I had only known Alex for a few months but what we’d been through in that time had drawn us together and we’d become good friends. Up to that point, my life had been fairly uneventful, boring even; I could never have predicted that I’d end up spending the night in the woods, hiding in a car, in fear of my life.
I was brought up in a fairly unremarkable rural town, living in a red-brick terraced house with my parents. Just a normal teenager doing normal things in a place just large enough not to be too dull, and I liked it that way.
I had a great relationship with my father. We were definitely closer than most of my friends were with their parents. It was a bond that had been built on sheer stubbornness and mutual support since my mother passed away a few years ago when I was in my early teens. The short illness and suddenness of it all had caught me unprepared and had left me numb.
Dad and I did most things together; sport was something we were both passionate about and it played a big part in our lives. He was an enthusiastic supporter of my exploits, particularly on the rugby pitch. At school I explored most subjects, showing decent ability, even enjoying maths and sciences, and I was involved in most of the high school’s sporting teams.
He was on the same wavelength as me and seemed to get how teenagers ticked. My friends thought my dad was quite cool when they met him, even briefly at the front door. They grinned as Dad raised his hand inviting a high five on the doorstep, then followed through missing the connection, chuckling before asking them in.
Dad and I were involved in several local sports clubs. While I attempted to be the best at everything I tried, my dad would break away from the sidelines to catch up with friends over a beer or a coffee. He was also a keen photographer and loved to capture those special moments and milestones in family life, the sort that many look back on and wished they had recorded too. I always shied away from the family snapshots and video footage, embarrassed at the time, but then I’d be quietly glued to them when I could secretly watch them alone.
Family life had been hard for us at times, but a few months ago things got even tougher. Dad suffered a serious stroke while watching me play at the local rugby club. I was stunned; it hit me hard, knocking the wind out of me. I remember standing on the churned-up pitch, hands on hips, breathing heavily in the misty morning air. Looking over to the sideline I saw my dad doing our high five, acknowledging my mazy run from the halfway line before I was brought down by a perfect tackle. I checked back on my regrouping teammates, then turned again towards the sideline. Dad was lying there on the cold solid ground. Several spectators were gathered round offering assistance, one on their mobile phone confirming it was an emergency requiring urgent help.
I sat with my dad and the paramedics in the ambulance on the way to the hospital as it raced through red lights, the screaming sirens doing little to drown out the voice of fear that filled my head. I knew it was serious; I knew time wasn’t on our side.
Hanging around in the reception area was hell. I wasn’t allowed into the emergency room where Dad had been taken. I didn’t have my phone, just a water bottle and my muddy boots which I’d removed to walk on the gleaming hospital floors. When the medical staff arrived, brushing through the swing doors, I was prepared for bad news. It was an event that would change my father’s life, and my own in more ways than I could have imagined. The prognosis was as serious as it could be. The doctor introduced himself and I was taken into a small private room just off the reception area. His serious expression was reinforced by the tone of his voice; it felt like everyone waiting in reception could hear what was being said in that room, and the harsh glare of the hospital lights left me nowhere to hide.
“Joel, forgive my directness but you need to understand that your father has experienced a powerful stroke on the right side of his brain. This is going to be a difficult time for you, your family and those close to him,” he said, as he handed the clipboard and case file to his colleague. Then, forcing a sympathetic smile, he slipped his hands into the pockets of his white coat and continued. “There will be the physical and psychological impacts, and his power of speech will be affected. For now it’s about stabilising him and monitoring things before we can take the next steps. Your father is healthy for his age, but unfortunately this sort of condition can strike at any time. I’ll leave you with the nursing team for now, but I’ll be back shortly as I’m sure you’ll have many questions.”
Stunned with disbelief, I sat down as the doctor and nurse briskly left the room. My dad’s world had collapsed, and I felt that my own world was about to implode. I was alone, and would be until I could get myself home, but at that moment I needed to be there among the throng of activity. Lonely silence could wait. I needed to stay close if there was a slight chance that my dad might see an improvement, that either of us might escape from the living nightmare we’d just slipped into.
I spent nearly a month at home by myself while Dad underwent rehabilitation at the local hospital. Friends and neighbours were shocked by events and had rallied round offering support. I welcomed the home-cooked meals and the occasional visitors. Mrs Denton from next door insisted on popping in and doing some ironing and cleaning. Friends of mine would drop by, particularly those that knew my dad well. As the days passed I had no objections to being dragged out to the local pub to take my mind off things, a welcome relief and some sense of normality once again.
Fortunately, I had finished with high school and was able to spend my time visiting Dad on a daily basis, meeting with the medical staff who were able to report on gradual progress, sitting beside his bed, being there for him even though he was unable to communicate verbally, responding to his weak attempts at pointing towards the water jug for a refill, or tapping at a control pad by his side as instruction to call for a nurse or to adjust the bed.
During sixth form I had decided to go to university, and Dad and I made visits to research several different courses and locations. I settled on a place that was neither local nor too far away. I could drive there, but the train service was convenient at both ends and would be fine for occasional trips home. But Dad’s stroke had made me rethink my plans. How could I leave home for weeks at a time with my dad still in rehabilitation, and without any real understanding of what lay ahead?
Towards the end of the first month my dad spent in hospital there were some encouraging signs. He was more alert, still partially paralysed on one side, but more in control of his movements on the other. Physiotherapy on a daily basis was also beginning to help, and the doctors were confident that his positive attitude would play an important part during his recovery. On one of my visits to the hospital to plan his discharge for home care he scribbled a message to me on a notepad: Go to university – I will be ok. I smiled. “Let’s talk about that when you’re out of here and back home,” I said, tearing off the page and folding it carefully.
After a lot of soul-searching I decided to follow the original plan for me to attend university, but found it difficult at first. My dad had been struck down by a condition that rendered him relatively helpless, and I couldn’t help feeling I should be there for him. But from the start, I decided I’d immerse myself in everything, whether it be the computer sciences course I’d been accepted for, sports activities, friendships or anything new. I would just give it my best shot. If it didn’t work out, Dad would understand and I’d put things on hold until I could be sure he’d made a full recovery.