I came back from town much later than I'd anticipated to find him peering anxiously out of his window. I rushed in to check everything was fine. "Of course I'm OK," he said, brusquely. "I was just worried because you'd been gone so long. I know it's silly but you'll always be my little girl, and I can't stop worrying about you." As I smiled and hugged him, I don't think he could ever guess just how much those words meant to me.
Watching the enjoyment Dad gets out of the simplest things is a lesson in happiness. Dad treats every offer of a cup of tea as though I've suggested dining out at the Ritz. Throw in a couple of bourbon biscuits and a few custard creams and he is in seventh heaven. His pleasure is all the more intense because he is acutely aware that his days are numbered. "Are you worried about dying?" I asked Dad recently. He looked stunned. "Absolutely not," he said. "We've all got to die and worrying about it would be a real waste of time."
Carers come twice a day to help him get dressed and washed. They cost just over £600 a month – paid for by the rent on his flat. He calls them his pyjama girls and has endless fun teasing them. But as the months have passed he has needed their help more and more. And that's how Andy came to move in. Last summer he offered to come and look after Dad while I took a two-week holiday with the girls. When he handed the reins back over to me, it was obvious that Dad missed him. As he has got frailer, Dad has found it increasingly difficult to manage to use the toilet by himself. A proud man, protective of his little girl, he didn't want me helping him. He wanted Andy. And so Andy – who is single and works from home – agreed to divide his time between his flat in Brighton and my house. As Dad became more dependent, Andy moved in completely.
It works because we both have a shared purpose in helping to care for Dad, it works. It would be much harder and much less fun to be caring for Dad alone. Andy is also delighted to have this chance to spend Dad's final years with him. We all know this is only a temporary situation, which makes it all the more precious. I bite my lip about Andy's smoking. He pretends not to notice my bossiness. I tease him when he insists on popping a slice of lemon and ice cubes into the glass of water he brings Dad every lunchtime – the glass of water Dad stalwartly refuses to drink. Andy shares all the mundane household jobs from taking the bins out to cleaning Dad's hearing aids.
Like indulgent parents, Andy and I talk endlessly about Dad's quirks, his habits, the funny things he says and does. Caring for Dad, sharing a love for Dad, has brought Andy and me even closer. It's strange to know someone so well, to have known them from the very beginning of your life and then to get to know them even better at the end of someone else's. And I feel quietly smug that I have made this happen and also surprised that one simple decision should have led to this.
Take Me Home by Tessa Cunningham is published by Sidgwick & Jackson, £12.99. To order a copy for £10.39, including free UK p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0330 333 6846 begin_of_the_skype_highlighting 0330 333 6846 end_of_the_skype_highlighting