Dad looked at us and said: 'Girls, four days left to change the world': Labour strategist Philip Gould and his daughter Georgia describe in vividly moving detail how he finally got the death he wanted
12:15 GMT, 4 May 2012
Faced with the news that his oesophageal cancer had returned and that he had only three months left to live, the brilliant Labour Party strategist Philip Gould decided not only to face up to his impending death, but to write about it.
He died, aged 61, in November last year, with his wife Gail and daughters Georgia, 25, and Grace, 22, by his side. In the final extract from his powerful and inspiring book, he and Georgia explain how his last few days were full of love and unexpected joy…
November 3, 2011
Philip Gould writes …
The consultant comes in to my hospital room entirely alone. He leaves his entourage outside.
He tells me the steroids they have been giving me are not having the desired effect. A dangerous level of infection has entered my lungs.
Georgia Gould, the daughter of New Labour grandee Philip Gould, who died last year from oesophageal cancer
There is also widespread inflammation, which is the cause of the breathlessness I'm experiencing. My body will be unable to cope with the ravages of more chemotherapy.
I ask him what the worst case is for me now.
'Three to five days,' he says.
'What is the best case'
'Three or four weeks.'
Just as being told I had three months to live had been a much bigger shock than any bad news I had received before, this new timetable, being told I might die in three days, is another quantum leap.
I am approaching the door marked Death. What lies beyond it may be the worst of things. But I believe it will be the best of things.
Georgia Gould writes …
Dad went into the Royal Marsden Hospital for the last time on Tuesday 1 November. We were two months into the three that had been predicted for him. Death had become something we lived with: touring Highgate Cemetery, where he had chosen his plot, poring over funeral plans and planning the publication of his book.
But for me, at least, death still always felt one step removed. Even Dad, who relentlessly faced up to the truth of his condition, had moments when reality escaped him.
I remember him saying that he had been sitting admiring his new shoes, thinking they looked smart enough for the funeral before catching himself and remembering he would not actually be attending the funeral — at least, not in a way that he need worry about shoes.
When someone is so full of life, humour, wisdom, so much themselves, it is easy not to see their body wasting away, easy to forget how stark the difference is between life and death.
Poignant memories: Cancer victim Philip Gould and his wife Gail in 2003
Tuesday, November 1, 2011
Georgia Gould writes …
I had a sense of foreboding that whole day.
I was in a meeting when I got a text from Mum saying the doctors thought Dad had a 'bit of pneumonia but was doing OK'. Having learned with my parents always to add at least 20 per cent to any bad news, I jumped straight into a cab.
The atmosphere at the hospital was tense. My parents were scared but were trying to be strong for each other. Dad was joking as ever, interested in my day. It felt like the moment of calm before a storm, waiting for what was going to hit us.
And then very quickly the storm was upon us. A doctor came in to give us the results of a scan. Dad had an infection, she said. It was on the lungs and was very far advanced. But they were trying to fight it.
Dad asked very calmly: 'Is this life-threatening'
'Could it be tonight'
And suddenly the ground disappeared from beneath our feet.
I did not want it to be like this. I was not ready. He was not ready. I had so much to say to him. This was all too rushed, too brief.
A team came up and wheeled Dad off and we waited in a little family room. My sister Grace made us all hot chocolate. None of us said very much.
A nurse called us in to see him. He was lying on a bed in the middle of a small room underneath a canopy of medical equipment. They had put a helmet on him to help him breathe more easily, a clear bag made from thick plastic hooked up to an oxygen machine. He looked like something from a comic book. We laughed and it broke the tension.
A doctor told us Dad would definitely live through the night. He was himself again; as his breathing calmed, so did he.
The others left to sleep and I sat with Dad. I put on an episode of CSI, the programme he often watched late at night to help shut out the pain. The rest of us really hated it.
I have the clearest memory of him getting me to adjust the television, worried that I could not see it properly. That little gesture was so typical. Despite his pain, it still really mattered to him that I should be able to see the programme properly.
In the early hours, he said he wanted to try to sleep. I booked a taxi and cried the whole way home.
Wednesday, November 2
Georgia Gould writes…
Somehow that sterile hospital environment became our space. Dad's little room became our family home, the new rituals and routines providing a strange sense of comfort and normality.
Dad kept saying: 'We have a great family, all here together.' He would look around at us all, grinning. He loved it when we were all close.
I remember announcing in the evening that this was the happiest day of my life and my family all looked at me like I had lost the plot. But it was true. Those last few days were the longest of my life, too.
Every conversation, every smile took on a new significance. I felt the most pain and the most joy I have ever felt. I felt so incredibly lucky to have those few days, and I knew Dad did, too.
He looked at us and said: 'Girls, four days left to try and change the world. You can do a lot in four days.'
Georgia Gould (left), her father Lord Philip Gould and Fiona Millar, ex-adviser to Cherie Blair
Thursday, November 3
Georgia Gould writes …
I brought in an article I had written for our local paper and Dad immediately perked up. He was always our biggest fan, so proud of our achievements, dismissing our failures as learning experiences.
I left the room so the nurses could help him off the bed on to the chair. When I came back in he was very proud of himself, told me he had made a funny joke. As he had got up, wearing his bubble helmet, he said: 'One small step for man.' He kept laughing about that.
Grace came to the hospital after work and was very low. She says she remembers Dad looking at her.
'What's wrong, little Gracie'
'What do you think is wrong, Dad'
Friday, November 4
Georgia Gould writes …
The doctors told Mum that it was definitely three to five days now. The infection was not going to turn.
I went shopping to get him some lime cordial and ice and he was delighted. He kept saying it was the best thing he had ever tasted. After every sip of cold water he would close his eyes and smile with a look of total contentment.
