“Everyone is fighting a battle you know nothing about. Be kind. Always.”
There has always been a lot of conjecture about the true ownership of the quote above. While most people believe that it belongs to a Scottish author by the name of Ian Maclaren, there are some that attribute it to Plato, or argue that it was Philo of Alexandria who first uttered the phrase. Regardless of who owns it, the simple, yet profound meaning it conveys speaks volumes, especially in a world where we so often feel as though we are struggling, and forget that we are not alone.
Every single person in this world is living through their own unique version of reality. And in that reality, they are fighting battles both within themselves, and with the world around them as they try their best to survive. While some people face battles that manifest themselves as physical disabilities or ailments; others struggle with cognitive or developmental issues, fight emotional demons, or find themselves pitted against the hazards of circumstance. Yet even though we all have moments where we feel as though we are the only one struggling, the truth is that we are not alone in the wars that we wage, no matter the obstacles we face.
Believe me when I say that there’s a lot more that I want to say here. But before I do, it seems appropriate to take a break for a moment and acknowledge that it has been more than a year since I have written a blog post. And while there are a few reasons why I chose to step away from my website, the largest contributing factor for my absence has been that I’ve been busy fighting a battle alongside someone very special to me…
On November 18th, 2019, my Dad passed away. At the time of his passing, he was sick. Really sick. Yet even though I knew that the phone call to tell me that he was gone was imminent, it still hurt like hell when a nurse phoned to say that he was gone. Dad was, and always will be, one of my closest friends. He was a confidant, a provider of advice, and a royal pain in my backside at times. He was the man who taught me how to ride a bike, drive a car, to respect those around me, and a million other things. But he was also a deeply troubled soul, and a man who was fighting a few battles that in the end, he just couldn’t win.
Physically, Dad’s issues started in 2011 when an aneurism in his aorta ruptured and he was airlifted to hospital to undergo emergency surgery. Mentally, he had begun struggling years before that. After more than two decades serving as a police officer, Dad had developed post-traumatic stress disorder and had been self-medicating with alcohol and cigarettes for several years. It was because of these dependancies that his aorta swelled to six times its normal size before eventually rupturing and causing internal bleeding.
Whilst it would be easy to say that the aneurysm was solely a result of his actions, his excessive alcohol consumption and addiction to cigarettes wasn’t entirely a weakness on Dad’s part. He had spent his formative years in the police force during an era where colleagues actively encouraged drinking and smoking as a means of coping with stress. If you had a rough day on the job, your boss told you to go grab a cigarette, or a colleague took you down to the local bar for a few beers. So, by the time Dad’s health had started to decline, drinking and smoking were so ingrained in his DNA that even as medical experts told him that they were the cause of his sickness, he turned to them as a means of coping.
Over time, his post-traumatic stress turned into depression, and his reliance on his vices became so consuming that he transitioned through states of homelessness, staying with family, attending mental health facilities, and living out of a car, plastic bags and whatever else he could, just so that he could keep a couple of bucks in his pocket to buy a beer and a packet of cigarettes.
At his best, Dad was self-sufficient, and could find ways to get by on his police pension. At his lowest, he was sleeping on my lounge and borrowing large sums of money to feed his addictions, or checking himself into clinics just so that he had a roof over his head and something to eat.
There were days when I could barely look at him. I hated seeing what he had allowed himself to become. It broke my heart to watch the person who had taught me everything that I knew about being a man falling apart before my eyes. Yet although I hated seeing his circumstances deteriorate, I still loved him, and I still did anything that I could just to show him that no matter how bad things got, he’d never have to face anything alone.
In January of this year, things got worse again. Dad was rushed to hospital with another aneurysm, and was told that because his health had declined so much since 2011, he wouldn’t survive. I can still remember sitting in a quiet space at work when he called me in tears and told me that the doctors had said that he needed to be airlifted to another hospital where a specialist surgeon would attempt to operate if he somehow made it through the flight. He was petrified as we said our goodbyes, and I told him that I loved him, and that I was proud of him, and that I always would be.
Then, just like he had done in 2011, he did the unthinkable and not only survived the plane ride, but the surgery too.
But his luck was to be short lived. In June he was back in hospital again where he went into surgery to have stents put into his arteries to allow blood to flow into his kidneys which had begun shutting down. Again, Dad defied the odds and pulled through, but was told that he would need to give up his vices and begin dialysis treatment that he would need to remain on for the rest of his life.
Because he had no place of residence, almost no money or possessions to his name, and needed support, he came to stay with me, and then with my younger brother. Then when things got tough, he said that he couldn’t live with us and chose to check himself into temporary accommodation while we helped him look for a more permanent place to live. He hated dialysis. It left him feeling ill, and depressed. So although those around him tried to keep him focused on improving his situation, we could see that he was slipping away.
