Home   News   Opinion   Article

Opinion: Melissa Todd explores love and loss as she keeps vigil at dying stepdad’s hospital bedside

This week, Broadstairs writer and KentOnline columnist Melissa Todd explores love and loss as she keeps a vigil at her dying stepdad’s bedside...

My stepdad was taken into hospital last week, struggling to breathe. He’s smoked 80 a day for 50 years. Frequently I’ve found him with a fag in each hand.

Melissa Todd has been keeping a bedside vigil in her stepdad’s final days. Picture: iStock
Melissa Todd has been keeping a bedside vigil in her stepdad’s final days. Picture: iStock

"Got any fags?” he asked, the moment he saw me. He was wearing an oxygen mask and hated it: kept taking it off to chat. Without it, his oxygen levels dropped to dangerous lows. After a week of this, with the QEQM Hospital in Margate providing him with his own personal carer, whose job it was to replace his mask each time he removed it, they agreed it could be abandoned. “I want to die in peace” he kept explaining, patiently, as if to idiots. At 10am, we all agreed, as if scheduling an execution, the mask would be removed.

It’s exhausting watching people die. You daren’t look away, check your phone, take any interest in what’s happening in the next bed, for fear you might miss their last moment on earth. All day I watched his mouth move, fearing each breath would be his last. Just stared at his lips for eight hours straight, willing them to work. I remembered how it felt to have a newborn, to fear their breathing would suddenly cease, the great terrifying gift be stolen away.

Eventually, I decided to risk going to the loo and asked, in my best whispered deathbed tones, if I could get him anything.

“Yeah. Cup of tea. And - and maybe a bit of cake.”

Surely a man who yearns for cake can’t be that close to the grave? And what cake do you buy to satisfy someone’s last-ever wish? I pressed my nose against Costa’s selection and decided on a Bakewell slice. That’s what I’d want.

“Oh yeah, ta. I used to like those.” With which dismissive epithet he devoured said slice in two gulps, and I wished I’d bought two.

I missed both my actual parents’ deaths. My mum went unexpectedly fast after being given a year to live: I was filming in the Cotswolds. I had no idea my actual dad was even ill. Didn’t find out he was dead until two months after the event, and then only by chance. This, perhaps, might be a chance to atone.

Melissa Todd has been keeping a bedside vigil at the QEQM in Margate
Melissa Todd has been keeping a bedside vigil at the QEQM in Margate

Occasionally his eyes would open, big blue eyes, glistening with mischief, which would promptly fix on me.

“Oh hallo!”

“Hallo, you.” And I waited, eager for some final wisdom.

“Got to buy some corn on the cob.” He nodded sagely. “Then get your boy from the airport.”

And later, with sudden curiosity: “What was it you were arrested for in the end? Was it for running over a pedestrian?”

Was this a premonition from just this side of the hovering veil? I am a rotten driver.

I took his best mate aside and broke the bad news, clumsily, feeling ignorant and useless. Doctors are practised at this caper: I blundered in like a blunderbuss. Nothing they can do, sorry. Make him comfortable, sedate him, wait for breathing to cease. He doesn’t want to live any more. We have to honour that.

His mate sobbed in my arms. I can’t watch him die, he said. I watched my mum die when I was a kid. I can’t go through it again.

And I reassured him I understood and he needn’t. We dried our eyes and sloped back to the bed, where they talked about roast dinners and fishing escapades.

His housemates left after five hours, bless them. They moved in after my mum died, for company, and because he needed the rent. He gave up work to look after her and still wasn’t pension age, so when she died he had nothing. They wanted to be near the hospital, where they work, and also to improve their English, so if you’ve been treated lately by someone with a baffling, culturally inappropriate line in Cockney filth, you may have met them.

The hours rolled past and he didn’t die. The friend left. Just me and him now, staring at each other.

“I don’t believe in the supernatural, but everything is starting to feel a bit weird.”

I opened the blind so he could see the sky. It was a bright clear day, a vague promise of spring hovering in the blue. He stared out, beaming.

“Is that a garden?”

Well, some scrubby bushes, litter and abandoned medical equipment, but it would do. We talked about his garden, which he loves; the fox and birds he feeds, the roses he planted on my mum’s ashes.

Melissa Todd
Melissa Todd

After eight hours, I had to leave. He was calling for “steak, chips and mushrooms, and don’t skimp on the mushrooms, ta”; it was nearly dinner time, and I had to get to work. I promised to see him in the morning, desperately trying to believe it. Four hours later I saw two missed calls from the hospital, and one frantic voicemail: Mrs Todd, it’s about your dad, please call the QEQM the moment you get this message. I did, heart hammering. No one answered. I ran to my car, cursing the fools in my way, ringing again and again. Nothing. Oh God oh God. I’d failed again. Given a third chance to atone, and I’d fluffed it. And I was in Folkestone, 50 minutes away, long enough to imagine his agonised last rattle, the last words he wanted to whisper to someone he loved. I arrived back at the ward: threw myself in the door and presented myself, trembling, at the desk. It was long past visiting hours. A nurse stared at me curiously.

“What do you want?”

“I got a message - about my dad - it’s Melissa Todd.”

“Oh, that. We’ve moved him to another ward. We did leave a message.”

Well, yes, a message from a woman who sounded hysterical. Apparently, that’s just what working in healthcare does for you.

“You can’t see him now I’m afraid. He’s settled for the night.”

“Oh. Yes. Of course. Right.” And I sloped off, giggling, past the nighttime drunks and police cars, home for celebratory brandy, astonished to have been allowed yet another chance.

Maybe he’ll be dead by the time you read this. But maybe he’ll still be causing trouble. I’ve given up predicting. I’m enjoying every rollercoaster moment, every giggle, every human connection, because that’s all any of us have.

Close This site uses cookies. By continuing to browse the site you are agreeing to our use of cookies.Learn More