Of Breath and Dust

This is fourth and final part of the story of ‘Why I Came Home’. Part one here. Part two here. Part three here.

Inverclyde Hospital

Dad and Gill have a flat in Paisley, closer to the hospital, still a train ride away. It has two bedrooms – one for Gill and one for the kids. My sister fools around like normal with mischievous grin. Brother is sullen and bitter, full of rage and hate. I sleep in the lounge on a mattress, savour rare moments when everyone’s out. I take the train to Glasgow regularly to visit friends, walk the damp grey streets, sit in cafes – anything to get out of the flat. I visit Dad once a day, try to get time alone with him.

Stepping off the train and walking the slope to where the hospital looms, a voice calls out behind me – “Is that Jo?”

Mary is Dad’s older sister. I met her once aged three or four. I remember a rocking-horse in a strange house. “I thought that looked like a traveller”, she tells me. This is the aunty that Gill doesn’t like. We hit it off instantly.

Mary and I take turns to be alone with him. Leaving his room, I turn back – “I love you Dad.”

“I love you too”, he croaks.

“I really love you Dad!”

“I really love you!”

I close the door before tears start, get the lift down to Mary. We share a mini-wine bottle on the train back to Glasgow.

Gill is anxious and angry and I’m her target – “I don’t have the luxury of going back to my life! Everything is at stake here – everything! You have your life to go back to, these two will grow up and have their lives, but this is all I’ve got!” I try to concentrate on my breathing, remain calm. I have friends in Glasgow and she’s asked if I wouldn’t prefer to stay with them. Clearly it’s what she wants.

“Well that burst a boil then, didn’t it?” she says when we’re both crying. She takes the kids to the hospital and I start packing. My phone rings while I’m waiting for the bus.

“Where are you?”

“I’m at the bus stop.”

“Good. Come now. Don’t mess about – just come.” Shit.

Outside the train window, trees drop their leaves, whisper – everything dies, even your father, everything dies…

Yes, but not now, wait… wait… The train chugs along.

Dad didn’t wake up today. He’s been given 24-48 hours. Gill and I take a hand each, watching every eye-blink, certain every shallow, painful breath will be his last.

“It’s gonna be tonight”, she whispers. I nod.

In the morning, somehow, he’s still there. I live for the elation of those moments when he focusses his eyes on my face, exclaims – “hello love!” or corrects a topic of conversation. Once, while we’re alone, he looks right at me, smiles, and says – “you look radiant!” before dropping back into unconsciousness. My heart soars.

Text messages trickle in from friends: small cellphone-sized windows to the outside world, where life, they say, carries on. I visit the chapel daily – meditate, roll about on the thick red carpet, write, cry. Bibles and one Koran spread out over a small coffee table. There’s a prayer mat rolled up in the corner and an arrow on the wall, pointing South-East. Nobody else ever comes in.

I live in Inverclyde Hospital now. All of us together in the room with Dad. Twice a day I risk a walk into town, gambling sanity with potential regret. I’m often the only female in the pub, alone scribbling diary notes at a corner table, between swigs of beer. I take chips back for brother and smuggle a bottle of lager in for Gill. She only leaves Dad’s room to go to the toilet.

I’m watching a blackbird from the hospital window, flapping from rooftop to fence. Dad hasn’t woken much today. It’s a big effort for him to speak now, even to open his eyes. He’s not allowed to drink anything because of the risk of inhaling it. It’s so hard to say no to a dying man you love when he asks for a sip of water.

The IV connection failed last night. His vein burst. The fluid began to seep into his skin. Nil by mouth and no IV. Nothing going in: no food, no water, no antibiotics. It seems there’s not much else they can do. Gill is grasping at straws: one moment he’s about to die, the next he’s on the road to recovery. A miscommunication from a doctor gave her an upsurge of hope and she announced his chances had gone up to 75%. It’s a painful correction. Still, he just goes on. In and out of consciousness, in and out of pain.

The hospital room is crowded when I return from my nightly trip to town. Sister is here, along with Gill’s friend from church who has been looking after her. She’s gossiping loudly about her friend or sister or sister’s friend’s divorce. She says goodbye three or four times with a lot of talking in-between. Meanwhile, Sister skips and whirls around Dad’s bed, narrowly avoiding collision with his urine sack. Brother lies on the fold-out bed they brought in on the first night, playing Infinite Space on what Gill calls his ‘Japanese babysitter’. The sound of laser-fighting and a glowing light emit from the screen. Gill is holding Dad’s pale puffed-up hand and crying. I want to yell at them all to shut up, to leave my dad in peace. I close my eyes and try to concentrate on breathing, in and out.

I call my friend Mango every night. Without him, I’m certain, the madness would take me. “I don’t know how I can keep going like this”, I tell him between sobs.

“You just will,” he tells me, “you just will”. And somehow, I just do.

I walk a different route into town, stumble upon a small library with a book called How To Have a Good Death. I speed-read half of it at once – music – of course! There’s a folder called ‘Music from Dad’ on my laptop in the hospital. My sole mission in life has just become to play Dad his music before he dies. I get lost in town searching for food, lose the bus stop and walk the wrong way, all in a panic. I feel life will always hold the regret of not playing my father his favourite music on his deathbed.

He’s still there when I get back. The room is quiet, but for the hum of the fan, a gentle click, the croak and gurgle of my father’s breath and an annoying, chiming beep left unattended in some other room. I set up my laptop and fill the room with folk music, with violins and haunted songs.

Everyone has left but me and Gill – one each beside the bed, each with a bloated hand. His breathing is slow. The fan wafts his flimsy hair. His eyes are yellowing. Dick Gaughan is playing on the laptop. Gill looks at him, then me – “Do you think it’s ok to go for a wee?”

We watch the breath gurgle in, then out. “Yeah, it’s ok.”

Gurgle in, gurgle out. “It’s ok to go?”

In, out. “It’s ok.”

In, out… nothing.

We watch.


Gill looks at me.

I look at Gill.

We both look at Dad.


She nods, breathes out herself. She reaches down and closes his eyes.

I look at my watch: 20:30. We’re still holding his hands. “Let’s not tell them yet”, she says. I nod. She leans over and takes my other hand. We’re all holding hands – me and Dad and Gill. I wish he could have seen this.

Goodbye Dad

I look at the track that was playing – A Handful of Earth. Goodbye Dad.


My father died on the 28th October 2011. It’s taken me a year to finish writing this post.

After the funeral I went South again, to Brighton, still with my Iranian visa in my passport and an unquenchable desire to head East. But there were things to sort out, emotions that needed time to settle, like dust.

Some weeks later, during a hitchhiking trip to the West Country with my partner Yosev, I jumped from a van and my ankle folded. Pain spasmed through me. My world at once reduced from an open road to a sofa in an old familiar room in Brighton.

It was a long winter.

3 thoughts on “Of Breath and Dust

  1. I’m crying too, in a library in Glasgow – Jo, thank you for writing this. I get a lot of inspiration from your posts. You stayed with us in a shared house in Glasgow one or two times… hope things are going well for you wherever you are x

    • Oh Mel, how sweet of you to leave this comment. I remember your house as a happy sanctuary within the chaos of that time in Scotland.

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