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Lucy Meacock’s story of her lovely dad and the hospice!

We never want to think about a Hospice. We cling to the hope we will never die.
But we all know one of the very few guarantees in life is it has to end.
And a life well lived should have the best closing chapter possible.

It’s hard to believe that a hospice relies on charitable donations. It is not funded by the state even though it is a completely vital service. The Hospice of the Good Shepherd has a turnover of £4 million a year. The Government provides only 24 per cent of that. So three out of every four pounds spent has to be raised by people like you and me.

Many hospices now say their future is hanging in the balance as donations are drying up. Imagine if every Hospice closed down overnight. How would the NHS cope? It wouldn’t. It couldn’t. How would Chester cope without the Hospice of the Good Shepherd? It wouldn’t. It couldn’t.

This is a really difficult article to write. I was very reluctant to do it. I rarely talk about the deaths of my parents. I am not someone who likes to wallow in self pity. I like to put on a brave face and get on with it. Working in TV you get used to that. I hate people feeling sorry for me. I am only writing this because I recognise how important our hospices are – and how important the Hospice of the Good Shepherd is to the people of Chester.
The ‘end of life’ care in our hospices is widely regarded as the best in the world but it will only survive with our help.

I was in my 20s when both of my parents died.
It was my lovely Mum first. She was always full of fun, a great golfer with a raft of entertaining stories to tell.
Everyone agreed a party was always better if she was there. She had a big circle of close and loyal friends.
She was diagnosed with terminal cancer in her early 50s.

There was no hospice in Chester then. For a year there was no hope. We knew she wasn’t going to survive. But against all the doctor’s predictions she somehow made it to my birthday, then to my sister Anna’s birthday and then by some miracle to Christmas.

On Christmas Day there were a dozen red roses from my Dad and although her world was drawing in each day we were always laughing and joking together because that’s what our family did. That’s how we coped.

Just a few days later though things began to deteriorate quickly and she was soon in terrible pain. They say bone cancer is one of the most painful illnesses of all. Watching someone you love struggle to find any comfort at all is heart-breaking. You feel so utterly useless. A busy doctor was unable to assemble a drip for constant pain relief . So late that night the decision was taken to call an ambulance to take her on her final journey to hospital.

I remember it as clearly as if it was yesterday. There was the blue flashing light outside the house and Mum’s brave smile when she heard our dog bark for the last time. It was one of the saddest experiences any family can endure.

Mum died 48 hours later – it was New Year’s Eve – one of the busiest nights of the year a night that in any hospital is pretty chaotic. They did their best. But hospitals are geared up to concentrate on those who can survive. So she wasn’t a priority to anyone except us. If only she had died two days earlier it would have all been so different..

Hundreds of people went to her funeral – much of it is a blur to me – but the collection at the funeral was for the new hospice that was going to be built to serve the people of Chester. That was the first time I heard of the Hospice of the Good Shepherd.

Two years later my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He was a man who didn’t complain. He’d managed to rebuild a life without my Mum even though it had been tough. I was working as a presenter for BBC TV in London. By now my sister had a young family to look after and a full time job so I needed to come home to do my bit.

Luckily I managed to talk my way into a job at Granada TV – and even when Dad was in hospital he used to walk to the TV room (attached to a drip) to watch Granada Reports. Other patients told me later he used to say proudly: “That’s my daughter, you know.”

We kept him at home for as long as possible.
There were lots of hospital stays, lots of pyjamas to be ironed, bags to be packed and some difficult conversations to be had.

But these sad times are also the times you get closest to those you love.
I must have tried cooking every meal he’d ever liked, we did endless crosswords together, we drank copious amounts of whisky(which I hate) and gin(which I don’t), we talked about my Mum, about holidays, about his childhood, about books we loved and about so many random and wonderful things. When you know how precious every day is you don’t waste any of them. The bond between father and daughter is a powerful one – I could never imagine my life without him.

My first direct experience of the Hospice was in 1989 – the same year as the Hillsborough disaster 27 years ago. My Dad was suffering with terrible nausea and pain. He couldn’t eat. He was losing interest in life and everything around him. He was giving up.
I suggested to him that we spoke to someone from the Hospice. To start off with he said he didn’t want any bloody ‘do-gooders’ in his house. The very word Hospice sounds so final and non-negotiable. But with a bit of coaxing he finally agreed to see someone.

She was brilliant. She didn’t talk to him as if he was ill. She was kind but upbeat and very direct. She said the first thing they needed to do was sort out his pain relief which might improve his appetite. But longer term she suggested he might want to spend a day at the hospice and wanted to know why he wasn’t keen.
Eventually he said: ‘No-one will come to visit me there. If they did I wouldn’t even be able to offer them a drink. I like being able to offer someone a gin and tonic when they come to see me.”

I remember her reply: ‘Of course you can bring your gin and tonic. It isn’t a prison camp. We like people to be as comfortable as possible and we like them to feel as at home as possible. And we want your visitors to feel welcome too.’

Their first priority – as it still is – is sorting out someone’s pain. They are the experts in that.
When you’re talking about the quality of life that is critical. Most of their work involves home visits – and often that is the way they build a rapport with someone who needs them. That’s how it worked with Dad.

When he was admitted for the last three days of his life it was as if he was staying in a smart hotel. The bed was comfortable, his room was lovely, the staff were cheerful and helpful, his drinks cupboard was in place for visitors (gin and tonic was compulsory), and he suddenly seemed more relaxed. I suppose the medication helps – but I think he felt he was with people who understood everything about the final moments of life and there was huge comfort in that. It was a very calm place and he was able to maintain complete dignity which was very important to him.

When he died it was simply as if he had fallen asleep somewhere where he felt comfortable and at home. He’d found peace.

Don’t get me wrong the Hospice can’t solve it all. They couldn’t take away my pain. They can’t solve the heartbreak of losing someone you love.

The worst moment for me was collecting Dad’s personal belongings from the Hospice the next day. It was the saddest, loneliest thing I have ever done. I remember picking up his watch. I had never seen him without it. Even thinking about that now brings tears to my eyes.
But even then when Dad was gone – I remember the kindness from the people at the Hospice. I felt truly cared for and supported. Don’t get me wrong it was nothing like having my Dad there – but they did an amazing job. And they still do.

All that is only possible because of all the crazy people who do crazy things to raise money for the Hospice. People like … and …

It’s only possible because of all 300 volunteers who contribute 48,000 hours a year – hours they spend on reception, maintenance work, gardening, driving, running charity shops and helping with day to day care.

It’s only possible because of crazy people doing crazy things. People like 81 year old Emily Hornby from Blacon who did a skydive, Julia Frost a volunteer who had her head shaved to help raise £11,000 and Dave Skingsley, who raised £2,000 by overcoming his fear of spiders and having a tarantula put on his head.

We all need to do our bit. That’s why on May 7th I am hosting a special fundraising night at Chester Cathedral and I would urge as many people as possible to support it. It’s the 60th anniversary of the Kelsborrow choir – the music will be stunning and it will be a great night. If you can’t be there do something else to raise money for them instead.

We need support from local businesses and individuals. But I would really like to see some families there too. Let’s face it it’s in a very good cause. You never know when it will be your family’s turn. It’s in your long term interests to support it.