WHEN SEPTEMBER ENDS
The pandemic lockdowns lifted and we ran out to work, metaphorically making hay while the sun shone. It was a barmy hot day and it was going to be a long day. Hampton Court Palace was hosting the London Concours show and I had a few things to shoot and then it was full steam ahead to a holiday. A week off. A blissful week in Wales. In a caravan on the Pembrokeshire coast. Believe me when I tell you that it was needed.
The work at the palace was done. Images filed and uploaded and the chocks were off. A full tank of fuel, shades and tunes on and the M4 beckoned.
The playlist Jo had made for the drive was 15 hours long. I may drive slower today than in my twenties, but still, that was a lot of singing. We’d had lockdowns, no work, no income, no bounce back loans or financial support and so, blowing a couple of hundred pounds on a week off felt exhilarating to be honest. The debt could wait a while. We needed some downtime. Everyone does.
Those first few days were a dream. Sleep came easily. Walks to the beach and around the headland were spent re-connecting. Conversations that didn’t involve bills, invoices, late payers and tax returns meant we laughed at life day by day. It was a bubble. It was a dream.
On the morning of Tuesday 7th, the weather closed in. Low cloud and light rain. We didn’t care. We grabbed the waterproofs and walked the few miles from our campsite to St. David’s. We walked through the cathedral grounds, all moody in the gloom. A crow took to the air with its trademark squark and the bells tolled. Now, Jo is not superstitious by nature but she immediately stopped. Something wasn’t right. To this day, I cannot say why or what happened. She felt something.
As we carried on to the bottom of the valley and around to the small brook that runs between the cathedral and the ruined nunnery opposite, Jo nipped to the ladies and handed me her phone. I don’t know why.
Within a minute, her phone rang. It was her sister and her tone stopped me cold as she gave me some news. Their father had been involved in an accident. A car accident. A serious one. The distress was hard to listen to. All they knew was that he was being airlifted from Stornaway on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides where he lives, to Glasgow. He was awake but they had secured him. He had pins and needles in his arms but he needed to go to the spinal unit.
He was 79 at the time. His 80th, due in November, was being planned for if we could travel. Christmas under lockdown by FaceTime was being contemplated. Jo was returning to me from the loo and I now had to tell her that her dad’s not in a good way.
I don’t remember that walk back to the caravan. I remember seeing the faces of a few passers by as my wife broke down into my arms. Mainly, I just remember being helpless. Utterly useless in my capacity as a husband. Words won’t work. I can’t say it’s alright and he’ll be ok. We don’t know anything.
The rest of that week was spent frantically trying to keep Jo together while finding out more information.
Over the next few days in Wales, emotions ranged from exasperated, hopeful, calm, frantic and finally, numb. That final feeling I felt came after I had become point for the family and spoken with his consultant in Glasgow. He is stable but he will never walk again. He is going to need an operation to help stabilise his neck but at his age, it isn’t recommended. It is not helped by him having diabetes and heart issues. The team will consult on best ways forward. Glasgow has just gone into lockdown so we can’t visit either.
My monotone, matter of fact regaling of this information, first to Jo and then to the rest of the family, left me numb. I needed to detach emotionally to be able to be both pragmatic about his situation and face the fact that if he dies, it will be alone.
We left Wales and returned to work but everything was being done in a haze. Nothing felt right. Everything had a vagueness to it as though it couldn’t quite be touched. Support bubbles, masks and the general pandemic made everything even more surreal.
He did have his operation which was successful and we asked if there was any way that a special visit for his daughters might be arranged. To no avail. Scotland was closed, the hospital was rife with Covid cases across the wards and he needed to be protected.
A couple of days later, that changed. A call came through and I was told that his hospital team felt a visit might be beneficial. I was told that this was not an end of life visit but given the serious nature of his injuries, it might help him mentally fight.
We drove from London to Glasgow, stayed in a Travel Lodge and his daughters did get to see him. The first visit, split between them, brought the realisation that he was in a bad way into focus. He looked ill. Frail. Scared. Their six foot three, life loving father, reduced to a bed ridden shadow of his former self.
It was now known that he was tetraplegic. The impact of the car that hit him had propelled him forwards at an angle. The airbag going off broke his neck. In amongst the vertebrae that had been compressed, his spinal cord was crushed and trapped. In an instant, it was done.
When they returned the following day before we drove back to London, he was flushed with colour, brighter. There was a faint whisper of hope.
We left the hospital to head back south but first drove to the banks of Loch Lomond for some fresh air, tears and reflection. Whatever has happened, whatever is about to happen, we will get through it. He has a fight to make and all we can do is cheer him on. The return to London happened in almost complete silence as the girls finally drifted to sleep.
It transpired that this visit was granted because he had already died. Twice. Through the determination of the NHS team supporting him, he survived. Seeing his daughters helped him too. This is going to be a slow journey to who knows where, but we are all going on it together.
Today is the first day of July. The summer solstice has been and gone and winter begins its slow return to the northern hemisphere. These last eleven months have gone by in a heartbeat. Most of it has been conducted using muscle memory. The turn of phrase purposely used as gallows humour has helped a lot. Key moments have included having him sit up in bed, going to a gym to exercise his neck and shoulders through to having him pass his wheelchair driving test as well as eat and drink for himself.
He can text and email and, now that his legal case has been settled financially, it is hoped that in a few weeks, he will finally return home from that drive to Tesco he started last year.
The case against the driver is yet to happen and given the backlogs in court, may take some time but it is fitting that last week, Jo finally got something from her dad that had been so easily taken for granted before the crash. A hug. It is going to be the start of yet another chapter in his life, living with his new, new normal, but underneath it all, he is still the same guy. It was something that reminded me that I too need to be the same guy I always was too.
I could always rant and have an anger but it was never bitter as it has been these last months. It has bubbled away and I’ve really struggled to keep a lid on many things. Maybe it was me trying to force that numb feeling away in order to feel something. Anything.
I now need to channel that energy to be better. Life is a precious thing and there is one thing that my father-in-law has reminded me of this last year. It can all change in a heartbeat. So you better get on and be happy above all else.
Life really is too short.
- Alan Hart, father-in-law, as he went to demonstrate his wheelchair and then promptly drove it through a plasterboard wall in his care home