Books First-Person Accounts

Something to Tell You

A writer has been looking after his father.

‘So, how’s your dad?’ Everyone asks the question with the same eyes. Anxious, yes. Sympathetic, yes. They’d rather not ask, but they know they must. They’ve seen me now. Time for a difficult conversation.

It’s been more than a year since my father’s trip to Rome to spend Christmas with his girlfriend. It was on Boxing Day that he fainted and fell, injured his neck and became paralysed from the head down. Countless hospitals, operations, doctors, flights and interviews later, he’s finally home in west London, albeit transformed.

Today, as we prepare to leave the house, we speak about the same things we always did. But now he’s telling me about the friendly bike thieves he watches from his window as his live-in carer carries out his bed bath. We discuss our favourite vape flavours as he’s plucked from his bed by a robotic arm, which cradles him in a blanket as it ferries him across the room to his wheelchair like a stork.

We gossip about our golden retriever’s weight management as I shovel a Pret crayfish sandwich into his mouth. Then I brush his teeth and put on his coat, his hat and mittens, just like he would for me when I was a baby. After I gather his essentials into a bag, we finally set off on the long journey across Shepherd’s Bush for a haircut, the first proper one he’s had in a year.

When my father’s girlfriend, Isabella, called on Boxing Day to tell me, my twin brother and my mother about the accident, she made such an effort to downplay it, to shield us from distress, I wasn’t sure if he had perhaps sprained his ankle.

Two days later I was on a plane to Rome with my youngest brother, Kier, to see him at the hospital. My father cannot recall this visit as he was so high on meds. I wish I could have been. What do you say to someone who’s just awoken to the realisation they can no longer move their body? Jesus would know, though I can’t say his enormous crucified image above my father’s bed was exactly reassuring.

In the weeks and months that followed, some things became clearer, other things more confused. He had become a tetraplegic, a condition that stripped him of voluntary control over his upper and lower body. He had some movement, the way one has some movement in a straitjacket – his arms hung listlessly, his legs flailed and couldn’t support his frame.

The inability to move his hands is a particularly diabolical affliction: he is forced to endure his punishment without distraction, unable to pick up a book or reply to his messages.

When not in the company of friends or family he’d simply stare at the ceiling, waiting for the next arrival. A new twitch in his finger was celebrated like he’d won the Nobel Prize.

After a successful operation to take the pressure off the top of his spine, we started to see improvement in his mobility. But it was slow, Sisyphean. Owing to the severity of his accident, as well as an outstanding rehabilitation clinic in Rome, we resolved to keep him there until he had regained sufficient strength to travel back. Periodically, myself, my brothers and my mother – who has always remained close to him – would fly out in shifts to visit. Isabella was by his side all day, every day.

During another of my visits to Rome, months later, we watched our beloved Manchester United play Liverpool at Anfield, a match we lost 7-0. I spent the game distracting myself on my phone. My father, helplessly paralysed, was forced to watch the whole thing, a torture of medieval cruelty.

Now, as I walk beside him to get his haircut, him in his wheelchair trundling along the unsteady pavement, steering using his slowly recuperating hand, he buzzes with enthusiasm about being home and the ecstasy of going to Tesco.

He wasn’t always so buoyant. The initial post-accident euphoria, his gratitude at having survived, gave way to a profound melancholy so consuming he would go weeks without speaking much. On returning to London to continue his rehabilitation, he was temporarily forced to stay in a dementia ward at the Chelsea and Westminster hospital. One night there, he was startled awake by an eerie presence at his bedside, a groaning spectre trailing a ruptured catheter bag. ‘How did that make you feel?’, the hospital therapist asked him the next day. It’s no surprise dad found himself lost for words.

We all did our best to lift his spirits. During those summer months our family adhered to a stringent schedule, guaranteeing one of us was present with him from sunrise to sundown. He was also visited daily by a procession of devoted supporters. People of all kinds – writers, musicians, directors, philosophers, chefs, psychiatrists, artists. They’d barrel in with chocolates and treats, and ideas they’d had about how to remedy my father’s situation.

Some would bring state-of-the-art special voice-operated computers and immersive VR gear. Others came with literature about hypnotherapy, psychedelic therapy, neurotherapy and sound healing. My aunties would often call from Pakistan to reassure us with the news that they had ceremoniously released a flock of pigeons and slaughtered a goat.

In these dreary hospital rooms, my father’s large circle of friends, often strangers to each other, would meet for the first time. On one occasion, the room was populated by a sex therapist, a psychoanalyst who had recently written a book on sex and a chef. Unsurprisingly, the conversation veered into a deep analytic discussion about the sandwich: the bread slices representing distinct bodies, while the concealed fillings symbolising the intimate exchange of bodily fluids and primal instincts.

Months later, when my father was transferred to a specialised rehabilitation clinic in north London, he was surrounded by individuals who had experienced similar accidents. Some had suffered falls from bikes, others while rock climbing, another had tripped over a rake in his garden. They had all become paralysed.

When I visited him at the weekends, I would sit in the large airy garden room outside the main hospital with a group of patients during the arts and crafts sessions. The spirited young woman who led the class had become paralysed by an infection that destroyed her nervous system. Barely in her twenties, she now taught others the difficult craft of painting with their mouths.

Some embraced these arts and crafts exercises enthusiastically. Others, like my father, couldn’t believe that this is what it had come to. A friend he met on the ward would try and cheer him up by regaling him with his meticulously devised suicide plan, how he was plotting to strip naked, wheel himself out into the garden and freeze to death.

Outside the hairdressers, we stop. I am concerned that the step into the shop might prove too high for dad’s wheelchair. And I know it’s humiliating for him, bumping against the modest step, this mountain, at the mercy of such a seemingly insignificant obstacle. Just then, a chattering junkie in a wheelchair approaches to admire dad’s upgraded wheels, another unwelcome encounter my father cannot avoid. With a big effort, I manage to hoist dad into the shop.

It’s a beautiful, sunny winter day. I can see dad is pleased to be back here. My brothers, my father and I have been coming to this hairdresser, often together, for 15 years. As our barber sharpens his tools, my father has the same conversation with him he always does. After inquiring about the business, to which my barber laments the challenges of Brexit and the ever-mounting cost he bears for the mountains of hair-filled rubbish bags he throws away, my father delivers the familiar refrain, for what must literally be the thousandth time, ‘you must be a multi-millionaire now!’ In spite of his difficulties, our barber has opened another shop in the area as well as a new restaurant nearby. In every respect, he epitomises the aspiring immigrant, but looks drained by the toil.

In those 15 years, I’ve completed school and university, become a screenwriter and moved out of the area. But like most men, with a loyalty not even reserved for their lovers, I always come back. And it’s always the same. Time has a way of racing ahead while staying perfectly still. I gaze at those same portraits of celebrities on the walls sporting sharp haircuts who must have passed through for a trim at some point or another. George Clooney smiles at me, as if to say, ‘So, how’s your dad?’ Well, he’s good and he’s bad, he’s happy and he’s sad, just like the rest of us.

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