11 years ago, Dad silently slipped away. Approx 1.00pm on the 6/9/2008. The death certificate says the ninth, we all knew that was wrong but does it matter? A bit of detective work on my part over the next few days revealed he had his hair cut that morning so was in his best togs and cheerful according to the hairdresser that popped in that day at 11.00. Later he cooked, ate and washed up; evidence: one pan, one plate to the side of the draining board, one knife, one folk, a potato peeler and a serving spoon stood like soldiers next to them on this stainless steel draining board in the fitted kitchen he designed and installed. Diy must have been named after him, he did the lot, including the central heating.
Dad’s life by this time had become one long repetitive routine, up at 6.00am, drink tea and doze in his chair. A banana for breakfast at 9.00 and more tea. Radio 4 all morning, blaring out as he found it hard to hear above the tinnitus. At 11.30 he would start making dinner, a couple of slices of cooked meat, boiled potatoes and one veg; carrots, broccoli or peas. Then the TV would go on at midday and he would sit in front of that flickering screen and have a couple of beers, cheap Carlsberg, bought in bulk from Tesco’s, decanted into a pint mug and doze again. At 5.30 he would make himself a sandwich and a cup of tea. Have another beer at 6.00, one at 8.00, one at 10.00pm. We found a crate of 48 cans of lager in the larder, half a dozen of pale ales and a couple of bottles of Theakston Old Peculier, that pretty much took care of the wake.
His life had shrunk to this and it pained me to watch it. I’d notice how he’d glance at the clock, when the little hand reached the top at certain hours, heave himself out of the chair and go and pour himself a beer. When I visited lunch times was adjusted to 1.00pm. I could see the strain, he would be on edge. I took what must have seemed strange fare to share with him; hummus, kiwi fruits and mango, peppered mackerel, cherry yogurt and tiramisu, courgettes and cherry tomatoes, Brie and blue veined smelly cheeses, black beans, spaghetti and wild rice and wild mushrooms. It took a lot of encouragement but he would try them to give him credit.
I would also take a couple of bottles of craft beer, which I knew he likes, the more obscurely named the better. Trouble is he didn’t drink for the joy of it anymore. This was methodical self medication. A few beers used to pull humour from him, he’d say, to us kids, “Ohhhh, the moon is full tonight, I goes mad when the moon is full, I gets hairs on the back of my hands. Ask yer mum, she’ll tell you. Have you got hairs on the back of your hands? We’d look down at our baby hands and at each other. He’d imitate a howl, prowl round the room until mum chuckling said, “Oh, Tom stop it, you’ll scare them!” But I could tell she loved it. Loved him being like that, not work worn from overtime, swearing under his breath on every step of the steep stairs, doing what she called his, “Alf Garnets,” which we could never work out if he was serious about or not he was a Labour man at heart.
Many times I’d say, “You really should drink water, you can’t just live on tea and beer, what about your kidneys….” His response was always the same, “This modern fad/ nonsense – they didn’t drink water in the middle ages, they all drank beer, even kids, the water killed them.” Why had I no response to this I don’t know. Why couldn’t I say, “ Yer and they dropped dead at 35, don’t be ridiculous. A joke was what was needed here. “Fresh air kills,” was another of his obscure comments that baffled me as he’d fling open the windows, summer or winter. I see that now, defying him was beyond me then. Unknown to me then, at the time of his death by heart failure, he was in stage 4 of what is known as Chronic Kidney Disease, diagnosed at some point earlier that year. His kidneys must have been like wrinkled raisins.
I figure he got the diagnosis about the time I was experiencing a bout of excruciating anxiety and depression. Torn and crushed by an intercontinental love thing gone in a labyrinth of misunderstanding, anger, fear and agony and the task of organising a book launch. I told Dad how wretched I felt. It was the first time I’d ever done that. Why then I don’t know; I was worried sick about him. I went to bed pretty much every night those four years after Mum died imagining him stumbling on the stairs, laying in a crumpled heap at the bottom, perhaps still conscious, unable to move. I noticed a wobble in his gait as he shuffled across the living room making his way to go upstairs. The stairs would creak under his weight. Perhaps I was hoping he too would open up, I could see his suffering but couldn’t find a way in to ask how do you really feel?
Only now I recognise he too was ravaged by the two headed monster we merely call anxiety and depression. And that even then I still really needed his approval and acceptance. Needed him to understand why I was struggling, why it had taken me so long to get so not very far. One time when I mentioned my writing he said, gruffly “Stop playing at it,” I was devastated, I had been published for the first time, submitting regular film reviews to Creative Week., a monthly publication now defunct. This seemed to count for nothing because I was only paid expenses. Now I see I was learning my craft not failing. When the editor offered me a paid job I turned it down, took a teaching position instead. I was too ill to do both. Mum was dying and, and what? I guess I wanted to show her, before she left, I had a “proper job” and not prove her wrong, because although she supported my writing by then the message from my teenage years still had a hold on me – people like us…
When I surveyed that empty room after he’d gone, after swiftly packing a bag and racing for a train it echoed of emptiness. I asked myself, “Where is his beer mug?” It puzzled me for years. Why the rush I don’t know, he was already dead, of course yes I do know; I had to get there before anyone removed the evidence, vital clues. I packed irrationally taking along with meds and toothbrush, my camera, Wellington boots for the garden, post it notes, the latter why? He had asked me at some point to label the filing cabinet in large print as his sight was going with the cataracts.
