It is now four months since my father passed away.
With the initial practical issues now largely dealt with, apart from the small matter of selling his house, my thoughts turn more to him as a man and parent. And with Christmas approaching, a time of year when he was in his element, I feel his absence more acutely.
Dad was born on Valentine’s Day eighty eight years ago, the eldest of four brothers, and a sister who died in childhood. After attending the local primary school, he gained a place at the most prestigious secondary school in the area. He proudly recalled that he also spent a term at the neighbouring girls’ school due to his buildings being requisitioned for the war effort.
He joined the Army in 1945, claiming that his arrival precipitated Hitler’s departure, a theory at least corroborated by the calendar, and was based in the British Overseas Territory of Gibraltar for four years. His duties included recording the births and deaths of the island apes! One of the happiest moments of his later years was revisiting the “Rock” on his eightieth birthday with my wife and I, though he was mortified to discover that his barracks was now a particularly dowdy branch of Marks and Spencer!
Returning home, he met the love of his life, Betty, and they were married in August 1950. I joined the party two years later. Most of his working life was spent in the administration of education in the London area, including County Hall which sits beneath the iconic London Eye. It is one of my regrets that he didn’t get to take a “flight” on it before he died. He took early retirement in 1986, giving him the opportunity to play golf and tend his garden more often, as well as travel around the country with my mother.
His life was turned upside down in 2004 when Mum died of cancer. In fifty four years of marriage, they had only spent one night apart. I had always thought that my mother would survive her husband’s death more successfully than the other way round.
But he surprised me.
Though her passing left him bereft and desperately lonely most of the time, he returned within months to his former social life, including playing bingo and dancing, which they had so enjoyed together. He even took his first flight in visiting his surviving brothers in Spain. For nearly four years, he continued to maintain an active social life, looking forward in particular to Thursday evenings when he kept up a tradition of nearly sixty years by meeting up with his closest friends to play snooker at a local working men’s club. There may not have been many breaks of 147, or even 14 for that matter, made on those occasions, but they were filled with laughter and much non-politically correct ranting but, above all, affection.
But then in August 2008, he suffered a stroke which was followed quickly by a heart attack and kidney failure. Though he recovered after several days in critical care, his mobility was progressively restricted thereafter and his self-confidence was shattered virtually overnight.
He was never the same man afterwards.
Although he remained in his home, he was no longer capable of carrying out everyday chores such as cleaning, shopping (other than at the corner store) and clothes washing/ironing all of which fell to my wife and I. Carers visited him two or three times a days to cook the meals I had bought for him and check on his wellbeing.
While Janet and I took him out for meals and to the theatre from time to time, he became increasingly disinclined to leave his home, content to watch Sky Sports from dawn to dusk on his new flat screen television. Living close by I was able to visit him two or three times a week and speak to him on the telephone every day.
He became increasingly negative about life in his last few years. For all that I and the health professionals did for him to make life comfortable, we could not do the one thing that he craved above every other thing.
Bring my mother back.
Comments like “throw me in a corner and leave me to die”, supplemented by ” you won’t have to worry about me anymore and can get on with your own life” became more frequent. His trips to hospital were a relief for him because he wasn’t surrounded by memories, and was attended to constantly rather than for half an hour a couple of times a day.
A particularly nasty fall in early 2013 led him to become virtually housebound. Intermittent falls in the home and a succession of infections meant periodic stays in hospital or respite care for the remainder of his life. The “final straw” came when he choked on a drink at the nursing home in March 2015, leading to an aspiration pneumonia diagnosis, a condition that just could not be beaten and which ultimately led to heart failure and death five months later.
During that period, and on previous occasions, he was deprived of the one real, enduring pleasure he still had – food. Nil by mouth or mashed up potatoes and carrots were no substitute for a hearty roast dinner or fish and chips. The last time I saw him genuinely enjoying himself was when he was tucking into the mountainous Christmas dinner Janet had prepared for him at his home last year. The turkey, roast potatoes, brussel sprouts, carrots, parsnips and stuffing, followed by Christmas pudding and custard, must have weighed three or four times that of the microwaved meals he was accustomed, yet he cleared every scrap. And then had cheese board and biscuits a few hours later!
Just prior to the choking attack that triggered his ultimate demise, I had sneaked in a bar of Cadbury’s Whole Nut chocolate to the nursing home. Despite the fact that, but an hour before, he had eaten a three course lunch, he devoured most of it within minutes! He did have the good grace, however, to offer me a couple of squares!
