A part of my optimism died with my dad — here’s how I’m getting it back
I’m a very positive person. Cynical, too, perhaps — like all British people, I love to joke about how crap everything is — but I’ve always had an unwavering sense of optimism that everything will work out in the end, because so far, it usually has.
I think I got this from my dad. Simon Purkess had this infectious, bubbly enthusiasm for life that brightened every room. He was passionate, kind and totally believed in himself and everyone around him.
In October 2020, at the age of 53, he was diagnosed with the big scary Stage IV C word. I cried when I heard — because, despite the optimism, I’m also a crier — but I don’t think I was ever actually very worried about it, because he convinced me not to be and I took his word as law. He was so charismatic, he could convince an arachnophobe to get a pet spider. I can hear the positivity in his voice when he called to explain — there was no: ‘I have cancer, shit’, only ‘I have cancer and here’s what I’m going to do to get rid of it’. He continued his job at KPMG and we discussed him featuring as a guest on my podcast at work to talk about his journey.
As his best friend Ian Greaves said in his eulogy for dad: like everything else in his life, he had a plan, a roadmap out of this situation that would take him back to full health.
Eight months on and eight rounds of chemotherapy later, he was due to have an operation on his liver to remove the cancer. Just before he went into the operation, I texted him ‘Good luck!!!’ with some inappropriately positive emojis and he texted back ‘Thank you sweetheart! See you on the other side!’ with a big smiley face. I sat and played PS4 for a few hours while he was meant to be in the operating theatre to take my mind off my nerves, but I wasn’t as worried as I probably should have been. Once he was out, he’d start getting better, I thought. It didn’t even cross my mind it could go another way.
That was probably the last time I felt that truly unwavering sense of optimism. Six hours later I received a call that the operation couldn’t be done, the surgeons found the cancer had spread too much. One month later, he was gone.
I got the news about dad’s operation from my mum, who was also crying. My parents separated when I was 14, but had a happy 23-year marriage and remained good friends. I remember that moment in great detail. Everything went into slow motion, like it was being bookmarked as the moment my life changed forever.
I was most upset thinking about dad hearing the news. I found out before he did because although the operation was unsuccessful, he had still been cut open and had to rest. I felt positively crushed thinking about his unwavering positivity over the past eight months and the strength that had got him through so far, just to be knocked down again.
But naturally, when he finally called me, he had formed a new roadmap and I bought into it completely. There were still options — more aggressive chemo and another operation. But then his liver started failing and he got jaundice. On one Thursday afternoon in early July, he Facetimed me and my brother and suggested we come home because he possibly only had a few weeks. I, unable to accept what I was hearing, said: ‘a few weeks until what?’ Dad mimed slicing a finger across his neck and laughed, still able to make light of the situation.
Even in those last few weeks, he took a cocktail of drugs to try and control his bilirubin levels, just in case he could reverse the liver failure. When he finally accepted he had reached the end of the roadmap, his instinct was to ensure his affairs were in order.
We were with dad over those last few weeks at home — he never went into hospital, he wanted to stay in his own bed. The last few days were agonisingly long and sad, it was the middle of the July heatwave and the bedroom was sweltering. We watched the strongest, most positive man in our lives wither away and finally take his last breaths. The last thing he said to me was ‘night night, love you’. To be bleak, it was all very harrowing and traumatic to witness and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone (although I will never regret being there).
In those weeks between operation and death, I read every article out there about losing a parent and came across research into the ‘golden period’ of a person’s life, which is the period before they first lose someone close to them. For some people, this period can last for over fifty years. For others, it’s over before they can spell their own name. Mine was 24 years — for my half brother and sister, who are both under four years old, they probably won’t remember a time before it. The shift between that period and the next is often a moment of huge change in a person’s life — the first real experience where they come to terms with their own mortality and perhaps realise they aren’t ‘living life to the full’.
For a while, every day became the new ‘worst day of my life’. A part of my unwavering optimism died with my dad on 22 July 2021. But for now, I’m done with setting new records for that. New records include: the best day of this month, the best Tuesday since July, etc.
The hard part now is the expectations around me to get on with life like I did before when I feel so changed. Everyone around me who didn’t just lose their dad has moved on and they’ve started forgetting we’re still healing. Dad was a huge source of support in my life, particularly professionally, and I feel a lot more vulnerable, lost and alone without him there day-to-day to reassure me I’m not rubbish. I listen to the four voicemails I have saved from him almost every day and I email an inactive email account most nights knowing no one will pick them up.
But I am starting to live in the comfort that, albeit for too short a time, I had a wonderful dad who I loved so much and who loved me and was proud of me — some are not so lucky. I went back through some Facebook messages and found a message from him telling me, at 15 years old, it doesn’t matter what I choose to do with my life, he will always be proud of me for being myself. Now I need to do him proud by continuing to be as positive as he was and brightening rooms like he did and like I (hopefully) have always done, right to the very end.
I have also, like many do, found a new sense of perspective. Just after dad’s death, my mum, my brother and I went through a phase of ‘what’s the f*cking point’, because dad worked his entire life and never got to retire. But now, the fresh perspective is allowing me to enjoy the smaller things in life, feel prouder of each achievement and appreciate time in a new way.
I’ve been cooking and baking more, learning to appreciate flavours and my love of food. I’ve got into gardening and, with my partner, we’ve finally filled some pots that have been sat in the shed for six months. It turns out there’s as much joy in potting an evergreen bush as there is in winning a prestigious award, if you allow yourself to enjoy it as much. I’m starting to laugh without feeling guilty and I can now smile at the photo of dad on the wall without bawling my eyes out (sometimes). I still have my wonderful mum.
I wanted to write this down because many people I know will go through an experience similar to this and I think we take great comfort in knowing our experiences are shared and that we aren’t alone, but also that things can get better. I think dad would be proud of me for that. *Smiley face*
Some of the tributes to dad posted by colleagues on LinkedIn:
“I knew your dad for over 16 years at KPMG and I can honestly say, he was one of the first Partners that me, as a little old fresh faced grad, ever felt comfortable approaching and talking to! And it was because he treated everyone the same, wasn’t fussed about hierarchy, and knew how important having a good and happy team was. I couldn’t believe he knew and remembered my name either! And I wasn’t even directly in his team! And I’m glad to say I got to know him better and better over the years, to the point where he became a mentor to me. I genuinely looked forward to all the interactions I had with him as he was so knowledgeable, witty, energetic, etc. There’s not enough superlatives.” — Andy Caulton
“ I was devastated to hear this tragic news a few weeks ago having worked closely with your Dad at KPMG for 9 years. He was such a passionate man, he lit up the room with his devilish smile and humour yet sharp brain and he taught me so much as I developed my Retail sector knowledge in my time at KPMG. He went from colleague to client as he also kept in contact with me at Webbs and I know he also loved coming to our garden centres as a customer. We have lost a wonderful man and you a whole lot more and for that I am truly sad and sorry.” — Oliver Nation
“Your Dad and I have known each other for over 30 years, as our respective careers developed in tandem, from your Dad’s perspective when he first joined KPMG as audit junior to Retail Partner and my own from client side of Accountant at Lloyd’s Chemists through to CEO of The Works, via Poundland with your Dad involved from the audit perspective in each case. Echoing the many tributes already paid to your Dad, he was always so supportive and always willing to give of his time. As the years have progressed the gaps may have lengthened between meetings, hence this news came as such a shock but it was always a relationship of just picking up where we left off. He will be very much missed.” — Chris Maddox