18 months ago, my friend’s dad died. Not a happy start, I know, but bear with me.
I was at home. My fiancé was in Birmingham, drinking at the Christmas market with friends, and I was waiting for him to call or text to say he was on the train and he wanted to be picked up from the train station. He did call, and he was on the train, but he wasn’t calling for a lift. I answered the phone and it was loud and I could hear his flushed cheeks in his voice, as though he was too charged to really comprehend what he was telling me.
“Erm, Andy’s dad died.”
The train was noisy, and the signal on that journey is horrendous, and I wanted to tell myself that I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but he was coming through loud and clear. Our friend, a good friend who has recently helped us move out, traipsing up and down four flights of stairs for us while studying for his law degree, had lost his dad.
“What?” Not the best response, but it was the only word my brain could summon. The conversation was rushed, stilted, and the flush was still there in his voice. It was the flush of a man who had been merrily drunk but was suddenly thrown into sobriety. I knew nothing of Andy’s dad up to this point but that stilted conversation told me all I needed to know at that moment in time. He was an active man, a leader for the Duke of Edinburgh Award on a leader’s hiking weekend. He was healthy, but his heart gave way mid-walk. He was in Wales, his family wasn’t.
My friend is a gamer, he was at a gaming convention in London. Everyone crowdfunded and paid for him to get the train to Wales to visit his dad. His dad who had gone.
My heart broke for my friend but, perhaps more selfishly, my gut shattered with fear for my fiancé. We were living in Coventry at this point, Andy had helped us move back. We moved back so Daniel could have his heart operation. If the heart of an active, healthy man, though much older than Daniel, could fail him just at the time of his retirement so he could be with his wife, what chance did Daniel and I have of a full, long life together, when he was born with a heart condition?
Months passed by and we stood by our friend through the funeral, through his first Christmas without his dad, and his first New Year’s Eve. All the while, Daniel and I sat patiently waiting for the news that his operation was happening. It was due the year before, and then the August, and then the November, but by Christmas there was still no news. He had to leave his job because he was ill, which triggered our move back home, but we were still waiting for the news that he would be made better.
When that news arrived, despite all the months of preparing, I suddenly felt very unprepared. He was an ideal candidate for this surgery, young, fit, and otherwise healthy; his chances of recovery were much stronger than anyone else’s. But still, my heart – if you’ll pardon the pun – was fluttering with fear.
The surgery lasted four hours. Those four hours, according to Daniel, were great. He told me, in his post-surgery haze, that he had wonderful dreams. For us, they were horrific. Traipsing around the hospital from café to canteen, trying to read but not focusing, trying to find a way to make the waiting room seats comfortable, and all the while we waited. Those four hours were exhausting. I felt like I had run for miles and miles whilst trying to translate War ad Peace into Dzongkha as I went; I was physically and emotionally shattered, going stir crazy with those awful hospital corridors, and missing the man I loved.
And then the surgeon came. He was fine, he was stable, he was in the ITU still knocked out from the anaesthetic. I would have run into see him but my legs couldn’t carry me. I wanted nothing more but to see his face and hold his hand, but my legs were threatening to betray me as if in protest after the marathon I thought I’d run. Eventually, shakily and slowly, they got me there.
It was awful. I mean, it was wonderful because he was back, he was in front of me, peaceful, healthy, he’d made it through. His cheeks were flushed and the monitor at the other end of all those wires was telling me his heart was beating just as it should. He was healthy.
But he wasn’t there. When Daniel sleeps, he responds to the world around him. He sleeps beautifully. He looks for me in his sleep, he holds me if I ask him, he responds if I kiss him or hold his hand. Now I was kissing him on his forehead and, nothing. His heart was healthy, but it was as though his soul had left during his operation and was still catching up.
His dad later told me that seeing him in that state was the worst part for him. That he was looking down and instead of seeing his 24-year-old son, he was seeing the baby boy that was more wire than skin, whose body had no chance in filling the size of the adult bed around him. His dad later told me he prayed alone with Daniel, whilst Daniel was unconscious, and he begged God that, if a life had to be taken that day, he’d take his instead.
