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'My dad died two days after I turned sixteen ... people think I had a sad childhood, but I swear it was happy'

By Carol Muskoron

When I was five, my dad, aged 57, had a massive heart attack that knocked him unconscious and took away his health. I then helped care for him for the next 10 years, until he died two days after my 16th birthday. But, believe it or not, I had a happy childhood.

My dad had me at the age of 52, when my mum was 37.

I was an accident and they were delighted I'd popped into their lives, even though they'd been hoping to take life down a gear before I came along.

We lived in a suburb, where everyone kept their gardens neat. Our garden was neat enough, but once I started school I quickly realised we were different because my parents were "old".

It was as if they were of a slightly different generation to the parents of my friends.

My mum had her hair set and lacquered like Margaret Thatcher's (well before she became Prime Minister), while everyone else's mum had moved on to blow-drying.

And mum wore 1960s' Crimplene trousers when other mums were wearing jeans.

Dad, meanwhile, never owned a T-shirt and wore shirts and ties with smart cardigans. What's more, he was bald on top and combed the hair around the sides up over his pate.

All that was a bit embarrassing, but I coped.

My friends knew my folks were older and that was no big deal. What was a big deal - and what ages you more than age itself - was illness.

My dad's heart attack should have killed him, but it didn't, and after six weeks he came out of hospital a very sick man; I heard a doctor telling my mum that he had six months to live.

From then on, I was living with a man who was more like most of my friends' grandparents and my life was full of activities that were very different to things other kids did when they got home.

I would take dad for very slow walks, holding his hand. I would sit with him as he had heart attack after heart attack, rubbing his back until my hand was burning up with the friction. And I would cut his toenails and do a fair bit of caring for him. I was no angel - in my teen years I remember hating him for asking me to help him. Would I wash his hair? Not now, I'd tell him, gritting my teeth. He could wait until after.

Dad was a dying man for about 10 years and he lived until two days after my 16th birthday.

When I tell people this, they think mine was a sad childhood.

I did have a lot more responsibility than most of my friends, but that made me broad-shouldered and, despite the tough times, I swear my childhood was happy.

We didn't take foreign holidays or go to Disneyland, like lots of my friends did - dad was told he was too ill to fly. But what we did have was loads of time together.

There was plenty of talking and learning about his childhood, as well as watching TV and cooking together, in between the times spent sitting by his hospital bed.

I do have memories of dad pre-heart attack.

He was a normal dad, chasing me around the living room on all fours, pretending to be a lion and tickling me like crazy when he got me.

Of course, I'd rather he'd stayed like that, but even though he was an older dad and became ill, I am so glad he survived his heart attack, or I wouldn't have known him at all.

I have a friend who died aged 37, after a long fight with cancer, leaving a son of three.

I think illness is definitely a bigger factor in parenthood than age - and most of us don't know when, or if, we are going to get ill.

We join the parenthood rollercoaster, buckle ourselves in and hope for the best, however old we are.

Parenthood around the age of 50, like Janet Jackson, who gave birth to her first child this week?

My view is it's no bad thing. The most important thing is love.

If you can give a child that, you're on to a winner - no matter what fate has in store for you and your family.

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