I'd sat at my desk for two years, watching as the seasons changed outside my office window, unsure of what I was really doing with my life, when my dad called to say he was having problems reading and was getting tested for epilepsy.
“The words have been jumping around on the page of my case notes”, he said. “I haven't been able to make sense of the sentences.”
I'll never forget the oddness of that phone call, peculiar mostly because of the fact that my dad never rang me, but also for the change in direction my life took following it. He was a busy medical negligence barrister and phoning me at all, let alone in the middle of the day, was a highly unusual occurrence.
I was 25 and working as a copy writer for a famous artist in London at the time. It was a job that looked good from the outside but it left me feeling trapped and uninspired. Writing about other people's creations, supporting other people's careers – it wasn't what I wanted for myself.
My dad had suffered 'an absence' in court and had a lingering metallic taste in his mouth for the last few weeks. He was concerned enough to make a doctor's appointment for the next morning but said it was nothing to worry about – the likelihood was that a minor seizure had taken place; something that could be easily medicated.
Two weeks later the tests showed the reason he was having trouble reading was because of a tumour the size of a tennis ball that had taken hold in his brain. He was 61 years old, a man of science and cricket.
When the steroids used to counteract the wasting of his body brought about by chemotherapy warped his face to bulbous proportions, he didn't let anyone in on how it made him feel. He was intent on beating his cancer, insistent that the oncologists, neurosurgeons and healthcare system knew how to cure him. He made no room for discussion.
My dad being who he was, he couldn't articulate any of his fears, nor much of his love for me. He was born shortly after the Second World War and sent away to boarding school at the age of 7. He was part of that generation of upper-middle class English men who never really knew their mothers, nor knew how to communicate with women. When I was a little girl my mum showed me the tear-stained letters he wrote to his parents, begging them to come and collect him from school. They never did, and so I figured his heart must have learnt very early on how to suppress its love.
In the early days following his diagnosis the two of us hung around at home together while my mum went out to shop. Dad was doing some work in his study one day when I alerted him to the fact that the cat had brought a mouse in and left it on the kitchen floor, its insides hanging out but still clinging on to life. Neither of us had the stomach to deal with it but we agreed it should be put out of its misery. I hung back, out of sight, and watched as he carried it out to the garden and laid it in the flower bed. Unaware that I could hear him, he raised a shovel in the air and uttered the words “I'm sorry little mouse. I'm sorry”, before bringing the shovel down to kill it. I stepped back from the doorway and found somewhere in the house to cry.
Around the same time, and no longer able to keep up the pretence that what I was writing about at work was sustainably interesting or meaningful, I left my job and followed my love of writing into food. I was spurred, in the face of my dad's life-threatening illness, to take charge of my time, to write more for myself and to let my experience lead the way. Looking back, it was a way of getting a little further into my heart's expression without having to rip back the skin of the inexpressible in my life. It didn't require me to get too deep but it asked that I insert an 'I' into my writing: writing that gave voice, at last, to my point of view and made me feel less invisible.
As I made my transition from art journalism to food writing, and my dad made his own transition to part-time work, I remember visiting him for lunch one day in Farringdon. We wandered together through the old food market, sensing how alienated we were by our new and oddly-forged time together as father and daughter, our arms looped together in horrible fraudulence. And rather than opening to each other in those final, cognitive months before the tumour robbed language and reason from this most reasonable man, we played our way through a series of lunchtime get-togethers instead, with neither of us able to talk about what was actually happening. I would try to bring my best care and animation to the subject of work and end up offering sandwich crusts to my mouth, though my stomach remained empty with worry.
When my lunch hour was over I couldn't bear to say goodbye to him, each time feeling the constriction at my throat as my heart swelled and my eyes filled with tears. I'd pull him in tight for a hug but he only pushed me away, his arms a brace against intimacy. He'd walk down the steps to the Tube and I'd return to my desk, swallowed whole by the knowledge that our time was on loan but we didn't know how to spend it.
Not long after, my Renaissance man of a dad – jovial, cool-headed and an intellectual, hugely admired by his peers – started to lose his mind. For some time he had struggled here and there to remember some of his words. Not wanting to embarrass him, we learned to wait while he paused his sentence and cast around his brain, an invisible lance poised in his hand. Mostly, though, I couldn't help but make my suggestion and offer him language as a way to restore the widening sense that he was being humiliated by his own illness and his own, incredible brain.
When he started writing non-sensical letters in wobbly writing to the insurers or the car leasers, demanding a refund or expressing his outrage at something that had never happened, I had the vaguest sense that I knew at last how he was feeling: wronged, cut off and disempowered. He didn't finish any of the letters: he'd date them instead from years before and struggle to complete the addresses on the envelopes, most of which would sit by the front door until my mum, tired and desperate, hid them in the recycling bin.
When, some months later, it was obvious he wasn't going to live, his life was limited to the hospital bed in our dining room, my mum's vibrant oil paintings hanging from the walls. I would cycle two or three times a week to be there. On quieter days I'd pull down the railings on his bed and pillow in against his body, both of us pretending to watch the test match on the TV. No longer able to talk he would wink at me from eye to eye and wiggle his eyebrows in some sweet expression of love. And then when the winks left, his hands would squeeze mine in blips and dashes: a pattern of Morse code pulsing between us.
Some days, when sitting at his bedside was too much to bear, I'd move to his study and write letters to him, reminding myself of our ability to reach into language and have it pull us out from the water, if only we can find the end of the rope. I wrote in the hope that he could hear what I wanted to say and I wrote to my future self as a way of reaching beyond the agony of now. As self-soothing missives they had a way of making me feel less mad.
But it was the silence between us as my dad lay dying, the hush of the house on the morning that he passed, and the struggle that ensued around how to articulate what I was feeling, that brought to the surface the memory of having been partially deaf as a little girl. I hadn't thought about it for years: had buried it, perhaps, as a way of forging ahead against the belief that to be deaf – to be submerged somewhere under water – was to be cut off from the world, unaware of what was going on. As I grew up past 5 and my hearing returned, inexplicably, to normal, I wanted to prove that I was alert and engaged, one step ahead rather than limping one behind. I wanted too to prove that I had a place here and a voice to be heard; that what I had to say mattered just as much as the next person.
The weird thing was that my mum - a painter - had been practically blind when she was young, and she too had struggled to find her way in the world with the elimination of one of her senses. After my dad died she stopped painting for a long time. The door to her studio stayed locked: she wouldn't even get close. The depression that was hanging over my mum, my elder brothers and I was weirdly hard to talk about.
I think it took 2 years but in the end, my mum returned to her studio to paint a new kind of picture: the swathes of her large, colourful canvases were replaced by small, tree-tunnelled pathways, marked out in charcoal. A long time later, when we were sure he wasn't coming back, we cleared the contents of his desk and found a poem he'd written in 1980, 3 years before I was born. In it he gives thought to the possibility of life having turned out any other way; he daydreams of being a bird, a cloud, or even a mouse. And in the end, he surmises that he wouldn't have changed a thing. At last (though too late) – I had a way of knowing something of his inner, creative life; of knowing how he felt.
In that time I too found the confidence to put words to my experience, to trust in the language that sought to write my own stories, my own narrative, from my perspective. No longer deaf, and with the rope of an interior language throwing itself out to save me, I wrote a way out of the silence. I wrote a way home.