One of the many challenges I always had with my family was the fact that we had spent so many years apart. Our lives had gone on without either of us being connected at all. I had moved overseas to live in my late teens, and essentially never returned until now.
When I did ‘drop-in’ for random Christmas visits, there was never enough time to truly reconnect. I always viewed this as one of the downsides of living the expat lifestyle. Additionally, when it came to my father and me, there was also a huge generational gap when it came to business.
It was something we could never talk about. I frankly thought that my father wasn’t interested, and had no idea what it was like to fly around the world conducting business in different countries alongside people from various backgrounds.
Dad just thought it was cool that I got to spend a lot of time on airplanes. Little did he know. I guess I kept making up excuses as to why I didn’t have a relationship with my parents. The truth is, neither side worked at all to try to make it different.
It took the universe to step in now and make things different because of a health reason. It kind of levelled the playing field, to use a sporting term.
When I walked back into Dad’s room after speaking to David - the gentleman I met earlier during my walks around the ward, I wondered why it had always been so easy for me to walk up to and speak with a stranger than it was to strike up a conversation with my own father.
It made me sad on many levels and as I was walking back, I told myself that I should try harder. There had to be a way for me to connect with my father and I wanted to find out what that way was.
That evening, after my mother and sister had left and as Dad took his nap, I was left alone with my thoughts. The hospital staff had disappeared - one of those rare moments where the poking and prodding for Dad’s blood, temperature, or blood pressure came to a pause.
As I watched my Dad lie there, I wondered more and more about what was going through his mind. Was he wondering if we would even be able to make it home again?
Every previous visit to the hospital had resulted in Dad returning home and declaring that he won’t be going back to that place again. Yet, a few weeks later, we would find ourselves back in the hallways of the hospital waiting for Dad to be admitted again.
I had also started to become quite cynical toward some of the doctors. I found that they generally very knowledgeable human beings, and skilled in their craft, yet not many of them had the social skills of butterflies.
I felt that some of them had already determined the outcome of Dad’s prognosis and that it was not going to end well. That stirred me up. I wanted Dad to be able to get up, walk out of this place, to go home and to miraculously play golf again.
Somewhere inside of me, I wanted life to return to normal for him - to what it used to be like. I caught myself thinking like this, and became consciously aware that I truly cared about him.
I did want him to be ok.
Was this love?
Was this the connection I was looking for?
Dad finally came to; just as my bottom had become so numb from sitting in that chair, just when I decided to walk outside for a minute. When I came back, Dad was wide awake and announced that he was hungry. “I’ll find you something to eat,” I told him.
At this time of the day, the chances of getting a wholesome meal were probably thin. I asked Dad if he felt like eating anything in particular so I could get it for him. He looked at me and smiled.
“I’d love fish and chips and a beer,” he childishly squirted out. So began what would become a tradition in those last days. Whenever Dad announced that he wanted Fish and Chips and a beer, that was what he would get.
Our first experience to achieve this was quite a comical one. We were just unwrapping the fish and chips from the paper wrapping. As the incredibly exciting smell of hot fish and chips filled the room, a nurse walked in.
“Hello, what have we going on here?” she asked. Before Dad could respond, and to make sure we didn’t end up in trouble, I quickly stepped forward.
“Natalie,” I said, trying to get into her good books. “Dad wanted a special treat. It’s going to be his birthday in a few days and he really wanted fish and chips. So, I thought I would duck out and get these for him,” I replied with a big grin on my face. Natalie smiled.
“I see no harm in that as a one-off. I’m sure the doctors won’t mind.” With Natalie out of the way, I turned back to see my Dad’s face filled with joy as he ripped through his first serving of the battered fish that now sat in front of him.
I decided to try my luck to take things to the next notch. I asked Dad if he wanted to watch the cricket match that had just started on television. Being summertime, Australia’s cricket season was in full swing.
Dad loved the short version of the game known as the Big Bash. A match that lasted about three hours that was full of exciting twists and turns. The Big Bash tournament would go on for a month. There were games practically every day. Dad agreed.
