Byline: DAISY MCANDREW
When my father Alistair Sampson went into a hospice two weeks ago, we knew his death was only a matter of days away. And that time, of course, was filled with immense sadness and reflection.
But it was also a time for giggles, tasteless jokes and love. Dad wouldn't have had it any other way.
When someone is dying you desperately need information and you also want to do something - anything. You sit around staring at each other and wondering when the next dip will be.
You want to know whether he's in pain, what you can do to help and what's happening to him and his body.
You want to know how much time you have left with him and you want it to be longer.
Above all, you want him to get the very best care possible - and that is something my father really did have.
St John's Hospice, part of the St John and Elizabeth Hospital in St John's Wood, is a remarkable place. Funded by charitable donations, it is the only independent hospice in Central London and cares for more than 600 people each year - all totally free of charge.
Hospice staff answered our endless questions with patience and nononsense good humour. They never patronised my father or anyone else in the family and managed to make the process dignified and special - without ever trying to 'cheer us up'. And they accommodated our every whim and quirk.
On his daily visits to the hospice, Monty, Mum's miniature schnauzer, was fussed over like a member of the family. Even my father's demands for his beef to be rare and his oxygen to be turned off so that he could smoke in bed were patiently indulged. We never doubted how much they cared for him and for the rest of us.
My dad - who could be wonderfully charming when he wanted to be but could also be a difficult old bugger - was delighted and comforted by them.
He enjoyed flirting with all the pretty nurses, and their honesty and intelligence in the way they cared for him enabled him, I believe, to be on the very best form he could be.
Facing death does funny things to people's characters I'm told, but in Dad's case it certainly brought out the very, very best in him. From the moment the doctors told him that time was running out his attitude was aweinspiring.
Despite being 76 he'd shown no signs of retiring, either from the antiques business he ran in Mayfair, or from writing prodigious numbers of poems and funny articles. Being sent to a hospice certainly wasn't going to slow him down. About ten days ago I walked into his room to see his bed strewn with auction catalogues and heard him on his mobile phone telling a regular customer - an American lady of not insubstantial means: 'Well, yes, I am dying Nora, and have I ever told you the firm's motto? It's "God loves a cheerful spender", and so do I. So if you don't go to the shop and spend lots of money, I'll come back and haunt you.' Poor woman. He was born to sell and he adored haggling.
He resolved to leave us with typical humour and dignity, but he was adamant: 'No gush.' He remained brilliantly funny, naughty and sweet, and he told us how things should be after his death.
Many of his last days were spent developing grander and grander plans about his funeral and drawing up a fabulously egotistical order of service. He wanted a collection of his favourite tunes from musicals (though we drew the line at Springtime For Hitler from The Producers, much to our vicar's relief), as well as wanting the congregation to sing Que Sera, Sera. Of course his orders were carried out to the letter.
Dad wrote several books of poems and developed quite a cult following last year on a radio show I presented for LBC. He had his own slot, called Daisy's Dad's Daily Ditties that the listeners adored.
He announced that he wanted his daughters to read out some of his best and funniest poems at the funeral. 'About six or seven should do it,' he said.
He told my sister, Tilly, that as she read one beautifully at my wedding last August he didn't see why she couldn't read one at his funeral. She tried to point out that the circumstances would be slightly different, but failed to change his mind.
HE ALSO rang round a large number of friends to say goodbye and thank them for the great times they'd shared. Old university friends from Cambridge came to the hospice, fellow antique dealers visited, politicians and journalists trooped in, reflecting all aspects of his life and career. He had always loved throwing parties and his last few days were no exception. In fact, he had to be moved into a bigger room to accommodate these joyful gatherings.
Past fishing holidays in Scotland and shooting outings in Cornwall were relived, political gossip was swapped.
And so, of course, Charles Kennedy's demise as Liberal Democrat leader was obviously a hot topic.
The fact that on day two of his stay at the hospice I was splashed all over the papers and dubbed the 'Blonde Assassin' for my role in the saga amused him greatly. [Daisy McAndrew, chief political correspondent for ITV News, broke the story that Kennedy had admitted being an alcoholic and was credited with bringing him down.] Every time I walked in he'd yell: 'Watch out! My daughter the assassin's here!' and even the nurses started teasing me about it.
