The last time I saw Dad sitting up and wearing proper clothes he was eating shortbread. Dad loved shortbread, especially homemade. He’d take a bite, let the crumbs fall onto his sweater, chew for a bit with an expression of cartoon thoughtfulness and then he’d say, Gracious, Alice, this is even shorter than the last. I guess we both knew that it couldn’t go on forever, that shortness wasn’t infinite.
The next day the doctor rang with the blood results and said Dad had to come into the hospital right away. The calcium in his blood was way up. Mum was going to wait for an ambulance but I said I’d take him in my car. She popped a packet of chocolate digestives in her handbag, just in case we didn’t get around to lunch.
They stuck needles in his arm and fixed him up to a drip. Mum and I sat on the orange plastic chairs and didn’t think about lunch or the biscuits till Mum said, four o’ clock already! and fetched us both a cup of tea from the Friends’ stall. The chocolate had gone soft and melted easily into the drink mixing with the smell of polystyrene. Mum couldn’t think of a single reason not to use china. Call themselves Friends, she said. None of her friends served tea in polystyrene. The washing up wouldn’t amount to very much, the place wasn’t exactly heaving. Her voice got louder and louder so I took her outside for some air, leaving the biscuits on the orange chair.
Dad was less dozy after the drip, but every few minutes he winced and arched his back, pulling apart his lips like a screaming horse, only silent. I wasn’t used to seeing him in pyjamas; his ears seemed to stick out more. Grey chest hairs poked through where a button was missing. Mum stroked his bald head over and over and I went off to look for something to make us all feel better. I found Butter Fudge biscuits and Limited Edition Strawberry and Clotted Cream biscuits, Organic Stem Ginger biscuits, and Luxury Brandy Snaps. I bought them all.
Dad’s eyes were closed when I got back, and he was breathing quickly. I took his hand and curled both of mine round his bony fingers. His other hand was swollen, bulging at the end of his skeletal forearm. Even thinking about the biscuits made me feel sick. I took the carrier bag to the nurse’s station. The nurse touched my arm and said it was a very kind thought.
On the third day, a youngish man in a white tunic invited us into a thin long room for a chat. His name was Tony, or matron, officially. He was very nice. He gave us each a cup of tea in a mug, opened a cupboard, closed it, and opened another. He was sure there were biscuits here somewhere. Otherwise he’d have to go and pick some up from the nurse’s station – they were always inundated. Eventually he produced an opened packet of Nice from the drawer in the table. I took one and put it on the table in front of me, reading its name over and over while he told us that Dad wasn’t going to get better and we had to make some decisions about his care. He said it must be terrible watching someone you love fade away. Cry if you want to, and have another one of these.
Today is Dad’s funeral. We’ve arranged for caterers to bring sandwiches, sausage rolls, and something they call exotic wraps, dollops of tinned fish in flat bread. I’ve made shortbread. As I was pressing it into the tin, I could hear him tell me I’d excelled myself. It was shorter than ever.