We all like to have a narrative: a clear sense of a beginning and a middle and an end. We like to be able to pinpoint events, to be able to say, ‘That was when it all started, and from there this happened and this happened and now it is all over.’ It is neat and tidy that way. We can understand things better when they happen in an ordered, linear way, and we much prefer it when life follows that pattern.
Some things are certainties. Death is one of them. My sister and I know the end of our most recent story, because we know when Dad died: 06:50, 28th July 2015.
We also know the date of his diagnosis, but that was not the true beginning of the story. This is something we still don’t know, even though we ask each other the same question over and over: ‘When did it all start to go wrong?’
It is tempting to think it all started on 12th May 2013. On that day, my mum’s brother called me. He never calls, so that in itself was enough to set off alarm signals. He is a doctor and had just spent a week with Mum and Dad in France. He called to say that he was concerned about Mum, that her behaviour had become manic and that he was worried that Dad was exhausted. He was also shocked because Mum had called my cousin to say, ‘Happy Birthday’, and had ended by casually mentioning that she had given herself third degree burns while cleaning the oven with her bare hands, using caustic soda.
‘She is entering a phase which I would say is borderline delusional and is no longer simply depressed,’ he said. ‘I am afraid you are going to have to step in and take control. She needs to go to hospital for some respite, but your father is not listening.’
I knew he was right. I had been waiting for this moment. I put down the phone and felt the walls close in.
Mum had been so difficult in recent months that eventually, after repeated attempts to convince her and Dad that she needed professional help, I had had to cut off contact to preserve my own sanity. By early May 2013, Dad and I had just about patched things up enough to keep up a stream of polite chit-chat on the phone, but I had not been able to bring myself to visit.
Two days after my uncle’s call, and many family phone calls later, I called Dad to try one last time to persuade him to take Mum to hospital.
There was a pause in which I thought he was preparing himself to tell me, as he always did, that I shouldn’t worry and that ‘everything was fine’. Instead the sound that came down the line was a howl like that of a wounded animal. I was so frightened, I handed the phone to my husband.
‘Go. Go now,’ he said.
Three long days and nights later Mum had been seen by a psychiatrist in A & E, was on anti-psychotic drugs, had been referred to a mental health unit and was having daily home visits to monitor her care.
Is this when it all started? Is this what caused Dad’s cancer and death? In our darker moments, my sister and I have both confessed to one another that we think it did.
Of course we will never truly know, but I am certain of one thing: on that day in May three years ago, it certainly felt like the beginning of the end for our family.