One day Dad said: 'You know it's a great relief to me to discover you're an assassin.' 'Why's that?' I asked, innocently.
'Because when I can't stand this s**t any longer I can call for you and you can finish me off,' he chuckled.
I noticed that not one of the papers at the time of the Kennedy story referred to the well-documented fact that I was five months pregnant. It was Ian Hislop, of Have I Got News For You fame, who explained to me last week why that was.
He said: 'You can't "do over" a pregnant woman so you get around it by not admitting she's pregnant.' I guess 'the pregnant assassin' doesn't have quite the same ring!
That made Dad laugh too - but there were also serious moments.
When I asked my father how he felt about dying he smiled and said: 'Perfectly relaxed, in fact rather curious.' But he added that he was very sad about the things he'd never do - particularly that he'd never meet my first child, who would be his fifth grandchild. He told many of his friends who visited him that this was his biggest regret.
JUST after Christmas my husband John and I had been to my 20-week scan, having decided we would find out whether we were having a girl or a boy.
I found the reaction of some of our friends quite extraordinary. There were disapproving comments like: 'You can't do that, it's like turning to the end of the book before reading the rest' or 'That's like opening your presents before Christmas Day'. But the clear winner was: 'That'll leave you nothing to look forward to on the day!' But funnily enough, on the day of 'the big reveal' our baby wouldn't reveal anything. He/she had come over all shy (which was surprising, given what show-offs its parents are) so we were none the wiser. Of course it didn't matter at all to us at the time as long as the baby was healthy. But then, last week, my father said that if he couldn't meet the child he'd at least like to know whether it was a granddaughter or grandson.
That Saturday morning I mentioned what he'd said to Sarah, one of the nurses at the hospice. She thought knowing the sex would make quite a difference to Dad's last few days and by that afternoon, with typical efficiency and compassion, she had spoken to the St John and Elizabeth Hospital's antenatal unit and put me in touch with a man named Bill Smith.
Bill runs the ultrasound unit for Clinical Diagnostics Services, the company with the most advanced scanning machines in the world, and the next afternoon he drove across London and opened up his high-tech offices, around the corner from the hospice, just for us.
Before long John and I had tears pouring down our faces as we stared at truly incredible, moving
3D pictures of our baby waving at us and yawning and wriggling.
Sarah had told Bill the full story and not only did he refuse to take any money for the scan (which we discovered should have cost hundreds of pounds) but he also made us a DVD to take away.
AT THE time I got engaged last April, Dad already had cancer.
John and I decided to marry as soon as possible because, like every girl, I always hoped my father would walk me down the aisle. Not only did he do that, on August 6, but his father-of-thebride-speech was the funniest and best I've ever heard.
When we got back from honeymoon to discover to our amazement that I was already pregnant, we knew we were pushing our luck to think Dad would see his grandchild.
But a few hours after the scan, we all gathered around Dad's bed and, through a portable DVD player on his lap, he was introduced to his third granddaughter, temporarily being referred to as Mabel.
The showing of 'Mabel - The Movie' lasted just 20 minutes but what it meant to us all is immeasurable.
Dad spent the next few days coming up with other names for Mabel and he started to dictate his thoughts on parenting for me. A small part of me thought he might have wanted to pass on some truly wise words.
I have only just listened to the recording and in fact he's left me with such gems as: 'As a person of mature years, I advise that you on no account have a child in the first place, but if you really must, definitely make sure it's not too soon after you marry or anything lunatic like that.' He adds: 'Names: On the whole I think I would say I'm pro-name.' And finally: 'Breastfeeding: If you do it, it's best done by the wife and not the husband.' He's still making me laugh like a drain.
The grandfather our daughter will never meet slipped into semi-consciousness three days after 'meeting' Mabel.
Assuming we wouldn't hear his wonderful voice again we realised, to our amusement, that his last words were going to be: 'Will someone just give me a f***ing fag?' But in fact we were wrong. Two days later, amazingly, he managed to speak and weakly called for my mother. She was truly the love of his life and he squeezed her hand and said: 'Camilla, I love you. It was a great marriage.' What better example could a father or grandfather set?
. St John's Hospice fundraising hotline: 020 7806 4011…