The healing process was going well, there were hiccups along the way and the pneumonia certainly was a challenge I hadn't considered, but in general I started to be able to enjoy life with the constant threat of arrhythmia becoming more of a memory than an everyday concern. My consultant was happy with my progress and signed me off with the message to go and enjoy my life, a life which would be ARVC symptom free because of the unique surgery I had endured. "Do whatever you want" was the advice when I asked about restarting mountain biking. I didn't need telling twice.
With my new found confidence I started to hunt for a career. I stumbled across an advert for a Pharmacy Assistant at the local hospital and thought it sounded interesting, I was keen to know what sort of progression it might offer. A quick enquiry later and I was informed it could lead to training to become a qualified Pharmacy Technician. Sold on the possibilities, I applied. I was thankfully successful at interview and was very pleased to start working there in the September of 2000. Life was finally getting exciting.
I was always close to my Grandad or Gramps as he was to me. He was a great guy and was always fun to be around. He had been a driver of Sherman tanks during WW2. Short in stature, he made up for it in strength. He had the biggest hands of anyone I've ever known, very useful tools I used to think when he was boxing in the army. Being short, I think his nose took more than its fair share of blows, however I pitied anyone being on the receiving end of his fists. He was very proud of being able to care for my Grandmother who had suffered multiple strokes and was very limited physically. He would be run ragged fetching this and that throughout the day for her, he would often curse, but truth was he didn't want anyone else to do it, even when my Mum, Paul and I would go to assist. My illness had been hard on both of them, they had naturally worried about me as their grandson. In 2001, we noticed him wincing, occasionally at first then occurring more regularly. He stood firm during numerous interrogations by all of us, protesting every time it was "Nowt" and he was "Reet". One day however his guard slipped when he couldn't mask his evident significant pain. It was then that he confessed it had been going on for a long time. I recall asking him why on earth he hadn't said anything sooner, his response "because I knew they would say it was serious and I couldn't care for your Nan". We forced him to the doctors who referred him to the Hospital for tests.
Mum accompanied him for his tests and the day he returned for the conclusions, he and Mum popped down to the small café next to the Pharmacy in the hospital. I managed to grab five minutes to nip out, eager to know the results.
"It's bowel cancer and it's too advanced to treat"
"But....what, there's nothing?"
"They have estimated I have a few months left" he said so calmly, matter of fact whilst sipping his drink, as though he was discussing what he might have for tea.
"But there must be something they can offer?" I asked, practically pleading with him.
"I'm happy with my lot. I've had 60 years longer than so many of my mates got". His rationale was firm in his mind and he was ready to accept the news he had been given, he wasn't prepared to fight it. I was devastated. I'd hoped so much there would be something, anything they could do. "Silly old sod, why didn't he tell us sooner?" I would often think. Over time I would begin to understand his wishes and reluctantly accept them.
He remained his normal self for a short while. We discussed his friend Les, who he had served with during the war. He had the horrible memory of seeing the munitions truck Les was driving get a direct hit when their convoy was ambushed in Holland. He described the event as a "turkey shoot" as the convoy had nowhere to go owing to the deep dikes either side of the road they were on. They had to scramble out of the vehicles to survive as they came under heavy German fire. He had often wondered over the years if Les even had a grave, after all he said "there wouldn't have been anything left of him to bury". I set myself a challenge to see if I could find an answer to the question that had eluded and troubled him for so many years. I tried to get as many details as possible about Les from Gramps then set out on my mission for answers. Scouring page after page of Commonwealth War Graves information and reaching out to some individuals in Holland who kindly offered their assistance in trying to track graves of loved ones, I finally had an answer. A very kind Dutch man by the name of Frans took on the challenge and drove a significant distance from his home to visit the suspected grave yard that had been narrowed down by the searching. He emailed a photo of the simple headstone bearing Les' name, and details.
Gramps, I have something for you" I proudly said as I handed him the folded image.
"We found Les". He unfolded the picture and he just looked at the image as he started to cry.
"That's Les alright" he said as a look of relief mixed with the sadness on his face. It was only the second time I ever saw him cry.
"I want to visit and pay my respects" he said boldly. We wanted to make arrangements for him to go. In the interim we organised flowers to be delivered to the grave. He pondered over the message for the card, "Sorry it took so long" .
Sadly his condition deteriorated quickly and he became too unwell to travel. We all struggled as we witnessed this once strong man melt away as the cancer began to take over. Barely conscious now, the decision was taken that he needed to be admitted to the hospice to better control his analgesia in his last few days. The day came and I was decided, I didn't want to see him fade any further, I couldn't watch him die, I didn't feel strong enough. I didn't want that memory. I wanted to remember him how he was, not like this and he wouldn't want it either. I said my goodbyes with him and he left for the hospice with Mum and Paul where they remained at his side.
