An aggressive brain tumour meant that my family knew his time was short. We set out to make Christmas special
It is hard to believe that its now 10 years since that last, defiantChristmas.
In the summer, we had celebrated my fathers 70th birthday. In the autumn, he began to lose his words.
He called me one day to say hed been having a few, sort of memory problems, and there was something in his voice beyond the usual mild-mannered hesitancy. Something that made me immediately take my dog and catch a train to Cambridge. My parents met us at the station. As soon as we got into the car, my dog scrambled over and climbed on to my fathers lap.
The memory loss was particular and strange. It was as though certain words had become detached from the objects they signified. We were eating strawberries, I remember. Dad looked down at his bowl and frowned. Microphones? he said. A blood test, he described to me as them taking some ink from his arm.
The impression was not of delusional thinking. Dad didnt believe the strawberries were actually microphones. Rather, he looked at the strawberries and the word for them wasnt there. He reached for another and tried it for fit. Microphones? It wasnt right, but he couldnt find the word that was. Strawberries? I said. And he laughed. Of course! Strawberries, he said. How silly.
His GP had referred him to the memory clinic to be assessed for dementia. There was a three-month wait, but in any case, dementia seemed unlikely. We had known people with dementia and it did not present like this. My mother thought it might be psychological. Dad had retired in the summer from his readership in pure mathematics, and though, externally at least, this change had made little difference he still cycled in to his old department every day, where he was working on a book on Banach algebra, and he still played an active part in college life Mum thought the loss of his professional role might be having an impact on him.
My sister and I were unconvinced, and so, I think, was she. We rang his GP and got put through to a different doctor, who agreed to see Dad that evening. At 8am the following morning, he was having an emergency scan.
Glioblastoma multiforme is the most aggressive type of brain tumour. Thread-like tendrils burrow deep into the brain, making it all but impossible to remove the tumour completely. Dads was on his left frontal lobe, in the area responsible for expressive language. They operated to excise as much of the tumour as they could, and Dad came round to discover that, as if by magic, his words had returned. Still high from the anaesthetic, he lay, head bandaged, in his hospital bed, riffing with consummate fluency, this gentle, self-effacing man, unaccustomed to the centre stage and rather surprised to find himself enjoying it after all.
There was no question of survival. A few weeks to a few months, they said. It was incomprehensible. But perhaps the finality of the prognosis was in some sense also a blessing. We did not invest our hopes in some percentage chance; there was no chance. We focused instead on the now.
And so it was that we embraced that Christmas, in a spirit of neither despair, nor hope, but rather, of defiant celebration. We would enjoy the best Christmas ever. We would relish every precious moment. We would be happy, and we were. We didnt do anything different. The pleasure of Christmas is in the traditions. The same decorations hung on the tree. My sister and I joke-argued as we had every year over whose angels turn it was to top it. I cannot remember who won. We ate the same foods, played the same silly games word games mostly: consequences, drawing book titles. I can see Dad now, his scar extending from under his yellow paper crown, dabbing tears of laughter from his eyes at Mums attempts to guess Love in the Time of Cholera from his peculiar pencil squiggles. It was all the same, but the light at the heart had been turned up a notch.
We went to midnight mass at the friary. My parents were Catholics; I am not, but there is comfort to be found in the rituals of Christmas, the line stretching forward and back. So too in the rituals of death. In a few months, my fathers coffin would sit in this chapel the night before his funeral. I did not consciously think of it, but I can see now it was an awareness of this, of the inevitability of the end, that made that Christmas so joyful. Christmas is about birth, of course, but it is also about death. You cannot have one without the other. Time is precious. Thats why the wise men bring myrrh.