He had been an enthusiastic sportsman, playing tennis in his early married days before becoming a reliable and popular member of a local cricket team. An average batsman and occasional bowler, it was in fielding that he excelled. It wasn’t just that he was a “safe pair of hands”, but he was able to use another part of his anatomy to great effect. Being amply proportioned, he perfected the art of bouncing the ball off his stomach to waiting team mates who would then catch it!
Though he rarely reached double figures, he played the occasional memorable innings, no more so than at a game in Faversham on a Bank Holiday Monday when, having been knockrd momentarily unconscious during the first innings by the home team’s fearsome West Indian fast bowler, and having his glasses shattered in the process, he returned in the second innings to win the match almost single-handed in the fading ligh with a score of 36, his second highest ever score.
It was through cricket that he taught me not only my love of the game but my affection for my home county of Kent. Summer weekends between the age of eight and sixteen were spent visiting delightful Wealden villages such as Goudhurst, Nursed, Hadlow and Addington, invariably on a bone-shaking double decker bus or in the back of a team member’s Morris Minor. And during the week in the school holidays we would take long rambling walks to exotic places such as Pig’s Hole Bottom.
Dad was afflicted, as, of course, was I, at an early age with the family curse of supporting Gillingham Football Club, always claiming, even when the club had risen to the second tier of English football in 2000, that the team of the late nineteen forties, which plied its trade in non-league, was the best.
He loved to tell the story of the game when, shortly after they were married, he and my mother were sat in the old Gordon Road Stand, and one of the crowd repeatedly yelled at an opposition player, calling him a “sod”. When the local vicar, sat a few rows behind, protested, Dad jumped to the man’s defence by exclaiming “it’s in the Bible you know”!
He would have been so thrilled to learn that “the Gills” were top of the league at the time of his death, though he would have added that “it won’t last”!
Above all, he was a highly sociable man, the veritable “life and soul of the party”. One story that epitomised this occurred on the family’s first holiday abroad to Ireland in 1968.
On the first Saturday evening a timid group of six adults and three teenagers made its way to the local bar where they were forced to endure two hours of Irish rebel songs, bellowed out passionately by the local menfolk.
Eventually, one of the men turned to their “guests” and proclaimed it was now their turn to sing. Undeterred, and fuelled by several libations from the well of Arthur Guinness, Dad leapt to his feet and delivered to a bewildered but ecstatic audience his party piece of The Winkle Song with its immortal chorus, of “my old woman and ‘er seven kids were a-pickin’ all the big ones out”!
The English family holidaying in the former jailhouse were local celebrities overnight, so much so that we were given the keys to another local bar for our exclusive use any time, and told to close up when we’d finished!
He could deliver word perfect renditions of the famous monologues, Gunga Din and There’s a Green Eyed Yellow Idol to the North of Kathmandu. And, at this time of year, he and his eldest brother would bring the house down at social events with their heartfelt singing of See Amid the Winter’s Snow.
He was never a “dad dancer” (indeed, he and Mum were extremely competent ballroom dancers), but he could embarrass my teenage self by being the loudest, and admittedly, the most tuneful voice in church or other venue where communal singing was required.
It was all this which made his last years in which he was almost afraid to mix with people all the more heartbreaking. Every health professional – nurse, doctor, carer, health visitor – remarked that he was a “lovely man”, always smiling and grateful for whatever service they provided. Whilst I often saw the other side when we quarrelled about his negativity – when I often reminded him that his wife would not have stood for any self-pity had she been alive – there is no question that he was all of those things.
As father and son, we shared few genuinely intimate moments – for example, I don’t ever recall anything approaching the “birds and bees” conversation – but we did share hundreds of occasions together of elation and despair, mostly the latter, on the football terraces.
According to my mother, his first words on seeing his son and heir were “if he doesn’t like sport, I’ll have nothing to do with him”. I’m sure it was meant in jest, but there was real feeling in it. He needn’t have worried. In fact, my obsession with cricket and football in particular drove him to distraction during my childhood, especially when I returned home from school at the end of each term with a report that referred to my preference for Gillingham Football Club over my studies.
I know he was proud of me, even though there were times when I tested his loyalty. We had fallen out periodically over my life choices, and we would argue constantly but good-naturedly about politics and sport. But there was mutual respect, admiration and, yes, love, in those exchanges.
He did enjoy introducing me to friends and acquaintances as his daughter during the years when my hair was exceedingly long, but it was done with a characteristic twinkle in his eye.
Until the last few months when he was incapable of doing so, we had spoken almost every day. There have been few days since he died when I haven’t gone to pick up the telephone to call him to discuss the previous night’s live televised football game or give him some juicy sporting gossip that he would not have otherwise been aware of.
Or just to check that he was Ok.
Which he is now, of course.
Though I’m not sure I can say the same.