This was something that would help to distract Dad, at least in the afternoons and evenings. Here he was, jacked up in his bed, a pile of fish and chips in front of him on top of his trolley table, and a bottle of his favourite beer reaching his lips every few minutes for a swig.
The old saying ‘it’s the small things in life that are the most important’ flooded my mind as I watched my father more animated and happy than I had seen him in weeks, if not months.
We sat and watched the match together. We talked about the players, the strategy and everything else that wasn’t relevant to our individual lives.
When cricket was on, there were no discussions about kidney failures, heart pains, medication time, blood pressure, the fixture in his leg, or the swelling of his feet from excessive water retention. No, all that mattered at that moment was what the score was, and which team would win.
Dad had always been able to keep his cards close to his chest when it came to emotions. I had only ever seen my father emotional about one thing. As a proud New Zealander, I had seen him get emotional when his beloved All Blacks rugby team was not doing so well.
Despite being the most successful sporting team in the history of elite sport, the All Blacks rarely lost, and if they did, Dad, like most of the New Zealand public, would go into a voluntary coma for a few days until the pain would pass.
When it came to matters of the heart between people, I had never seen that displayed from my father. And I never understood why. As we sat eating fish and chips and watching cricket and drinking beer, I thought more and more about his upbringing, and what had made him the man he was today.
Dad’s father was my hero. Grandad Philpott was the most awesome grandfather that a little boy could ever want. I would visit my grandparents every chance I got.
When I was a child, they lived just twenty minutes away from my parents’ home so I spent quite a bit of time with them. My parents would let me be with my grandparents throughout most school holidays and, truth be known, I never wanted to go back home.
My grandparents doted over me. I had quickly worked out that these two special people were the ones who were going to give me the kind of love I really wanted, and I would always find a way to be around them.
Grandad, like Dad, was pretty shy on the emotional front as well. Like father like son, maybe? Still, Grandad had a way of making me feel connected in a special way. I remember how he took me out in his car when I was a wee little freckled and chubby-faced boy. He would let me sit between his legs on the driver’s seat and steer the car.
Goodness gracious, a thing like was highly illegal even then, let alone today with stricter rules on the road. I guess back in the day those were the things we used to do, and nobody really cared. More importantly, it created some of the fondest memories that I hold on to this day.
Unlike my father, Grandad would always ask me how I was feeling and if I wanted anything. We would play such fun games; one of which was to see how long we could both hold a boiled lolly in our mouths before it dissolved.
He would hold his under his false teeth for hours. I would try to outlast him, and I couldn’t work out why he beat me every time. The fact that I held it under my tongue which would dissolve the sweet faster never clicked.
I never played such games with Dad. While at home, as a boy I would kick a rugby ball around by myself in the field next to our house. I would spend hours upon hours hitting a tennis ball against our brick-clad garage. I would ride my bike along our driveway and make-believe that I was racing in a major car race or motorbike race; always alone, always lonely.
Now we were side by side doing something together. Although cricket isn’t my cup of tea, to see Dad this happy and to be in his presence did feel good.
By the time the cricket game had ended, Dad was getting tired as it was typically time for him to turn in for the night. I had, up until this particular night, been sleeping in the chair next to Dad’s bed.
I didn’t want to go home. I didn’t want to leave Dad; it felt increasingly right to be here.
Natalie came in to takes Dad’s vitals.
She glanced at me and said, “I have a surprise for you tonight. I’m going to get it when I have taken Barrie’s blood pressure.”
“Oh!” I said. “That sounds interesting. Ice cream?” I enquired.
Natalie smiled and said, “No, I think you will appreciate this more than ice cream.” I gave an ‘aha’ response, although couldn’t for the life of me imagine what she was referring to.
She took Dad’s blood pressure, returned the blood pressure trolley to the other side of the room, came back to take Dad’s temperature and then said: “I will be right back.” And then she left the room.
“What is she up to?” Dad asked me.
“I have no idea. Maybe it’s a leftover dessert,” I shrugged.