Grace came in and his eyes lit up. Grace always had the capacity to make Dad laugh, to say something unexpected, to distract him. He tried to kiss her head, looking confused as he realised the bubble was in the way. We all laughed.
I remember that night knowing things were getting worse. But I also felt a profound sense of joy and warmth as I ran over every tiny memory from that day, basking in each.
Philip Gould writes …
As death gets closer, my experiences become more and more tense, but also more and more joyful.
Only when you accept death can you free yourself from it, deal with it, move forward from it. Acceptance is the key. At that moment you gain freedom. You gain power. You gain courage.
If people wish to use denial, then fair enough. That is their decision. But denial is not for me.
Every single time you try and tell yourself 'yeah, but …' or 'OK, it's tough, but …', or 'OK, it's difficult, but maybe …' that is a lie. And that lie will stop you living properly, and it will stop you having a good death.
I absolutely feel that the moment I accepted death and looked it in the eye and faced it, then I had freed myself from it. I have the courage to be able to transcend it.
Maybe I cannot beat death, but death cannot beat me.
Saturday, November 5
Georgia Gould writes …
We all go in very early. Dad asks how many days he has left, counting them down. He thinks the worst-case scenario is three. We break it to him that three was yesterday, now it is only two.
We can see his disappointment and frustration as he realises it is one less than he thought. He wants more time.
He becomes very focused and determined. He knows time is slipping away faster now and he has to take his opportunity. The big thing hanging over him is his book.
He believes that dying can be a time of profound growth and happiness. He is desperate to articulate this, to get his thoughts down on paper.
He tries to type, gets nowhere, so begins to dictate to Mum. It is torture. Mum is helping because it is so important to him but she hates every second of it, knowing he is doing himself so much damage. He speaks and speaks. Mum fills the pages. He has gone deep inside himself.
The doctor tells him he has to stop talking, but Dad is determined.
We kiss his forehead, not wanting to
leave, unable to stay. But as we walk out of the room together one last
time our comfort is that, at peace and surrounded by his family, he has
had the death he wanted
Finally he finishes what he wants to say and he is so relieved, looking for our praise.
Queens Park Rangers are about to kick off against Manchester City. I get the match up on TV. Dad and I have been QPR season-ticket holders since I was six and have travelled together around the country to watch them.
He gets very excited — 'Look, it's Neil Warnock!' Mum is slightly disapproving so I ask him if he would prefer some Gregorian chants. He looks at me as if I am insane. 'Georgia, I'm watching the football!'
He keeps trying to lift his arms above his head the way he would do at home. But they are so bloated now, four times their usual size from being attached to all these wires, he cannot quite get them above his bubble hat. It is so sweet, almost comical.
QPR score an equaliser. But his breathing is getting worse, so I turn the game off to try to get him to rest. And so he does not see our team lose. He slips into a dazed sleep, then wakes up a bit confused. He looks around and cannot see me on his other side.
'Here, Dad,' I say.
He grabs my hand tightly. He says 'Goodnight, love you,' to each of us in turn. He falls into a light sleep, wakes up, and does the whole thing again.
He is very insistent that it is time for us to go to bed, that we need to get a taxi home. He calls out to the nurse on duty: 'Ebony, put me to bed now.'
We say: 'Dad, you are in bed,' but he barely hears us.
His last words are: 'I'm going to crash out now. I'm done.'
And he falls into a deep sleep.
The nurses tell us that it would be better if we stayed the night. They promise to call if anything happens.
Sunday, November 6
Georgia Gould writes …
We rest on an improvised construction of sofa beds and pillows.
A young doctor comes by on his rounds. He tells us it is extremely unlikely that Dad will wake up now, but he cannot say how long he will stay like this. It could be hours, it could be days.
It is not a shock to us and in a way there is a real beauty to it. Through his relentless search for purpose Dad has given himself the peaceful, natural death he craves.
He is, in the end, the master of his own destiny.
Tony Blair arrives and hugs us all. We tell him that Dad had known he was coming in and had been looking forward to it. We leave him alone with Dad to say goodbye.
The staff take off the helmet and Dad instantly looks far more fragile. His breathing, rasping and shallow now, comes in short, sharp intakes.
And finally it is just the four of us. I am holding on to Dad's left hand, Grace his right.
Mum has her arm around his neck, leaning on his chest. The Gregorian chant fills the room and as it reaches its last note, Dad gives a shudder and lets go.
And the room is for a microsecond full of a powerful energy. Mum feels a flash of joy. She is sobbing, overcome, repeating in awe: 'Philip, I didn't know it would be so beautiful.'
I feel as if a huge part of me has been wrenched out. Grace manages to go and get the doctor.
The life drains from him very quickly. The warmth, the colour, the rhythm of his breathing disappears. In seconds his body is cold, chalky white.
What is left is a shell and no longer even really looks like him. The difference between even a thread of life and death is immeasurable. The love, the passion, the spirit that defined him is somewhere else now.
We kiss his forehead, not wanting to leave, unable to stay. But as we walk out of the room together one last time our comfort is that, at peace and surrounded by his family, he has had the death he wanted.
■ In the last weeks of his life Philip completed the book, When I Die, and collaborated with director and photographer Adrian Steirn to produce a short film http://youtube/S2eUw0CUuMc
Gail Rebuck/The Estate of Philip Gould 2012. Extracted from When I Die: Lessons From The Death Zone, published by Little, Brown at 14.99. To order a copy for 12.99 (p&p free), call 0843 382 0000. All proceeds from the book will go to the Royal Marsden Cancer Charity. Donations can be made at royalmarsden.org/philipgould and also to the National Oesophago-Gastric Cancer Fund. Donations can be made at justgiving.com/nogcf.