My dad, Peter Preston, has gone: a long goodbye and a deadline missed for the first time

The former editor of The Guardian died a good death at home. It was one last brave act, writes his son.

Ben Preston, Sunday Times Executive Editor
January 7 2018, 12:01am,
The Sunday Times

I always thought the only good death was a quick one. Keeling over in the kitchen or, preferably, simply going to bed and never waking up. Anything must be better than a cancer death: vital organs being eaten up; the pain of your body’s random collapse while wasting away to a living cadaver.

I was wrong. My dad died last night, 10 years after melanoma first struck, 20 months after it returned and barely four weeks since those clever doctors finally shrugged and said there was nothing else they could do for him.

Dad died a good death, one that amplified the qualities we so admired while he lived. Resilience, bravery, wisdom — he was loved and loving until the end. The fulcrum of our family.

Dad died at home, retreating only in his last hours to the bedroom he shared with my mum for 48 years. Until then he spent his days in a chair in the living room. He watched westerns and too much football. He soaked up and returned the love from a Christmas procession of visitors — family and the dearest of friends — even though he snoozed more and said less with each passing day.

It takes courage to decide to die at home. Many don’t have the choice because of their illness. Others, unsurprisingly, are too scared by the unknown, or just swept along by the momentum of medical practice.

Of course there are many people to thank for allowing my dad a good death. If my mum was daunted by the burden of being appointed both chief mourner and chief carer, she didn’t show it. Our family rallied, the clan came together — my sisters from Manchester and Barcelona, my brother from Dorset. There was lots of chatter, not red eyes and wailing.

In a week when no one talks about the NHS without adding the word “crisis”, we all simply gave thanks. A flotilla of carers, hospice workers, palliative nurses, assistants and doctors were our family’s cornerstone for three long yet strangely comforting weeks. They brought calm and cheer with each daily visit, helping Dad get up and go to bed.

NHS bureaucracy? Incompetence? Inefficiency? A hospital bed, industrial quantities of morphine, umpteen prescriptions, a hoist to lift my dad out of bed and another to winch him into his armchair, all arrived promptly without fuss. Telephone numbers for out-of-hours help were freely given. Every call answered, whenever and whatever.

Peter Preston in 1990. He filed his last column for The Observer a week before he died
But most of all, we have my dad to thank for his good death. Dad wasn’t scared of dying, even if he was surprised at how quickly it came. Long ago, this most temporal of men had explained why. My dad recounted how, as a 10-year-old stricken by polio, which had killed his father days before, he had found himself floating up and away from his body. All was peaceful and serene — until, to his surprise, he started drifting down and back into his body, entombed within an iron lung.

Dad wasn’t scared of death then or later — so how could the rest of us be?

Polio left dad with rickety limbs that somehow he made work like a Heath Robinson machine. It robbed him of youthful sporting dreams, so he lived them instead through his four children and eight grandchildren. Yet polio gave him astonishing self-reliance and helped him find his greatest talent: writing.

My dad was a journalist until the very end. The Guardian, which he edited for 20 years, was the second love of his life after Mum and family. There wasn’t time for much else.

He filed what proved to be his last column for The Observer barely a week before he died: 1,800 words were by then easier to write — pecking, one-fingered at the keyboard — than to speak. It wasn’t supposed to be valedictory. But his plea for his rough trade to forge anew some semblance of public trust and “treat readers in a jam like human beings” was exactly that. And within minutes of sending it, he started fretting about what he’d write the next week.

Regrets? We have a few. This was a good death, not a perfect one. My dad wanted to tape some memories that would otherwise be lost for ever. He wanted to leave the sound of his voice behind (not out of vanity but because, since his mother died almost four decades ago, he’d forgotten how she spoke and didn’t want us to feel the same). But he — we — broke the first rule of hackery for the only time and missed his deadline.

And I never had The Funeral Conversation. Twice I tried; twice he moved on. That was Dad’s way. He never told me or my brother and sisters what to do. Instead, he showed us who we should aspire to be. If only we could be so resilient, humane and wise — in life as well as death.

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