Most of the hospital staff had cottoned on to the fact that Dad and I had very sweet teeth and that anything sugar-coated would cheer us up. It’s amazing, isn’t it? The power of the sugar fix.
Moments later, there was a noise emanating from outside of the door and we heard several voices. All of a sudden, Natalie came through the door with her back to us and she was pulling what appeared to be like a big blue chair. In front of her, a male nurse pushed the dated piece of furniture into the room.
I had never seen anything like it in my life. Imagine an old dentist’s chair. It was fake leather, with a high back and headrest, and a footrest that protruded out. It was like a 1980’s version of a Business Class seat in an aeroplane, and it was some kind of washed out pale blue colour.
The two nurses rolled it around to where I was sitting between Dad’s bed and the window and then asked me to move. I duly got up and took with me the chair I had been sitting on.
They wheeled this new contraption into the space I had just vacated.
“There you go. Your new bed,” Natalie beamed as she announced this.
I smiled and thanked them. Dad was almost laughing. How I was going to sleep in this chair? We had no idea.
Natalie stepped out chirpily and then returned with some was bed linen, a blanket and a pillow for me. She started to make the chair - dentist torture chamber thing - into something that resembled a bed, of sorts.
I thanked both of them for their help again and told her I’ll manage. With kind wishes of a good night exchanged, they both left.
Dad and I burst out laughing as soon as they were out of sight. He looked on as I tried to climb aboard my new seat and tried to lay down.
Even funnier was how - within half an hour - both Philpott Senior and Philpott Junior were very happily snoring our respective lungs out.
I had one of the best night’s sleep in a long time. I think after seeing Dad enjoying himself coupled with my complete physical and emotional exhaustion, I hit noddy land before I knew it. It was really difficult being a caregiver and having been thrown into this role with my parents, I had found so much of it stressful, lonely and downright depressing.
Sure Mum and Dad were both going through some heavy-duty stuff, but I was realising what it was really like to be on call twenty-four-seven for two ill people, although they were my parents.
I had found the time both at their home and at the hospital very difficult indeed. I had lost all sense of what my life was about. I had no friends here, and the only way I was keeping sane was by posting positive thoughts on social media so at least my global family of friends could see what was going on.
It wasn’t long after I started doing this that I received some surprising and truly welcoming connections from people I did not expect to hear from. My sharing on social media had apparently lit the flame or shone a light on some of my friend’s relationships with their parents.
Pictures of Dad and I enjoying fish and chips and beer together resulted in private messages coming in from all over the world saying things like ‘I wish had done that with my father when he was alive’.
These reactions started to add another layer onto what was already beginning to be a life-changing experience for me and my father. I started to share some of these messages with
Many of my friends wished Dad the best, cheering him on from the sidelines, a man they had never met, and would never meet. Dad would give the nod and smile of appreciation as I shared these messages with him.
I decided to use this newfound global connections through social media as a means to give me strength and to help me climb out of the emotional hole that I had put myself in.
I had always believed that my many years of traveling and living around the world had provided me with an incredible network of friends, and people that I called my adopted family.
Every one of them played a role in my evolution as a human being. Work colleagues, mates, or even partners, all enriched my life in so many ways, ways that they never always knew.
Maybe one day soon I need to tell them as well. Yes, I need to do that. I was spurred on to keep them updated with Dad’s progress. I secretly hoped that this global strength of positive willpower will rub off on Dad and make him well enough to go home.
The goal was always to get Dad home again.
Unfortunately, the next day was not a good day. Dad wasn’t feeling great and when it was time for the doctors to visit, there just seemed to be darkness in the air.
It was shortly after 11 am when the doctors did their rounds. As always, a team of six crowded around dad’s bed. The interns looked on and listened keenly to what the ‘experts’ had to say.
The conversation on this day went something like this:
Doctor A: “So Barrie, how are you feeling today?”
Dad: “Not so hot.”
Doctor A: “Oh, what’s wrong? Do you have any pain?”