In early September, Dad decided he had had enough, and that he didn’t want to continue with dialysis anymore, electing to see out his days rather than pursue treatment. On the day that he told me, I was so angry at him. I had fought so hard to help him over the years that him telling me that he wanted to give up sent me into a rage. I swore at him. A lot. And I reminded him that doctors had suggested he could live another five years with treatment. I said that within that time I hoped that I’d be married, and have a family of my own, and asked him if he wanted to be around to see that. When he looked me in the eye and told he couldn’t imagine himself living through another five years of pain, I realised just how emotionally exhausted he was. And that while he may have physically been capable of surviving another five years with treatment, mentally, he had nothing left to give.
Over the next few weeks shit got rough. Dad deteriorated rapidly both physically and mentally. His body filled with toxins and his head became so clouded with anger that he began lashing out at the people who were trying to help him. From early September to when he passed away was one of the most difficult periods that we had ever experienced in our relationship. He and I fought more than we ever had, and I lost patience with him more than once as we both said some pretty hurtful things to one another out of frustration. I loved and cared for him so fucking much and it was destroying me to watch him just give up. But for every fight that we had, we also had discussions about my life, and his, and about what he wanted when he passed.
The night before my Dad died, he called me from a hospital bed and told me that he loved me, and that he appreciated everything that I had done for him. We cried. And then we spoke for a few minutes about what he wanted me to say as a farewell to each member of our family before he hung up the phone, and the period in my life where I had a father who was alive came to a premature end.
I know that some of this probably sounds like I’m condemning his decision not to undergo dialysis. Or that I’m harbouring some kind of pent up frustration at him for his actions. But I’m not. I’m not writing any of this to disparage my Dad, or his memory…
It’s important for me to say that. Because I love my Dad. I always will. And in a way, I’m still trying to shelter him by only talking about some of the things that my family has been through; particularly over the past twelve months. Instead, I’m writing about my experiences with him because I hope that by doing so, I can help whoever reads this to understand that every one of us are fighting our own battles; and that sometimes the kindness of the people around us is the only thing in this world that we have left to hold onto.
Mental illness is not something to be trifled with. Even though I’ve had my own battles with anxiety and depression, and had friends take their own lives, it wasn’t until I watched my father in his final weeks that I realized just how overwhelming a fight with the chemical imbalances inside our brains actually can be. Dad was constantly lost in his own head, battling against himself, scalding his own behaviour, and allowing his anger at his own shortcomings to fester. In the end, he was so lost that even the idea of being around for a few more years to potentailly meet his grandchildren couldn’t rouse him.
Although he’s no longer here, Dad did struggle against his illnesses for years before giving up. I truly believe that he made it as far as he did because of the kindness and generosity of the people around him, including the complete strangers who loaned him a couple of bucks, or who bent rules and gave him discounts on a safe place to sleep when he needed it. Dad might have been down and out, and on the wrong end of far too many of his own poor decisions, but people always seemed to see the good in him and reciprocated with kindness and compassion when he needed it most.
While he may not have left behind much of a legacy in a tangible sense, this lesson that people are inherently compassionate by nature, as well as everything else that he has taught me over the years, means far more to me that a life insurance policy, or a will choked full of meaningless assets ever could. I will forever be grateful to those strangers that treated my Dad with respect, and made him feel welcome. I will never meet most of them, or even know their names. But to know that their actions often helped him make it through just one more day means the world to me.
You might be wondering why I called this post Tricky…
I did so because that’s what people used to call my Dad when he was a cop. Tricky Trev was as sharp as a whip and always had a solution to a sticky situation. Yet while the title is more of a homage to him than anything else, perhaps it also lends itself to the idea that I am ultimately trying to convey here. Which is that life can be tricky sometimes. For all of us. We all have our battles to fight, and our horizons to cross as we complete our idiosyncratic journeys between birth and death. But through acknowledging that we all experience lower moments, as well as remembering the powerful effect that kindness has on each of us during those difficult times, we can create a better world for those who are struggling.
The battle that I’ve been fighting with my Dad is over now. It came to an end on November 18th, 2019. In many ways, his passing is bitter-sweet. Because as much as I miss him, at least I know that he is no longer in pain.
What we went through as a family won’t be the last hardship that I endure in my life. I will undoubtedly have plenty more ups and downs before my bones inevitably turn to dust. But hopefully the lessons that I’ve learned by fighting alongside, and against, the man who taught me how to ride a bike, drive a car, and to respect those around me, will help me to remember that I’m not alone in my struggles. And to be kind, always. Because you never know what someone else is living through, or just how deeply your compassion can move them in their times of need.