Mummy, when Grampy’s burnt will there be fireworks?” my six-year-old demanded. My heart sank as I realised I’d made a terrible job of explaining cremation. We were racing down the motorway so that Abbey and her older brother could see their grandad – my father – one final time. But it was only a few weeks after Bonfire Night. Abbey’s one frame of reference for setting people alight was the guy that had so enthralled her on the school playing field, going up in a blaze of sparks and cinders.
As soon as we arrived – on an icy Christmas Eve in 2017 – the children stampeded into the dining room where Dad lay on a hospital bed being drip-fed morphine, yellow with jaundice and skeletal. I’d worried that the sight of him might frighten them. But no. “Grampy!” they squealed as they raced to his bedside. Abbey instinctively leant downwards to kiss his forehead, while Finn took the bare bones of Dad’s hand in the plumpness of his, and gently, tenderly, squeezed them. Tinsel and fairy lights twinkled around them. He was too weak to speak, but Dad’s eyes danced with pleasure. My heart cracked as I watched his face – so very gaunt, stripped bare by cancer – glow with an unmistakable smile.
Christmas Eve was my father’s 75th birthday. From the moment he had been diagnosed 15 months ago, he’d known in merciless detail all that would come his way. A retired GP, he had watched cancer claim too many patients to count. Determined not to be tucked away upstairs like a secret, he’d wanted the hospital bed he knew he would never leave to be cocooned in the warmth of his family. We gathered round – his three children, three grandchildren and wife of 47 years – and sang our hearts out to a dying man. And somehow, the children’s belted Happy Birthday made genuine joy rise from the grief. Dad’s eyes responded with silent delight as he managed to murmur “Thank you, all.”
You might think that mistletoe and morphine wouldn’t mix. But the truth was, Dad’s being at home was a miracle of sorts – and what could be more festive than that? For the NHS wasn’t merely administering opiates. The district nurses, community palliative care team, GPs and occupational therapists had rallied round my father with nothing less than love – smiling, listening, embracing, consoling – ensuring he felt safe and secure enough to die, as he longed to, at home. He was rushing towards the end of his life borne on a thousand tiny acts of kindness, bestowed with grace and effusiveness by NHS staff.
In the early hours of Boxing Day morning, with Mum sleeping on a camp bed at her husband’s side, enclosing his palm in hers, he took his final breath. The undertakers arrived, sombre and stiff, with frost on the doorstep. All that remained of the man I had spent a lifetime adoring was an imprint of limbs in cooling, crumpled cotton. The absence was impossible to grasp.
Curled up under a duvet in the vastness of grief, I thought back to my own childhood Christmases when, in between unwrapping presents and devouring turkey, we’d drive to the local cottage hospital. There, the frailest of Dad’s patients would lie marooned, facing the festivities alone. Their faces would light up as we trooped from bedside to bedside, Quality Street at the ready, as Dad, in a Santa hat, fussed and made them feel special. Now, I clung with gratitude to the knowledge that what he had given of himself to his patients so freely for four decades had been returned so abundantly, at no cost, by others who cared. I posted an impromptu tweet of thanks to the NHS: “Last night, cancer finally claimed my dearest Dad. One major surgery, countless chemotherapies, & a small army of community & palliative care nurses so he could be at home with us. The bill? £zero. Grief, pain, emptiness – but not bankruptcy. Thank you, thank you NHS.”
Improbably, the message set off around the world, being retweeted about 40,000 times and reaching nine million people. Thousands of people I had never met shared their own experiences of the NHS stepping up when their loved one was dying. “I lost my wife to cancer in October,” wrote one man. “The care and dignity with which she was treated will stay with me for ever.” Then there were the haunting responses from the US: “My dad died too soon because he couldn’t afford chemotherapy.” “My family has been destroyed and bankrupted by mum’s cancer bills.”
No one in the UK, mercifully, has yet been forced to do a Walter White and build a crystal meth lab to fund their cancer chemotherapy. As a society, we still choose to provide through our taxes for universal healthcare according to need, not ability to pay. The NHS may be tattered, threadbare and at risk of collapse. Nevertheless – despite all our political and economic divisions – we continue to provide this radical act of collective kindness. As I learned the hard way, on this most painful of Christmases, the NHS is surely the greatest social miracle of all.
Breathtaking by Rachel Clarke (Little, Brown) is out in paperback now