Hello dear friends,
When I signed off here three months ago, I hoped to return in September with good news about my memoir writing progress, but in early July I got a call from my uncle telling me my dad had been taken from prison to hospital. Nothing has been the same since.
There was talk of pneumonia. Dad and I had last spoken in May, he had sent a couple of cards that month sending his love, as always, and to let me know that he was waiting to hear news of test results from the hospital. When I asked him how he was feeling and he replied, ‘Oh, not so bad…’ I knew, for him, that meant not so good, but I hoped he would soon be in touch with good news.
That was the last time I heard from him.
Me and Dad – a rare day out to Kingston Lacy, Dorset
(c) Sherri Matthews
Father’s Day came and went, I sent cards, but heard nothing and I was getting worried. I didn’t know then that Dad’s health had deteriorated rapidly and he was seriously ill. The prison didn’t have my number; if my uncle hadn’t called me, my brother and I would never have known.
I got authority from the prison to visit dad first thing the next day. When I walked into the ward, I saw two prison guards dressed in black sitting next to a bed with an elderly man lying half propped up on it, but I didn’t recognise him. I think it was then that I went into shock.
Every movement, every word, everything that happened after that will be forever engraved on my mind.
I turned to the nurse and said, ‘That’s not my dad…’ All I could see was the huge tumour on the side of his neck and I couldn’t reconcile that this was the same man I had spoken to several weeks before, waiting for a hospital appointment.
And then he turned his head towards me, and opened his eyes and I knew him then and I ran over to him, and there he was, my darling dad. All I could do was wail and weep and take hold of his hands and reach my arms around his bony shoulders and kiss his head and stroke his hair and tell him a thousand million times how much I loved him through the mess of tears falling all over him. I could not contain my emotions, I thought I was losing him there and then.
The guards were shocked – ‘We’ll give you some privacy, so sorry…’ and moved to a seating area across the room, not knowing what to say.
The nurse looked shocked too. ‘Nobody told you?’ she questioned, her eyes as wide as mine must have been wild.
‘No, nobody told me…I didn’t know…’ I sobbed.
I had expected to find my dad unwell, I knew his health was poor, but finding him dying from late stage cancer with no warning knocked me into a world of pain and grief so suddenly, that I couldn’t think straight.
‘I’ll get a doctor,’ she mumbled as she rushed out of the room.
Thank God for that Wednesday afternoon. They were the last hours I had with Dad, when he was still able to talk to me, albeit it with difficulty. When I told him I wasn’t going anywhere, he gripped my hand and nodded. I knew then I would be with him to the end.
The nurse suggested I help him drink from a straw and as I did so, I smiled at him and said, as our little joke, ‘Oh Dad, what have you done now?’ He looked up at me and raised his grey, wispy eyebrows, the twinkle in his smiling, naughty-boy eyes and the small shrug of his shoulders telling me what he always said when things didn’t go to plan…
‘It is what it is.’
And so it was. Five days I had with my dad. Five days to see him through to his last, gentle breath, as I held his hand and kissed him goodbye and breathed in the scent of his hair and head and stroked his still handsome face, breathing in his essence one last time, the essence of home and family and of the happy childhood my dad gave to me and my brother, and all the crazy adventures that followed.
(c) Sherri Matthews
My favourite photograph of my dad with me and my brother, 1960s, Surrey, England
And always, always, the love. Nothing ever took away our love.
Dad died surrounded by the love of his family, as peaceful and as gentle as I could have ever dared hope for. His funeral took place on a beautiful, summer’s day, the kind he would have loved, the day before what would have been his 84th birthday.
I asked the Chaplain from the prison to officiate. He had walked around the gardens, planted and tended by the inmates, with Dad many times. A private man, the Chaplain told me, but one who loved the world around him, who loved to listen to the birds singing and admire the flowers and shrubs and trees that grew just outside his prison cell.
I visited the prison to meet with the Chaplain and the Governor after Dad died and it was good to see Dad’s last earthly home, a place where he was cared for, where friends looked after him. Dad always had a home with me and my brother, if he had wanted it, if it had been possible, but prison was the only home Dad knew.
Yet, at the end of his life, Dad was granted Compassionate Release, meaning he died a free man. He would have got a big kick out of that news.
But the hardest moment in that day was taking away Dad’s worldly possessions contained in three small, zip-up sports bags. I still can’t bear to go through them…
For a long time I wasn’t able to focus or do much of anything; I pulled away from writing and all social media. I spent a lot of time with my family over the summer, taking time away to recover, enjoy the outdoors, breathe in the fresh air.
I adored my dad, you see, and always will.
Dad’s favourite bird was the robin, my Sweet Robin of course, shared here many times. Camping in the beautiful Dorset countryside this summer a few short weeks after Dad died, a young robin appeared from beneath the hedgerow on the path in front of us. He stopped for a minute or two, then hopped off ahead, as if leading the way, and then stopped again.
Here is the video clip, very short, of what happened next. We wondered if the robin was alright, but as soon as it heard other people coming, it flew up into a tree above, out of sight. That robin was fine, and he helped heal my grieving heart as I caressed his softness and sweetness, as he allowed me to that beautiful summer’s afternoon.
Life carries on, but grief doesn’t disappear overnight. Thank you so much for allowing me to share these personal stories about my dad. I have so much more I want to write about him, about our life together, and I will, in time. But for now, I hope to return here more often, although I am back to my memoir, back to where I left off before that fateful call in July, so I will do the best I can.
I have missed you all, and I will see you again very soon.
Love Sherri xxx