He wasn't expected to last the night, I just awaited the phone call. A call came and it was Mum. "He's still with us" she said as she asked if I could come and relieve her and Paul, so he could rush home and shower and Mum could see to Nan before the pair of them headed straight back. Although I didn't want to go, I agreed, it would only likely be an hour or two at the most. I arrived at the hospice and relieved them both. I sat looking at Gramps and felt so incredibly sad seeing him like that, so frail and unconscious. The doctor entered and offered me some support "talk to him" he suggested, "hearing is the last sense to go so he may well be able to hear you". I wondered what on earth I should talk to him about. Holding his hand, I began to tell him how much we all loved him and that Mum and Paul had been with him all night but had gone home to shower. His breathing gradually became shallower and I felt he was about to slip away.
"Go find Les, it's OK to go".
After hours of being motionless, he turned his head, opened his eyes and looked at me so peacefully and his breathing just stopped, he was gone. I sat in the room with him for about ten minutes just sobbing before I could build the strength to phone Mum and inform her he was gone. I swear to this day he held out because Mum was there and he didn't want her to be there at the end, it would be exactly the sort of thing he would have done.
We were sad that his wish to visit Holland never came to fruition. We decided he should have been able to make the trip so, with special permission from the war grave commission, there is a small part of him resting with Les. You made it Gramps. The loss of my granddad was very upsetting but I was able to rationalise it. He was happy with his life, he was 82 and had lived a long life. It was easier to come to terms with for me in contrast to the sudden, tragic means in which Aaron and James had passed away.
Following progression at work, I started my college training to become a Pharmacy Technician. I passed my course a couple of years later and became qualified. Now feeling physically confident to do so, I joined the gym again with my ever loyal friend Rob. My time was filled by work, the gym, MTBing and home improvements having got my own place in 2002. I even managed a MTB trip for a week riding in Switzerland. Fantastic!
I got married in 2006 to my fantastic wife. And we were overjoyed at the arrival of our beautiful daughter in 2009. There she was. Lay in the little plastic cot in the delivery room, eyes like two big sparkly lumps of polished coal, staring at me. Her image kept blurring as my vision kept getting distorted by the tears of joy. She was so beautiful, I couldn't believe how I had gotten to be so lucky. We didn't let go of each others long gaze as I leant down to her and made a promise I will never break.
"I promise you I will always do my best".
Life changed from that day as with all parents. Your children become your whole world and all focus shifts to them. This little girl was a superstar from the moment she was born, never giving us a moment of trouble. She was effortless to love with a constant smile that melted my heart, a true Daddy's girl. I would look at her and think how sad it was that Aaron had been so cruelly snatched away from his parents at a similar age. I would be at times reminded of him in her smiles and giggles, making me so thankful for what I have. I would also think often of James and how good he would have been as a father had he ever had the chance. The memories of them both made me appreciate what I had so much, I was lucky beyond words and didn't take a moment of it for granted. She was to grow into a very caring, kind toddler who was over the moon when she was to learn that she was to become a big sister. We couldn't be happier.
I'd been riding regularly, keen to keep a good base level of fitness. I'd struggled with general sickness ever since my operation in 99. If I was to get a chest infection it was guaranteed it would linger, often requiring multiple antibiotic courses and extended periods off work, sometimes leading to hospitalisation. It was always a concern and hindrance, each time taking so much out of me physically that I would have to build myself back up to strength time and time again. It often just felt like struggle after struggle, but thankful of no VT, I would carry on and persevere over and over again, refusing to give in and become a couch potato.
I had enjoyed my morning MTB ride with a friend and thought to myself how fit I had recently become. My new method of training with heart rate zones was paying off very well and the ride passed by quickly and with limited physical effort. My daughter, now nearly 3, helped me wash my bike as she enjoyed to do. That evening I watered the plants in the garden. Then I felt it.
"I don't feel very well love" I said to my wife.
"It feels like my tachycardia of old, it's fast like before but this feels different, something is very different".
It wasn't violent like those memories of old, but I was still concerned. I hoped it might have been a blip and decided I mustn't get anxious about it. Working in the hospital, I decided if it was no better in the morning I'd go to A&E for an ECG to capture it. Needless to say it hadn't settled by the time of work the following morning so I went to A&E as planned.
I was locked into atrial flutter, it was time to call the consultant again.