I had arrived the previous evening from a business meeting in Bergen, Norway, tired after two plane trips, but had woken up feeling refreshed and happy. I had many things to do as the following day would be Afonso’s first communion and we’d have a party at our beach house for our family and close friends. Dad and Ilda (my stepmother) had come to Lisbon for the party and had been over for dinner with Miguel and the boys while I was away, so I was looking forward to meeting them. I was having breakfast in the kitchen when Miguel came in with a very serious look on his face. I looked at him questioningly and he said “I have very bad news for you, Teresa.” And before I could react he bluntly told me “I’m so sorry to say your father has cancer”.
I felt as if a bomb had exploded in my face. How was it possible? My father, at 73, was so young, so fit, so full of life and with so many activities…I leaned against the kitchen table and tears fell down my face. And Miguel made me sit down and told me everything.
It had been discovered with some routine tests. It was liver cancer. The only good news was that it had not spread. The doctors wanted Dad to undergo radiotherapy, but as a doctor himself (and a radiologist), he bluntly refused, telling them” I will not live as a sick man”.
The other option was surgery, a high risk operation, and this was Dad’s choice.
When I next saw him I didn’t know what to say to him or to Ilda. He sounded optimistic about the operation but I could well imagine what he must be feeling. After all, a doctor knows much better than “common mortals” what to expect of an illness such as this one…
As much as Dad had made the effort to come to Lisbon for his beloved grandson’s first communion in the end he could not make it as he was in pain due to the liver biopsy he had had a few days before. He was not feeling well at all and we missed him and Ilda very much.
In a month he was operated on his liver. He had the best care and the best doctors and they extracted the tumour and with it part of his liver. They said the operation had been a success and we began to hope again. Most of all because the main symptom of his disease had been a sensation of extreme tiredness, and this disappeared after the operation. We all hoped he would get better, and after a few weeks he had recovered enough for them to go and spend a few days on the Algarve, as they did every year.
Alas, all was not well… While on the Algarve he began feeling very tired again and they went back home to Porto. Ilda called and told me she was terribly worried. When, in my ignorance, I said I could not understand what was happening as the operation had been a success, Ilda told me something I didn’t know: the operation entailed great risk, as it might cause contamination to other parts of the body.
There was of course the possibility that it might not happen, but in case it did there would be no turning back – and no options left. Now I understood why the doctors had suggested radiotherapy – as the tumour was not spread it would not entail so much risk – but then, it was not Dad’s choice. Soon we took the boys to see him in Porto, and he smiled and made merry for the sake of them but before we left he called me aside and told me: “My dear, I don’t want you to bring the children to see me anymore. From now on I’ll be decaying and I want them to remember me as I am now, not as a sick old man” I swallowed my tears and just hugged him, but I respected his wishes.
When the boys – who knew he was ill – asked when they would be seeing him again we came up with an excuse saying he was tired but sent his love to them.
We often talked during that period. Sometimes when he was alone he would call me and tell me about the arrangements he was making, what he would like us to do after he was gone…he told me he could not complain, the decision to be operated on had been his and he had been highly conscious of all the risks involved….he told me he would like us to be very correct with Ilda at all times (he was not really worried about me, as we had always been on friendly terms – and still are, in fact – but with my brother who had always kept his distance from both of them). I promised him everything would go well, but I hated him to talk about his own death.
Still, I listened to him and very much admired his courage: the courage of his choice, and the courage to face death. Above all, the courage to live life “his own way”, as he had always done – until the end.
Over the following months I visited him whenever I could. I was lucky to have to go to Porto for my work so I would go and spend the evening with him and Ilda. He was becoming thinner and more drawn. Thank God he was not in pain – it was just that terrible fatigue that invaded him more and more.
One evening as I was arriving home from work Ilda called and said she had taken Dad to hospital- it was not possible for him to be at home anymore. And I knew this was the end.
Again I went to Porto for a few days and I went to see him at the hospital. He was lying in bed but still conscious and he talked to us. He was very feeble, and his beautiful eyes were now a pale green, as if the light were fading away from them.
The following week when I arrived at the hospital he was no longer awake. Ilda told me he was not in pain and he looked peaceful, as if he were sleeping. The following day the doctor called us – Ilda, my brother who was also there, and me – and he told us very clearly there was nothing more they could do for my father, apart from keeping him as comfortable as possible, and that we should be prepared to let him go.
I could not begin to imagine what Ilda must have been going through. They had been together for thirty years and he was the love of her life – as she was his. They had no children together and she was a housewife, totally devoted to him. She was there with him until the last minute, sleeping at the hospital by his side, and living through what must have been the very worst moments of her life.
During the weekend Miguel came to see him and he had to stay in Porto for work on Monday, so I had to come back home to take care of the boys. I spent as much time as I could with Dad and on Sunday when Ilda left for a few minutes I held his hand and took my farewell. I told him many things – many things I had probably never had the chance to tell him; I told him I loved him very much, that I had always loved and admired him immensely; I thanked him for everything he had done for me, for his unfailing support, and even for the times when we hadn’t agreed; I thanked him for his example of courage, because he was as brave during his life as when he was facing death; I told him his grandsons also loved him very much and promised I would keep his memory alive, that he would always be remembered both in words and in our hearts; most of all I told him I would love him and keep him in my heart forever, every single day of my life. And I knew that, wherever he might be in the future, he would still be there for me and my boys, and keep us safe.
And then I kissed him and I could not hold back the tears anymore, and as I left I was crying disconsolately because I knew I would never see my father alive again.
I don’t know how I drove the first miles back to Lisbon. I put on Elton John’s “Funeral for a friend” and I cried and cried and cried and put the song back again and again…slowly I calmed down and stopped crying and I finally made it back home where my darling boys were eagerly waiting for me. I had to tell them I was sad because Granddad was very sick, and their big eyes were also worried and sad. Hugging them was the best medicine and I thanked God for this promise of future when I was losing my references, my past – when I was losing my father.
The following Tuesday the phone rang at 6 am. I knew, then. It was Ilda saying my father had passed away. I picked up some black garments – I, who was never one for mourning clothes, inexplicably felt this need to be in black – and we hastily returned to Porto. The whole family – a huge one – was there as Dad was much beloved. The day of the funeral I did something again unthinkable – before the coffin was closed I kissed my father. How strangely cold he felt. But I just had to kiss him goodbye.
When Miguel and I got home the boys were in the study, and when they saw us they just knew. Afonso stoically gritted his teeth but little Pedro burst out crying. They were inconsolable, and I was too because they had lost their grandfather too early in life. What a loss. And they felt it too.
In the course of the following days, months, years, we had to adapt, to learn to live without him, but I’ve kept my promise: I talk about him many times, telling them stories about their Granddad, reminding them of how he loved to come to dinner and bring their favourite roasted chicken; and they laugh and say he let them make believe he was a horse they would ride; and when I look at them today and see them so tall, so grown up, I imagine how proud he would have been of his grandsons, that he had to leave too early.
…But, in fact, he has not completely left us. I feel he is somewhere near, looking after us, keeping us safe. Many times have I felt his loving and caring presence. He is still with us in our daily moments as well as in the important occasions. As Ilda, his beloved wife is, because, as he so wished, she is part of our family. And it’s good to remember him when we are together.
Today it would have been his birthday, and I have a message for him: “Wherever you are, my dear father, my thoughts are with you. As you are with me, in the most important place of all: in my heart. Until we meet again”.