Day 2: Dad leaned over and said 'just let go, son'
In the second extract from her new book, Barbera Best reveals what really happened as her brother George's life ebbed away - the truth about that deathbed religious conversion and why they agreed to let ex-wife Alex see him one last time
On Friday, November 18, the worst week of our lives began. I was in work on night duty when, at 4am, I received a distraught call from Phil (Hughes, his friend and agent) saying that he was on his way to the hospital. George's condition had suddenly deteriorated.
At this stage I had already braced myself for the worst-case scenario.
My husband Norman and I went straight to the Cromwell Hospital in London to be met by the most heartbreaking sight. George was now totally sedated. He really was a shocking sight with so many drips, tubes and monitors attached to his body. The little bits of him which were visible were extremely bruised. I will never be able to erase that image from my mind.
I had prepared myself for the possibility that he wouldn't survive the next 24-hours. But typical of George he was to astound us all by surviving for another week - the most traumatic week of our lives.
The doctors and staff of the intensive care unit worked non-stop with him. George was never left unattended. I really cannot find enough words to express our gratitude to them all.
At first when confronted with the deterioration in George's condition, I simply didn't know what to do or say when I was in the room with him. I just tried to talk as normally as possible to him.
I didn't cry or break down. I was so afraid of frightening him with talk of death. I was determined during the next week that all of us should be wary of discussing anything negative in front of him. Even though he was heavily sedated, I was acutely aware that he might be able to hear us.
One day, Phil was particularly upset. I can't remember what sparked it off as there were so many things. I took hold of both his arms and said firmly: "Phil, it's his time to go."
I immediately regretted that so much, as I had broken my own rule about saying anything that I thought might distress George. What's worse, I only succeeded in making Phil even more upset. I can only hope that George didn't hear it. And yet I honestly don't think that he himself was afraid to die. He used to say that it was just like switching off a light. All the same, that scene is one of those now etched in my mind. And it was not my only regret.
I desperately wanted at this stage to let George know that I loved him, something which I had never told him. But somehow, I just couldn't say the words. Instead, I just quietly leaned over him and thanked him. I thanked him for being my brother, thanked him for all of his kindness to me and thanked him for being who he was.
We all have regrets and 'if onlys' in our lives, and the fact that I didn't tell George that day that I loved him will always be one of mine. And yet I think he knew anyway.
When George had started to drink again after his liver transplant, I wrote to him. It was a very personal letter, most of which I prefer to keep that way. But I did tell him how proud I was of him for achieving so very much. I told him not to be hard on himself for what he saw as his failings.
My sister, Carol, and her husband Allen, who are both devout Christians, would spend time praying with him or reading the Bible. All of us were coping in our own different way.
Although Carol always has her own Bible with her, she had found one which had been left by George's bedside. It had been sent to him by Christians of Mitcham Baptist Church in Surrey.
Chapters which had been underlined included Psalms 23, 46, 91 and 121.
Deeply moved by the kindness of whoever had sent the Bible and all of those people who were praying for George, Carol decided that she would read each day from the passages marked.
Late one evening, Carol and I took a break and went to the hospital canteen for a cup of tea, leaving Norman with George. Norman was leafing through the Bible when a nurse came in and asked him if he was a born again Christian. He said that although he wasn't, his sister-in-law Carol was. The nurse then explained that it was she who had left the Bible, that she had also been reading and praying with George and, at times when he was able, he had prayed with her. Carol and Joyce are both firmly of the belief that George was Saved before he died. In Carol's words: "George accepted the Lord on his deathbed, he trusted the Saviour, welcomed Him into his heart and he is now in heaven."
On the evening of Monday, November 21, it was decided to try to bring George out of sedation.
Gradually, bit by bit, George started to waken up.
First Professor Roger Williams and Dr Akeel Alisa had to ascertain that George's brain hadn't been affected in any way. The Prof and Akeel both spoke to him and George clearly responded, opening his eyes when he heard his name. He was able to nod when he was spoken to and once again it seemed it was his eyes which did the talking for him. Everyone was truly amazed.
At one point, the Prof said to us: "I don't know what to say except that he is still alive. It is in the Lord's hands."
We went outside into the corridor of the Intensive Care Unit. Akeel was visibly moved and I just threw my arms around him and thanked him so much. But that sense of elation soon subsided as Norman reminded me very gently not to get too built up on this small improvement.