I realised yesterday his beer mug would have been on the round table next to him, the one he made for his mum and dad that now sits at my bedside. I guess my brother had moved it when he found my dad. It would have been the sort of thing he would have done; pour away the stale beer before the undertaker arrived. I meant to ask him last night but it hardly seemed timely after seeing Romeo and Juliette top themselves. Or perhaps it was. For my part I disposed of the packs of paracetamol I found in the bedroom and bathroom, the empty packs in the waist paper basket upstairs and down. Evidence that his last weeks were spend in pain. The sciatica I assume. That was just too much to bear or share with siblings that couldn’t cope with too much reality.
How did I know the precise time? Besides the routine, there next to him was the Radio Times. In his own peculiar bordering-on-obsessive way he’d circle the shows he wanted to listen to or see. It was open at the TV page, which I have somewhere with the trinkets, coins and some of the sweet little gifts he’d give us. Never at birthdays or Christmas just as and when. A silvered bottle opener in the shape of a dolphin keeps company with the concave breadboard scoured with age in my kitchen.
In those last years so lonely and so alone. So unable to speak his grief he softened. One time we were watching the football, a women’s league or perhaps the final. One of the players; lanky with dreads that reached half way down her back, hammered the ball into the back of the net from way outside the 18 yard box. For a moment I froze. Expectant. Preparing a response to something like, “Bloody wogs, a wonder when she got off the banana boat?” I glanced at him and he said, “Good goal!” Nodding with genuine approval. That father had died a long time ago.
He endured Lara Croft with me and joked about it. A good bad film. Sometimes I could get him to step into the garden with me. I knew it was pointless to ask him so I’d go out and pull at endless streams of ivy and bind wind that was smothering the evergreens. Eventually he would come out and watch, standing their silent, smoking. He’d smoke, incidentally, the day long. Any comment on this fell on deaf ears. Fell on excuses, the patches itch he’d say, I guess when you smoke and where a patch that’s quite likely!
He wasn’t entirely alone he would tell me about the visits from his sister, my sister, he rarely had a good word for either of them. He’d tell me about visits from Emma and the twins from next door whom he adored, a feeling which was obviously mutual. At ten years old I guess it may have been the first funeral for the twins; identical like his brothers, but blonde with apple skin. Emma had dressed them impeccably, I don’t know how she could afford it, and they each carried a red rose to place on the coffin.
At the wake the girls wriggled together in his armchair giggling. One of them said to me, “I can see him, he’s there” and pointed to the ceiling, I had no idea what she really meant. I imagine now, he must have been pulling faces, relishing in making them laugh. Someone put on Charlie Parker, maybe me. I can remember the times he’d said, “Have you heard of Charlie Parker? The Bird they called him. Now he was great.” (It is entirely possible he didn’t realise The Bird was black….) When he said this I would look at him blankly with no context for this comment. I might say, “Oh.” With the advent of the internet I googled it and bought a three CD set for him one Christmas. It was unopened until the wake.
Despite all the shit from siblings the family expect Christian funeral, (he was a committed atheist) he got the send off he wanted in the end. I looked around the room and saw so much laughter and colour; the funeral dress code was wear what you like. Kinda New Orleans style, like the movie, what was the movie, one of the Bond movies. He’d say, “When I go, I wanna go like that,” At first I’d cring, not wanting to know about that, or say, “Da-ad, don’t!” Eventually I could manage a weak smile.
Truth is he never really left I reckon til last year. Not being a believer guess he probably wondered what the hell was going on. Emma told me that night, when his body woulda still be turning cold, one of the pencils he gave the girls, engraved with their names, flew across the room and landed at her feet.
A year ago in Andalusia, I decided to do something about this. One night I met him at the foot of the mountain I could see from bedroom window at the writing retreat. Slowly we made our way to the top. He grumbled all the way. It took a very long time believe me. At the summit I said, “Look can’t you see they are all waiting for you?” Mum and his parents stood together reaching out. I’m not sure how he got up there because, though he grew lighter as we ascended, I could hardly have lifted him, he had a build like John Wayne, and no angels came down shimmering, but somehow in the end he reached up and he was gone. Incidentally since that time the heavy fatigue I’ve experienced for 30 odd years has almost entirely left me.i guess I’d carried him all those years. Before mum died she said, “Look after your Dad, keep an eye on Michael and be gentle with Sue.” Who was looking after me?
He comes here sometimes, I can smell him. We rarely talk. Well, there is some kind of soundless exchange that makes meaning and sometimes words. If we did would it still be one sided? He used to berate what he called “the talkers,” These were the experts, novelists, Nobel prize winners, appearing on radio 4. “Never done a proper job like me what do they know! They just talk, They know nothing!” And I cant help wondering what he thinks when he sees me now; talking or performing, to audiences or on radio. Am I now just another “talker” to him. Something tells me not if he has continued to soften, to lighten.i
To those who couldn’t or wouldn’t see him. Refused to cross the threshold of that smoky room. It is your loss. I feel sorry for you. I forgive you. Sometimes I can’t, its a process. When it is particularly hard, I fall back on, as Tara Brach says, “though I cannot forgive you now it is my intention to forgive.”
I made my peace with Dad sometime ago, the moon was full as it is now. I heard myself say, “It’s ok, I understand now, there’s is nothing to forgive.” He looked down, a slight frown on his face. He floated maybe a few feet from the floor, I had to look up to see his face, the rest of his form in distinct. “Dad,” I said, “You almost look like the Cheshire Cat!”
He smiled and said, “Well then, you must be Alice.”
“No Enith,” I replied. “ Sometimes I feel like Alice…”
“They’re all maaad you know, all maaaaad!” He said with a wicked grin. And with that he faded away. I knew he would be back.
I’m pretty sure he’s here right now.
Excerpt from Conversations with my Father, a work in progress.
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