Honfleur. Photo credit: © iStock/PictureReflex
I recently stood on the outside deck of the ferry and thought back to when I first travelled across this sea on a school trip to France. I then fast forwarded through all the crossings I have made since – family holidays when our kids were young, taking my seriously ill dad on the trip of a lifetime, visiting my mom who had moved abroad, moving abroad myself, visiting universities with my kids and the regular trips to see my family back in England.
I rewound back to that special trip to France with Dad and pressed play.
Once in a while, you get to do something really special for someone. It was about 1994 and at a time when Dad needed kidney dialysis three times every week. Normally this was given at Wordsley hospital, but to save the 45 minute journey each way, the NHS had set up a Portakabin in his garden and my mom became his nurse, connecting him up to the dialysis machine and taking care of him whilst also working from home to earn the money they needed to survive. He had gone through many operations and often seemed so frail, almost like a child who relied on others to help him. Mom was often worried and nervous and Dad would say to her, ‘we will get through this chuck!’
I don’t know where the idea came from, but it was a great idea. They had never been abroad on holiday, although the two of them had been to Paris for a weekend on a coach trip organized by the kidney association¹. The need to get regular dialysis meant they could never be away for long and so we decided to arrange for Dad to be dialysed in France to give them almost a whole week overseas.
After checking in at the hotel, one of the first things we had to do was find the hospital. This was before car satnav systems and we wanted to be sure that we wouldn’t get lost on the day of the appointment. It was just as well that we did as I struggled to find the way and had to stop the car to ask for directions. Dad often looked unwell, and Mom probably had a deeply concerned look on her face, so when I asked a young lady working in her front garden where the hospital was, she naturally thought it was an emergency, jumped in her car and told us to follow! Ten minutes later we arrived, thanked her for her kindness, and then went back to the hotel hoping she hadn’t noticed that we never even got out of the car! 🙂
Honfleur is stunningly beautiful and I loved pushing Dad around the old harbor in his red NHS wheelchair, although on one occasion the front wheels jammed in the cracks of the cobbled streets and sent him sprawling across the street! I bent down, wrapped my arms around his torso and lifted him back into his chair. I was surprised how light he was and as we were not really the hugging types, I quite enjoyed the moment of closeness!
Mom was a strict vegetarian, Dad was on a low-potassium diet and none of us were fluent French speakers. Every night, we walked around the ancient streets looking for a restaurant that could cater for our unique tastes. I could have happily eaten in any one of the many that were tempting me with their local cuisine, but I had to show patience and understanding. The tall narrow buildings were probably built long before the wheelchair was invented, but the menu was the more difficult problem. The one night we found a suitable restaurant in a timber-framed building with low ceilings, creaky stairs and – yes we had to somehow help Dad up the windy staircase to be seated on the first floor. It was worth it though and we had a delightful evening in a cosy setting with delicious food. The following evening we ate in a quaint little restaurant where we felt like we were in someone’s living room. After a good meal and a small drink – Dad couldn’t have too much fluid – we stepped out into the moonlit square where some buildings dated back almost to medieval times. As we breathed in the cold night air, we had an overwhelming feeling of joyfulness and for a brief moment, the dialysis couldn’t have been further from our thoughts. Not wanting the evening to end, we stopped for a crêpe near Le Vieux Bassin where we listened to the soothing sounds of the breeze in the boats’ rigging and the water lapping up against the basin walls. It was perfect.
The next day we went to hospital. This was a very big thing, but at least we knew the way! We need not have been anxious and compared to the rather scruffy hospitals that we were used to, this was like a luxury hotel. The friendly doctor and nurse immediately reassured us that everything would be just fine. They ran a few checks, filled in some forms and then connected Dad to the machine and left me and Mom to stroll around, read some magazines and learn some French. After a few hours of dialysis, Dad normally felt very tired and so we went back the hotel so he could have a lie down. Whilst this took almost a full day from our holiday, it also gave us the rest of the week to explore and we drove to the nearby towns of Deauville and Trouville-sur-Mer along a lovely coastal road. The autumn weather was very kind to us and we were blessed with beautiful sunshine that made strolling around the markets a sheer delight, especially for my dad who loved to browse through old toys, antiques and the various knick-knacks that were all a little different to what he would find back home.
I sometimes feel sad when I have to travel home after a good holiday, but Mom and Dad enjoyed every second of this one which included the journey back. I will always remember Dad sat in his wheelchair on the top deck of our ferry looking out to sea and appearing so happy and content. I think he stayed outside in the sun for almost the entire 5 hour crossing and was fascinated by the navy ships that we passed at Portsmouth where we eventually disembarked. It is one of my favourite memories of him and as we drove home from the docks in my car, he talked excitedly all the way back to the Midlands.
If you ever get a chance to do something special for someone, then I can highly recommend it and of course, it doesn’t have to be something as complicated as our holiday in Honfleur! 🙂
© Chris Robinson 2015. All rights reserved.
¹ Unfortunately, I am not completely sure which organisation helped Mom and Dad. From what I can remember, Mom used to talk about the kidney association, and it is possible they helped with the holiday and with setting up the Portakabin in his garden. When I looked online, the following website seems to be the most likely organisation: http://www.britishkidney-pa.co.uk