At first, I was angry at him. But deep down I knew that he was right.
I was just so desperate for George to survive.
Carol and I went in and out to see George, talking away to him. I really can't remember what I said as it was so heartbreaking to watch him trying to respond. He looked as if he was in pain. He looked very distressed. Carol and I both now knew that there was no possibility he would survive this.
His organs were failing and infections were constantly setting in.
Even if he did survive, we asked ourselves, what would his quality of life be?
Dad arrived on the Tuesday with Grace and Pete and Julie. To me it seemed as if George knew to stay with us until dad arrived. At least dad got a bit of time with him while he was still conscious. He took George's hand and spoke to him. George seemed to be well aware that dad was there and, every time that dad spoke to him, he moved his head to signal that he had heard him, and on a couple of occasions he squeezed his hand.
Carol was also there. When Phil came in, Carol said: "Look, George, Phil's here." Phil took his hand but got a bit upset and withdrew it.
George stretched out to take his hand again. Ian and Julie were there, too.
Very soon after, George became so distressed that he had to be sedated again.
And that was how he remained until that awful moment when the machines were finally switched off.
Because he had been in intensive care for so long, I was prepared for his death ... somehow I got through George's final hours.
Dad remained his usual dignified self. He sat at the right-hand side of George's bed. He was watching his son in the last few hours of his life and was obviously struggling at times to keep his composure. Yet he was determined not to distress George in any way. Occasionally dad would lean over to speak softly to him. He told us later that he had whispered in George's ear: "Just let go, son. Just let go." He was comforted that George wasn't in any pain.
All we could do was to sit and watch and wait.
I think that it was about 11am when a nurse looked in through the screens. He nodded to us and said that we should get everyone together.
We looked again at the monitor. It was now much lower.
Someone ran to get Calum who was still sleeping.
He came and sat alongside me. I just sat with my hand on George's chest. With Calum, I held George's left hand. Phil held his right. Dad sat quietly watching.
Carol lifted her Bible and started to read Psalm 23 while, one by one, each member of his family and his friends in the room now spoke quietly into George's ear and said their final farewell.
But I didn't do this. I simply said quietly: "I have nothing to say to you except to tell you that you know how I feel." Norman was totally devastated. But still I didn't cry.
I have no idea who said what to George, and to this day it's something we've never discussed. It is too private.
At about 12.45, I felt a strange rumbling sensation in George's chest.
I frantically looked up at Norman. He just shook his head. Then it happened again.
Akeel was visibly distressed. His words: "I am so sorry that I have to do this" will stay with me forever.
At 12.55pm George was pronounced dead.
As a child, I'd always thought the saddest day of my life was that day when George left home at just 15.
It paled into insignificance compared to this one. I truly felt my heart was breaking.
For a few minutes after the machine had been switched off, I stood there.
Then I walked out into the corridor and finally let the tears flow.
TV disappeared up the chimney!
One of the last times in that period when I remember spending time with George was in about 1973 ... It was at the time when he was living in the very unusual house he'd had built in Cheshire - the one that was likened to a public toilet!
I hadn't told him that we were coming but en route I'd called him from a phone box. He took such pride in showing us around his house. It was ultra-modern with a sunken bath decorated with red mosaic tiles, curtains which closed remotely, and a TV screen that disappeared up the chimney! The windows were huge, with one-way glass that allowed him to see out but stopped others seeing in.
During the entire time that we were there, dozens of people were trying to peer in, and, at one stage, a bus packed with day-trippers even pulled up outside. It was incredible to see people with their faces squashed up against the one-way glass trying to get a glimpse of George. I really don't know how he lived under such constant pressure - in fact, I think that during that period there were times when he didn't cope.
He was quoted as saying of that time: "Mentally and physically I am a bloody wreck. Not eating or sleeping and drinking heavily."
He added that he had been staying out until four or five in the morning, "because I was too frightened to come back to my goldfish bowl of a home."
Dear mum & dad,
Well we done it! We won 3-0. It was fabulous! Steve said the crowd think I'm another Johnny Berry. I started on the left wing but switched with Willie Anderson. I laid on two of our goals. Everyone was very pleased. They said I was the best forward. It was a great feeling playing in front of such a big crowd. The noise kept buzzing in my head, smashing!