This time, when his brother uttered those words, I did run. My legs carried me there swiftly, their strength willing them on before my brain even knew I was moving. I could barely his brother as he called something after me, I had to see Daniel with his eyes open. A part of me resented Josh, envious that my face wasn’t the first Daniel saw as he awoke. But it didn’t matter, he was awake, he wouldn’t remember waking up anyway, and I was going to see his life.
He was wonderful. He had the most beautiful smile and his eyes lit up when he saw me, and nothing else mattered. Not the wires attached to his skin, not the monitors buzzing to life behind him, not the fact that the beautiful flush in his skin had faded, or the fact that he was trembling.
But suddenly it did matter. He was trying to choke out through the tube in his throat that he was okay, that he loved me, that he didn’t know what day it was, but he was trembling too much and still wasn’t fully breathing by himself. Eventually, he asked to see his brother, and it was my turn to walk out of the ITU. My feet were glued to the floor for what felt like an eternity, but also not long enough. My hand clung to his, refusing to let go, but he had an innocence in his eyes that I couldn’t ignore. He wanted to see his twin brother, and I couldn’t be in the way of that. So somehow my feet carried me back out.
While I sat in the waiting room itching to see him, Daniel was having some kind of fit. His trembling grew more violent and he was shaking the bed. They drugged him and he relaxed. It was my turn to see him again.
“I’m not worried!” He declared, that wonderful grin back on his face. He was cold to the touch, but he was also high as a kite, and he didn’t care. He wasn’t worried.
“You’re a bit cold my love, do you want me to pull your blanket up?”
“No thank you, I’m not worried, I had wonderful dreams! Can I have a kiss?”
That adorable bastard. He had put me through pain and stress and sadness and tears, and now here he was, being an adorable little shit like he had just been to the shops and just wanted some affection. I obliged. Then his dad turned up, and he was so excited to see him. It meant more kisses! How wonderful his day was turning out to be.
They say relief sweeps through you, lifting a weight off your shoulders and releasing a breath that your lungs had clung to as though it might be your last. What they don’t tell you is the force with which that relief brushes through you. It felt like a wind that forced its way down to my throat down to my feet and it dragged my body down with it. After the weight of worry, it was the relief that finally knocked me off my feet. I went home that night, thrilled that he was alive, he was healthy, he was happy. And I went home and I cried. I sobbed so hard I thought my ribs would break.
They didn’t, and eventually, I managed to sleep.
He was in the hospital for a week, shocking even the doctors with his resilience and his strength. He healed and after a few days, he braved the journey to the café on foot. All the while I slept very little, knowing I couldn’t sleep until he was home. As his strength grew, my marathon continued, and after just 7 days – though they felt like 7 lifetimes – he came home.
His strength continued to shock me and after barely a couple of weeks, it felt like he’d never even been in the hospital at all. Two weeks after his operation we were in Malvern, celebrating his brother’s wedding, and he was braving his first half pint of beer. It didn’t take him long to get bored with being at home, but all the while I would look and try and block out the image of seeing him unconscious, face flushed yet unresponsive.
His healing process would be temporarily punctured by moments that now make me cringe. I talk in my sleep and one night I dived on him, trying to protect his broken ribs from the bookcase I dreamt was falling down. He wasn’t best pleased, but he appreciated the thought behind it. Overall, though, everything got better.
It’s been a year now, and other than one scary incident with an ambulance and the occasional heart monitor strapped to his chest, you wouldn’t know he’d ever had so much as a cold. He got stronger and got back into his old hobbies and his old life.
This includes the Duke of Edinburgh Award. He gold hit Gold Award and has been a leader ever since. And every weekend he goes away, although I know he’s the fittest he’s ever been, tere are images that won’t escape my head.
I imagine the road that Andy’s dad was walking down, and I imagine Daniel walking through a field. I never see him falling, my heart could never let my mind’s eye be so cruel, but I remember the images that flashed in my mind 18 months ago, and it terrifies me every time he goes away that he might not come home again.
He’s just left for the Cotswold to lead an expedition, and he left if a flurry of stress. He came back again to give me another kiss goodbye because “I didn’t want to say goodbye when I’m stressed” and I force my mind to ignore the image of his flushed, unconscious body on the hospital bed. Instead, I see him with a soft smile on his face declaring “I’m not worried!”
And I let it comfort me. And I try not to be worried too.