I asked my own dad if he would like to write something on this blog for Father’s Day. He wasn’t too sure but reading his words I’m so glad I asked. It reminds me that the death of a baby or child isn’t just felt by the parents and that my own father is no stranger to death and grief. A grandparent’s pain is unique- having lost your own grandchild and also watching your children suffer the worst pain imaginable. On the day of Etta’s cardiac arrest- my dad turned up with sandwiches. For me that sums up my wonderful dad completely- always there when I need him and always trying to fix my problems anyway that he possibly can. These are his words ❤️.
It’s Father’s Day. It’s the longest day. One or the other prompted Emily to suggest a guest post on this Blog. What’s a Blog? The only one I know of is this one. My daughter’s excellent, moving, traumatic words arrive on my iphone via email and are read through floods of tears immediately after they ping to announce their presence. What can I say? How can my words add anything to those that have been so well written previously? Just another challenge of being a dad…
Actually whatever I turn out to have achieved when my time is up, it’s being a dad and more recently a Grandpa that frankly matters most to me. My hope is, that so far, I’ve got some of it about right, although there have no doubt been some gut wrenching clangers dropped along the way – including inducing a panic attack when teaching Em to drive! It seems to me most of us love our mums as a given (although my mum fell out with hers quite early on!). When I see Emily with her son, Ezra, there is evidently an unshakeable bond generated probably from the first thought of conception. True also of the relationship between my wife, Alyson, and our children (and now she’s the favourite grandparent!) Dads, I think, can find it a little harder. There was no paternity leave when my son or daughter were born and serving in the Royal Navy meant a constant juggle of priorities to ensure as much “quality time” as possible was achieved. So I think many of us work hard at the “protector and provider” role – we concentrate on “doing stuff”. We want our home to be comfortable and safe; we want our children to have nice clothes, toys and be well fed. We want to protect them from the dangers that they face… if they fall over we leap to pick them up as fast as our bodies can achieve. If they hurt themselves we drive them to A&E as fast as we safely can and rush them to the medics – elbowing everyone else out of the way!
As they grow older we want to protect them from other hurts – rubbish boyfriends (not Sam!), difficult times at school, bullying boys in Air Cadets, flute practice, algebra(!!), and any possible hint from any external source that they are not the most stunning and capable people we know. It’s against this backdrop and context that Ally and I have loved being a part of Emily’s adult as well as childhood life. We’ve loved seeing her enjoy university, struggle though Teach First training and jobs in inner city schools, meet and marry Sam (I wish I’d done a better father of the bride speech), give birth to our most wonderful grandson ….. leading to the day she announced last year that she was expecting our first granddaugher, Etta.
I confess I was delighted at the news…not least because we had also managed to achieve son followed by daughter which appears to have been a successful combination! We had managed to acquire a regular babysitting “gig” each week and were looking after Ezra when Emily and Sam had the now memorable 20 week scan. Picking your daughter up with skinned and bruised knees following a fall pales into insignificance when faced with the distraught face of your daughter returning home with the results of such a scan – through sobs and hugs we learnt of Etta’s wonky heart.
To be honest, part of my reaction to the news was deja vu. My mum had struggled with bowel & bladder cancer through my teenage years and died during my final year at uni. Not that long afterwards my dad suffered a stroke which left him unable to speak and Ally had to deal with 2 major operations for a brain tumour – the second being delayed when they realised she was carrying Emily who had been bombarded with all manner of scans in the first few crucial days of her unborn life. My dad died of a heart attack just before Emily was born while my brother’s wife was fighting for life following the premature delivery of my nephew. We had acquired an expression in our household as a result – a “Plague of Frogs”- derived from the plight of the Old Testament Egyptians who were plagued with locusts and boils and pestilence and flies and lice and… frogs!
The following few days after Emily’s scan were punctuated by “news from the front” via WhatsApp and Facetime as more scans led to discussions with the experts in Bristol and the way ahead was outlined. We believed we were staring at a troublesome few months but had every expectation of going to Etta’s graduation and 21st birthday party. In fairness – I had developed a strategy of optimism against my default nature (ask anyone) that survived until the morning of 23rd December 2019 when we were having breakfast in the basement of a café opposite Bristol Children’s hospital waiting to hear the outcome of Etta’s most recent surgical intervention.
In my experience when the medics ask you to wait in the “Family Room” – brace yourself! We had enjoyed the privilege of seeing Etta most days since her arrival into this world 4 weeks earlier– frequently chatting with the incredibly talented specialist staff, admiring of, and humbled by, the array of specialist equipment she was plugged into and been aware of her condition on an hour by hour basis. In the Family Room we learnt that Etta had fought hard for her precious life and at many stages had defied predictions but despite my repeated, constant shouting at/to/with God for a Christmas miracle the particular answer that we had desperately hoped for didn’t happen.
As a dad I had done what I thought I could – we’d set up camp near the hospital in Air BnBs and enjoyed looking after Ezra and feeding his parents as best we were able. I’d prayed as hard as my splintered faith allowed and roped in mates and clergy to do likewise. We’d had some very precious time with our son and daughter-in-law (also expecting a baby). I’d tried to stay positive and supportive and all of that stuff – But it is really soul-destroying for a dad like me not to be able to fix things…That’s what I want to do – fix it. I couldn’t. Christmas day was rubbish. The day we celebrate the arrival of baby Jesus, we five lost souls went to an empty pub in Bristol – utterly broken – lost for words – numb – destroyed. I had lost my granddaughter but I had a daughter and son-in-law who were shredded. Emotionally. Physically. Spiritually.
Days then weeks went by. Etta’s funeral was without doubt 10.1 on the sad scale – sadder than my mum’s even though she died aged only 48. The service experience was without doubt softened by the wise and witty words of, Sam’s vicar brother, Tom, who led the service and whose opening words incorporated the phrase – “Well this is shit isn’t it….”
Brief holidays were quickly overtaken by the need to lock down due to CV19. More frogs! Emily, Sam & Ezra leapt into their car at the first hint of this possibility and we have locked down together since – a few days taken to pack their house before moving to a new house nearby was punctuated by more dismay. Only recently aware Em was again “expecting” we found ourselves messaging and facetiming as Em was about to head into hospital with a possible miscarriage – festering frogs again! A brisk drive later and we stood in the car park of Gloucestershire Royal Hospital to wait with Sam.
Yet again we were helpless and lost as our daughter’s face informed us of the outcome of her examination. Team hugs and tears aren’t enough but it’s all we had.
And now; not a new chapter but perhaps a new paragraph – a new Woolford home in Salisbury – near enough for us to walk to and from after medicinal wine or gin. We expect the busy days ahead will be a chance to focus on more positive things for a while but know already to spot those thoughtful faces and glazed eyes as thoughts wander to difficult memories and dashed hopes.
To conclude this rambling post – I love my children – and their spouses – and our grandson to bits. I take comfort in, and am extremely proud of, their loving nature and relationships with each other and their clear competence and passion to make the world a better place for them being in it. Etta was all too briefly part of our gang but she was equally loved and we will so miss seeing her grow up under the loving care of Emily and Sam. She will be the prompt for many tears yet to come and there will be painful times ahead – I can’t fix this – but I’m hoping that our shared experiences and memories will allow, at least in part, chance to share out the pain just a little.