Dad: “No pain. I just don’t feel good. I was hoping you can tell me what’s going on.”
Doctor A, in a matter-of-fact tone: “Well, things aren’t so good. You see, your heart is having a hard time pumping fluid away from your lungs, and now that your kidneys aren’t working as well as they should, we are a little bit at a loss on what we can do for you.” I shifted when he said this.
My mind was racing. For goodness sake, I thought to myself. You are standing there as expert medical practitioners and you are telling my eighty-year-old father that you are giving up on him. What is wrong with you man?!
The doctor didn’t stop adding fuel to the fire.
Doctor A: “It’s a good time to probably discuss whether or not you want to go onto a dialysis regime. We will have one of the clinical nurses come by and explain to you what that means and to explain the different options available to you given your acute condition.”
Dad’s face sunk, and I could feel hope being sucked out of his very being. He laid with his head against his pillow, his upper body still upright so he could look at the doctors. Dad gave the doctor a nod and that was it.
Doctor A: “Ok, we will make that happen today and we will come back and discuss all of that tomorrow and see where we go.”
Dad nodded again and then they were gone. I looked at Dad and didn’t know what to say.
My knee-jerk response was this: “Ok, so let’s see what this nurse has to say and we can then discuss it, ok?”
Dad looked at me - no - Dad looked through me and simply said, “Okay”.
My next reaction caught me off guard. I jumped up out of my chair and raced to the door. I needed to speak to that doctor. I told Dad I would be back in a minute and quickly turned the corner. I spotted the doctor and his disciples a few doors down. I quickened my pace to catch up with them.
As if by chance, when I was a few meters from Doctor A’s position, he turned and saw me coming. I must’ve looked like I was running away from the bulls in Pamplona and there was clear and present danger for him if he didn’t step aside.
I threw out the anchor brakes a meter from his location and came to a standstill.
‘Doctor, I would like to have a private chat to you about my Father, Barrie,” as if saying Dad’s name would make things better, more personal.
The doctor looked at me. He must’ve figured I was no threat as he then ushered me into a nearby waiting area with two chairs, a coffee machine and a window that looked out into the street. We sat down.
“So Doctor, I would just like to know the things that perhaps you didn’t say when you came to see Dad then. I feel as though there is more going on than you are telling us, and if that is the case then I would like to know it here between us,” I started.
The doctor looked at me again and could tell that I was simply a son worried about his father.
“Mark is it?”
“Yes,” I nodded.
“Mark, your father is a very sick man. As you know from his history, he has been in and out of hospital over the past couple of years and each time things deteriorate a little more. This time things are a lot more serious,” he explained. I nodded, he continued.
“I don’t know if there is a lot more we can do for your father other than to make him comfortable.”
“But the dialysis you mentioned, isn’t this a way to reduce the work of his kidneys and to help him regain his strength?” I questioned.
“Unfortunately, your father faces quite a few challenges. We are balancing his medications today but what we need to give him for his heart is not doing his kidneys any favour. On top of that, his heart isn’t able to pump the fluid away and we need to intervene there. And it’s only going to get worse.”
When he said that, my thoughts went back to my grandmother, Dad’s mother, who died by drowning in her own fluid. Surely Dad wasn’t going to go the same way - no I wouldn’t accept that.
“We can’t give up! There has to be something we can do. Surely the dialysis is going to help,” I asked again.
“Well, your father needs to decide if he even wants to try the dialysis. For some patients, it’s too much emotionally,” the doctor replied.
Don’t you tell my father what he will and won’t want, I thought to myself through gritted teeth.
Out loud, I said: “So are you telling me there is no hope? Is that where we are at?”
The doctor looked out the window for a second, measured his response, and then replied. “It doesn’t look good, Mark. There is always hope right up to the end, but as I say, your father is a very sick man.”
“Okay. Let’s have a chat about the dialysis tomorrow when you come around. I am not giving up.”
Having said my piece, I stood up and, shook the doctor’s hand and started to walk back to Dad’s room. I thought about the conversation I had just had and the one that I was about to have.