I’m sleeping on a sofa bed.
This has been my life for two months now: since June, apart from brief escapes to Scotland, Italy, and the east of London.
I’ve relocated to the front room of my dad’s house. I’ve unfolded a dust-covered mattress from the confines of green sofa cushions, pulled it out, covered the thin striped material with a mattress topper bought off my ex-flatmate, and tried my best to make it feel like home.
This sofa bed is not exactly comfortable, either. I’m pretty sure it sits at a slant: I wake up multiple times each night with the uneasy sensation that my feet are higher than my head. I dream that I’m falling backwards.
Of course, my erratic sleeping might be to do with drinking too much coffee. It could also be due to the roll-ups I’ve taken to smoking covertly in the garden while sitting on a broken wooden bench under the night sky.
I use the time to stare up at stars, at slow moving planes, at sickly yellow clouds. Sometimes there are invisible foxes mewling in the bushes. One night a group of neighbours sang ‘Happy Birthday’ from far away.
There’s another explanation for my lack of sleep. It’s why I’m on the sofa bed in the first place.
My dad is dying.
Watching the people you love get sick is an awful experience. What’s worse is knowing they won’t get better – and it’s so frustrating and painful to hear responses from those who just don’t get it.
“I hope he’s on the mend soon!”
“We’re sending lots of get well wishes!”
Nope. He’s dying. My dad is definitely, diagnosably, dying.
I have to say this to myself because I need to time to adjust to the idea. I have to prepare myself as much as possible for what’s inevitable – and yet I can’t directly say it out loud, because it’s horrible and unexpected and so hilariously awkward. It cuts a conversation clean in two. People who actually take on the responsibility of discussing such a bombshell are fantastic – but even they eventually have to talk about something else.
Then again, those conversations aren’t exactly common because I don’t go out much now. I can’t. He needs me in the house.
Just two months ago, my dad was living by himself.
He could drive his car, go to the corner shop for a paper, move around his house. All of these things took time, effort and careful pacing, but it was all still possible.
Now he’s basically bed-bound. After eight weeks of watching his breathing get increasingly worse due to acute lung fibrosis, I’ve realised he now needs everything he uses during the day to be close to hand, just a few steps away from his bed.
He’s been ill for two years – seriously ill since this March – and my perception of time has become strangely fluid.
This isn’t permanent. It can’t be. My life exists in another place – albeit one I’ve stepped unwillingly away from at the moment. My normal, real, loved life is travel and spontaneity, friends and photography, chaos and movement and excitement and challenges. Challenges I want to embark upon, not those which have been thrust on top of me with such force that I feel like my back might break.
Learning my ‘new normal’
Inside my dad’s house, the days blur into each other. Hours are the only unit of time I measure now: awake at 9am, a snatched period of semi-relaxation for coffee, music, typing, until Dad’s carer opens the front door at 11am and I know I need to shoulder my responsibilities.
This situation and the horrors which accompany it are things I never thought I’d have to handle at 29 years old. It seems like such a cruel injustice to carry them without a second parent or a sibling to help me through.
Still. I sit and chat to him, hold his hand, do the household tasks and errands he only trusts me to do. I fetch and carry, change sheets, wash clothes: I do normal day-to-day housework on autopilot, trying my best to forget why I’m doing it. Trying to forget that he’ll never do these things again.
The carer visits again at lunchtime and comes for a final visit in the early evening. She cooks a frozen meal in the microwave as it’s the easiest thing for him to eat, makes him cups of tea, and provides us both with a much-needed distraction of another person to talk to.
When people ask me what is so difficult about all this, I can’t always pinpoint specifics. But I know the toll it’s taking. I clock-watch obsessively: not wanting to leave him alone upstairs for too long, but knowing that spending too much time with him zaps all of my energy. Watching his laboured breathing makes me scream inside. I recognise how sluggish my thoughts are, and how hard I find it to speak.
I don’t feel the caffeine buzz my body like I used to. I wake up exhausted. I move around the house all day like a ghostly shadow of myself. I say goodnight to him at 9pm and fall asleep on an uncomfortable sofa bed by midnight.
Some unexpected side effects
The very worst part for me in all this – selfishly, perhaps – is that I have no time for writing.
Before my dad got too sick, I was mid-blog-overhaul: working on resource articles and affiliate partnerships, really knuckling down to the act of making this passion of mine into something more professional. I was overwhelmed with ideas for my book manuscript too, and felt the sudden excitement of knowing just how I could make it great.
Now I’m terrified to write. The emotions which pour out of me when crafting every article are perhaps too much right now, and I also need careful, distraction-free alone time to work the way I want to.
I’m also terrified of losing my ability to write.
Before my mum died nine years ago I wrote poetry: reams of the stuff, couplets forming in my mind before I had time to jot them down. I adored the structure and the puzzle of poems so much that it was a complete shock to discover that my desire to write them vanished after her death. It took me a long time to fall back into writing anything at all, and poems were a victim of the fallout. I haven’t really written poetry since.
So this is why I’m writing here. I know it’s not about travel – sorry – but it’s necessary. It’s vital. It rises high above any of the vapid, internet-related bullshit of SEO and traffic: this is life and death, family and home, loss and grief, in all their purest forms. I’m losing my dad, after already losing my mum, and I feel so achingly lonely and suffocated and unable to cope.
What do you do with grief?
In moments of immense difficulty; in moments where your life is unrecognisable in the worst of ways; you simply have to draw strength from wherever you feel able.
At some point each day, I suddenly remember the world beyond the house and I step out into the light. There are lime green front doors and rows of potted plants on windowsills. Someone’s dug up a fresh haul of onions from a tiny vegetable patch in their front garden, the bulbs resting on an open tea towel laid out on the ground. I peek through a window to see a girl lovingly stroking a black cat.
I don’t know why things are the way they are. All these lives, connected by proximity and geography but strangers to me.
If there’s one thing the last nine years have taught me – between my mum’s sudden death and my dad’s impending one – it’s that I am a writer. So if writing about this process can help me through in any way possible, then I’ll do it in a heartbeat. And if sharing how I feel can help anyone else through their own journey of grief then I’ll do that too.
If I can’t travel abroad, what I can do is walk the streets around my dad’s house, and wander through the one park and two graveyards which sit close by. I can still take photos of the moments which move me. Search always for the little glimpses of light which serve as a reminder that things like this can happen; will always happen; must happen, sadly enough.
Death is a truth I’ve always known, and one I have to shoulder once again. As so many others do.
I sit in the cemetery beside my mum’s grave, on a slanted wooden bench placed for someone’s granddad. I don’t know who, but it’s been here ever since Mum’s funeral. Nine years. At once a lifetime and what feels like one drawn out breath.
I’m not doing this alone, however much it may feel like it.
I’m sleeping in my dad’s living room while he dies in the room above me. The buses move past on the street outside; people talk loudly on the pavement and leave empty bottles in our yellow rose bush. The world still moves, and so do I.
Writing it down gives me clarity. Sharing it gives me strength. Hopefully that’s enough.