Circumstances found me in hospital recently. Nothing alarming, but after a couple of days of tests and so on, I found myself in a ward which included a man who was clearly very ill. This is his story; or rather it is part of the story that developed around him. Apart from anything else it was probably one of the single biggest reminders to me about the value and importance of love.
And so begins the Tale of Alf and his family.
Alf has been blessed with six fine children and they exemplified the importance of family ties and the need to stay close. The whole family were clearly close with several generations visiting whenever possible. There was mum, a spritely 82 year old, who had made the trip from the other side of England accompanied by Alf’s sister at one end of the age scale. Whilst at the other end there was the youngest of Alf’s girls who is still a teenager. But the one thing they all had in common was their clear devotion to Alf and their huge desire for him to get better and pull through this really tough time.
Alf had been married twice, with each marriage bringing forth three children. Sadly his second wife had died far too early from cancer and so the children really had only each other and their father as close family – and in times of trouble this really showed.
All five sisters and one brother – ranging in age from 40 to mid teens; gave each other and their father such support that it made me feel quite humble just to see it at first hand. And that really is the tale that needs to be told. A stark reminder of just how much effect love can have upon a group of people united in grief and concern that they may be losing the central person of the family.
Now Alf had been living abroad for a few years – trying to build a new life following the death of his second wife. Sadly the whole attempt had not been as successful as he had hoped and he had been persuaded to come back to the UK for a short break whilst he re-thought his goals. Sadly he had been so ill that he had not even managed to get to his daughter’s house, but had been taken ill on the plane and had gone straight to hospital where the doctors had set out to try and sort out his illnesses.
This involved many major organs and everything was looking pretty grim. Not to put too fine a point on it Alf was closer to death than is good for any human being and the doctors were not sure if they could do anything.
I lay in my bed and watched the whole family gathered round Alf. Not just content to sit there and talk in hushed tones, they took it in turns to massage his hands and feet, rubbed his back and generally showed him all the love that they felt. Hour after hour they stayed with him, right around the clock. Taking it in turns to grab a few minutes sleep before they rubbed his hands or wiped his brow – and all the while they talked to him.
The whole ward was kept mesmerised by the outpouring of love and care that they displayed and the tales of how he and they used to play when they were younger. It was as though we were being given a tiny peep through the window of a family life filled with laughter and closeness.
Tales from his mum and sister made the place rock with laughter as Alf was reminded of the time when he tried to leap onto the top of a large wardrobe and instead only managed to pull it down on himself. In fact he ended up locked inside the wardrobe having to be rescued by his parents and their friends.
Then there was that time near Guy Fawkes night, when he and a friend carefully laid out all the bangers and other fireworks that they had gathered on the sofa. Now this is never a good plan and when he had the bright idea of trying out just one firework you can guess the outcome.
Sure enough, the whole lot caught fire and the house was filled with jumping jacks and firecrackers all going off ON the sofa. Naturally this led to a huge hole being burnt in the sofa and so they hurriedly stuffed it with all the newspaper that they could find. They then arranged a handy throw over the whole thing, hoping against all hope that their mischief would go unnoticed.
In fact they did get away with this – until Alf’s mum actually sat on the sofa – and fell through the hole they had made. Despite his serious state Alf still managed to smile at the memories, as did everyone else around the bed. Here there was clearly someone who had a true zest for life!
But time was not being kind to Alf, instead of his systems starting to recover they were clearly giving up on him and the doctors took the children to one side and explained that perhaps it was time to stop delaying the inevitable and to offer Alf treatment that was designed to make his time more comfortable rather than fighting against all hope.
Of course there were tears, red eyes and tissues were much in evidence after their meeting with the doctors, but still the family worked with their Dad to make things as comfortable and memorable as they could.
More stories of how he used to love having his back rubbed or how he would tear paper and then brush their upper lips with it whilst they dozed on a beach and wait for them to try and brush away the annoying fly or whatever it was that kept buzzing round them. Once again laughter filled the ward and somehow lightened and brightened the whole place.
I have talked about how the children gave so much love and attention to their Dad, but have failed to mention just how much love they showed each other. That is equally part of why the whole episode has made such an impression on me. To see an entire family so clearly concerned about one another is wonderful.
They give the lie to the fact that these days few people really care about anyone other than themselves. Here each of the family was not just dealing with their own grief, but was making sure that their brothers and sisters were handling things as well as they could.
When I left Alf was still battling and the family were right in there, supporting him with every fibre of their being. I don’t know the outcome, but can guess that by now Alf has finally given in.
BUT his spirit and the way in which he brought his children up to care for one another lives on. I have never seen such a wonderful and deep commitment to one person as the head of a family. It shows just how much an impact Alf made on all his children as well as the rest of his family and friends.
I leave you with a brief note that I sent to his family – it sums up everything I think.
“The way in which a parent lives and brings up their children speaks mountains about the person themselves. In Alf’s case, it is clear that he showed you the true benefit of closeness and not being afraid to show it. No person could ask to be remembered for anything better than that!”
“To all of his children I would just like to say a big thank you for reaffirming my belief in people and family values. You clearly are all close and the love and support that you are showing is like a beacon of light for everyone else to see.”
“Things are tough for you all at the moment, no-one is trying to hide that; but if you stay together and share your sorrows as well as triumphs then you will find the strength to remain a testament to the way in which Alf has taught you to live – family does mean so much more than you think at times.”
“As I lay opposite Alf and the rest of you – at times feeling pretty sorry for myself; I was heartened by all the tales that I heard – Times of joy and laughter and even naughtiness – it is so life affirming to see everyone laughing at a time of such enormous stress.”
“Thank you all for letting me see just how much love your family have for each other – it is enormously life affirming and I know that your story will be a beacon to many others.”