We play Sheff. Wed. now in the quarter-finals (away). I'm just going to the ground to get my wages. I think I've earned them. I'm dead beat. Maybe if I'm lucky Joe will give me something extra (Bonus?).
Wilf Maguinness told me after the match he had put my name forward for Ireland's Youth team. Well there's really not much to say. I just wanted to let you know how we went on.
Love to Carol & Babs.
Your loving son,
Treasured letter home from a teenage George in Manchester
George had made it plain he didn't want Alex visiting him
It has been reported that Alex had been prevented from seeing George by his family. What really happened is that quite early on during George's illness, Phil and I had had conversations about Alex visiting.
I was left in no doubt whatsoever by Phil that George had made it plain that he did not want Alex to see him. But when she rang Phil to ask if she could visit, Phil told her that the family wouldn't allow it. Later he explained that he had put it this way to her to spare her feelings!
Anyway, as time wore on, and George became weaker and weaker, Ros and I had gone for lunch one day and discussed the situation. Ros was concerned that it might be thought that she was influencing the decision to keep Alex away and we agreed that day to speak to George himself, who although weak at that point, was still quite alert. I was present when George was asked if Alex could come to visit. I can categorically say that his reaction was a definite no. We felt therefore that we could only carry out his wishes.
On the morning of the day before George died, however, Norman and I again spoke to Phil about it. Even though it was clearly not what George wanted, we were still uncertain what to do. Phil didn't think that it was a good idea so we didn't push the matter. But I couldn't stop thinking about Alex and wasn't really surprised that she had turned up that night at the hospital.
Norman went up to talk to her. She was with her friend, Julie, and was dressed in a pyjama-style grey tracksuit. She was in a distressed and dishevelled state and was crying and begging over and over again to be allowed to spend a few last moments with George.
Carol, Norman, Phil and I now talked the matter over.
Personally I had really mixed emotions. I was angry that she had turned up, yet at the same time, I was also glad. My anger was down to the fact that it had been widely reported that Alex had said she wouldn't shed a tear if George died and I didn't know at the time that she denies ever saying this. But nevertheless, she had spent 12 years of her life with him. I cannot understand some of the things that Alex has said and done over the years, but I have always believed that George loved her and she loved him. Not only that, but she had stood by him and looked after him through some very difficult times. It isn't easy living with an alcoholic.
Now, as we stood there trying to decide what to do about her, one of the staff who was passing and had overheard us, stopped.
"What harm will it do at this stage?" she asked simply.
George was now unconscious. What harm, indeed, would it do, while it could give Alex some comfort?
Carol, Norman and I went back up to the reception area to speak to her.
Carol explained that she could come in on the condition that she left the hospital quietly through a back door afterwards and didn't speak to the Press. "If you do," said Carol sternly, " I will never speak to you again."
At the time, with emotions running high, it obviously wasn't funny.
But looking back, we had to laugh. There was Carol, standing in reception, wagging her finger at Alex, warning her of the dire consequences of going to the Press. As Carol said later: "I'm sure she was bothered whether I ever spoke to her again or not!"
We took Alex down to intensive care where Calum was at his dad's side. Calum had been dozing before Alex came in and now looked up as if he had seen a ghost.
We all stood back to let her have some private time with George and it really was quite a heartbreaking scene to watch.
Afterwards, Norman, Carol and I took her back up to the reception area and ensured she left by a side door away from the cameras.
Before she left, Carol and I both hugged her. Despite George's wishes, I still think we did the right thing. I truly hope that seeing George for that last time made his death a bit easier for Alex to bear.
Yes, George told me he does have a daughter
George also opened up to me about the woman who had been the one true love of his life. I didn't push him but just let him talk. After all, as I've mentioned several times, he was never a man to talk easily about his feelings. But sitting there by the fire as his guests milled around outside, he spoke frankly and with great emotion about something which has been rumoured and hinted at in the papers down through the years.
He told me that he had a daughter.
She was born in 1969, but George told me that he had never had any contact with her. His eyes clouded with sadness, he explained to me how he had made a promise to the mother of the child that he would not try to get in touch. Listening to him that day, as he talked about the daughter he'd never met, I knew that his heart was aching.
Our George A Family Memoir, by Barbara Best with Lindy McDowell, Gill & Macmillan, £16.99, published October 12