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Geoff Maskell’s dad Brian was his hero as well as a pal ... but a year ago the weatherman watched helplessly as his father slowly died from lung disease

 

In an emotional account ahead of Father’s Day, the BBC NI weather presenter tells how his dad’s passing in July last year made him realise just how much the 73-year-old was loved by a wide circle of friends.

Father's Day 2017 was hot. Baking hot. The temperature in Sussex was above 30 degrees that day and would stay there all week. I remember it so well because I spent the day hiding.

Hiding from the heat. Hiding from visiting dad. But mostly trying to hide from the reality that he was dying.

I've always had an ambivalent relationship with Father's Day. As a married man without children, it's the club you're not allowed to join. You can watch from the sides and enjoy the spectacle. But no one will ever be buying you an embarrassing tie or a 'World's Greatest Dad' mug.

But until now I'd always had a stake in the day, someone to buy a card for, someone to take out for lunch, someone to buy a pint for.

Not that we'd be going for lunch or a pint today.

Dad's world, which had once brimmed with ideas and energy, brisk walks along the Downs and slow canal boat trips, had shrunk to a single chair in a simple, sweltering room in a hospice.

It was almost too much to bear.

Dad had been dying for a while.

The daily cough first thing each morning to "clear the lungs" had become four or five violent coughing fits each day, long before he went to the doctors and was diagnosed with idiopathic pulmonary fibrosis.

IPF is a gradual hardening of the soft tissue of the lungs causing a progressive and irreversible decline in lung function.

The causes are unknown, although it can run in families. It's not pretty to watch. We'd already had a front row seat when dad's elder brother Eric was diagnosed at a similar age, and now we had the re-run.

After 18 months of incremental, almost imperceptible, decline in dad's condition, everything started to move with terrifying speed from the turn of the year.

Dad had spent Christmas 2016 with us in Belfast. He mingled at our party for the neighbours on Christmas Eve and enjoyed a walk at Helen's Bay on a crisp Boxing Day morning.

He came back in February for the last time and I started shuttling back and forth to Sussex to support him at home.

My memory of those months is of trying to keep up with a treadmill that was just getting faster and faster - constantly trying and constantly failing to get ahead of the condition.

A nebuliser, oxygen cylinders, a home help and a stair lift. No sooner were they in place than his condition got worse.

Through it all I never heard a single word of complaint or self-pity.

Each time it broke my heart to leave him.

In April I came home and wrote a Facebook post about him: "Not all superheroes wear capes.

"And not all superheroes can leap buildings in a single bound.

"In fact, some heroes can exhaust all their super powers in a short walk to the car, carrying their oxygen cylinder as they battle the evil breathlessness that stalks their waking and increasingly their sleeping hours. But this is my Dad, Brian. And he's my hero.

"An honest to goodness, pants on the inside, superhero."

I hadn't always seen him as a hero. Growing up, he wasn't the kind of man to kick a ball around or to take you to the cricket. In the banter of the playground, my dad was never going to beat up your dad.

His virtues were quiet ones. Easily overlooked. But they are absolutely key to making me who I am today.

Dad taught me to read long before I started primary school.

He taught me to love a story by reading to me long after I didn't "need" him to. But every Christmas and every holiday I had a book. Every morning of those holidays started with me snuggled up to Dad with at least one chapter - more if I could get away with it - and always with the accents, voices and actions.

The fact I tell stories today on the telly and radio is no accident. It's genetic.

Dad moved to Sussex when my parents separated shortly after their 40th wedding anniversary.

It was a huge shock but it was also the catalyst for dad and I to re-cast our relationship and become two really close friends.

We went on canal boat holidays together, he visited more frequently and we bonded over rugby, chatting before, during and at the end of most of the key Six Nations games. This year, with him gone, February and March were brutal.

Throughout dad's illness my managers and colleagues at the BBC could not have been more supportive. When he was admitted to hospital just after Easter I was able to drop everything and go and be with him. When it became clear that he would never be able to come home, my initial visit turned into four months away.

You learn a lot about a man from his friends. If I had thought from afar that his life was solitary and lonely, I was proved utterly mistaken.

His life had been full of friendships, music and activity. His friends carried me through the difficult days of his illness, his passing and his wonderful memorial service (which had 70 singers from at least six different choirs that he'd been involved with over the years).

Before my time in Sussex I thought that I knew my dad. But I didn't really, and he kept on surprising me, especially on our last great day out.

For almost 12 years dad had been making a weekly round trip of more than 100 miles to volunteer at a residential centre for young adults with learning difficulties, which builds life skills and confidence through music and performance.

I learned that day, that my dad was part of the furniture at the centre.

In my mind he was the most unlikely candidate for this kind of work, but I discovered that he sang with the performance group and helped in the classroom with unfailing patience and enthusiasm.

He beamed with pride watching his students perform. I almost burst with pride watching him.

I miss him dreadfully.

Twitter: @geoff_maskell

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