The death of my father

//The death of my father

Yesterday my father died in his flat.

He was a difficult man, and our relationship had been strained for years. He could be capable of great warmth, wit and wisdom, but he was also the most self-centred, childish and dogmatic person I have known. He loved solving mathematical puzzles, winning at Scrabble, studying the Bible, and being made cups of tea. He was a very bright man and, at the same time, a complete fool. He could explain relativity, but refused to accept evolution, passionately arguing for creationism.

The rot in our relationship really set in about 20 years ago when he explained that he thought I was going to hell. He didn’t say this in anger, just as a matter of fact statement of where my lack of faith in a Christian god would inevitably lead. It’s hard to come back from that.

He’d been ill for years. He was diagnosed with type 2 diabetes over 15 years ago and had steadfastly ignored every piece of advice about how to manage his condition. He ate whatever he wanted and refused to exercise. From my perspective it looked like he worked hard at being ill, and it was difficult to sympathise. If someone offered to do something for him, my father would happily accept their help as his due. He could behave like an Eastern potentate, expecting everything to be brought to him on a plate and finding fault with any small detail of what was offered to him. And if thwarted, he would sulk.

Eight years ago, my mother finally left him. Their marriage had been a series of crises. He would stop going in to work, get sacked, not tell anyone, refuse to sign on and continue spending money we didn’t have. My mother put up with this for over forty years until finally, his debt and deceit meant they could not pay the mortgage, and were forced to sell their house. Enough was enough. They went their separate ways.

More recently, he decided to move to be nearer to me. His illness had progressed to the point where his deteriorating eyesight meant he could no longer drive, and neither could he walk far enough to catch a bus. His independence was rapidly evaporating. He moved into a warden controlled flat and continued much as before. Despite the fact that he lived so close by, I resented having him to visit as he would just occupy a chair and periodically chirp that, “a cup of tea would be nice.” But neither was there much incentive to visit him. He had a cleaner come by once a week, but in between her visits he wouldn’t wash up any crockery or clean any of the surfaces.

He loved his grand daughters – my children – and enjoyed few things more than chatting to them about their lives. Sometimes he’d bemoan the fact that they didn’t call as often as he’d have liked. I’d point out that he was more than welcome to call them whenever he wanted, but somehow this seemed a bit too much trouble. And when he did call, they invariably had something more interesting and important to occupy their attention. I’d bring the phone through to their bedrooms and whisper, “Granddad’s on the phone – can you talk to him for a bit?” They are both far more patient and compassionate then I am, and would sometimes rattle away with him for hours. He could be great at getting people talk, if he was in the right mood.

But despite all this, he was my dad. Sometimes we’d have a good time. Sometimes he could be really considerate. When I was working on What If Everything You Knew About Education Was Wrong? he assiduously read through drafts, and made loads of thoughtful, insightful comments. At one point he said, “I had no idea you were so clever.” I knew he was proud of me.

I ended up dedicating the book to him.

Even then, my choice of Pope’s epigram from An Essay on Criticism: Part 2 said as much about my regret that we’d not been closer, that he hadn’t been the father I’d have chosen, and my recurring fear that perhaps my children might one day think of me similarly.

Last October his health had declined to the point where he had to be put on dialysis. We were told the prognosis wasn’t good. Apparently people in his condition who go on dialysis last an average of 5 years. It struck me then that he would almost certainly occupy the left hand side of that particular curve. What had been a rapid but steady decline now accelerated. He rarely left his flat except to go to hospital. I’d pop round once a week but seldom felt able to spare more time than that. I was always too busy, too irritated, too resentful.

Every year, he would phone on my birthday to sing Happy Birthday to me. Yesterday it was my birthday. The phone rang and my wife passed it to me saying, “That’ll be your dad. Be nice.” I braced myself. He didn’t sing, instead he wheezed into the phone, and said he thought he was having a heart attack. He’d called an ambulance. I asked what I should do and he said, “Nothing, I just wanted to let you know what was going on.” He sounded terrible.

I said I’d stay on the phone until the ambulance arrived. In between wheezes and retches we passed the time. I asked him if he was scared, and he said, “No, there’s nothing to be scared about.” I told him I loved him. Inside, I remembering thinking that it would all be so much easier if he just died.

When the paramedics arrived they told me they’d call me back when they had him stabilised to let me know which hospital he’d be going to. I hung up and went about getting on with the day. An hour later the paramedic called back to say he’d died of a massive heart attack. They’d tried to resuscitate him for 20 minutes and done everything they could, but had been unable to revive him.

I’d got my wish, and it felt awful.

Along with the guilt, there’s genuine relief. The alternative would have been the inevitable slide into ever greater incapacity. Although I can hardly say his death was unexpected, it was still a shock. I wish I’d had more time. I wish I’d been kinder. I wish he’d been a different man. I wish I was less like him.

Lots of people have kindly got in touch to tell me how sorry they are for my loss, and whilst I really appreciate this, I’m not sure what my loss is. The assumption is that I must be wracked with grief, but the truth is, I don’t really know how I feel, although I’m pretty clear that it’s not what I should feel. I feel hollow. I’m mourning what could – perhaps, what should – have been.

What comes most honestly and vividly to mind is Simon Armitage’s Poem:

And if it snowed and snow covered the drive
he took a spade and tossed it to one side.
And always tucked his daughter up at night.
And slippered her the one time that she lied.

And every week he tipped up half his wage.
And what he didn’t spend each week he saved.
And praised his wife for every meal she made.
And once, for laughing, punched her in the face.

And for his mum he hired a private nurse.
And every Sunday taxied her to church.
And he blubbed when she went from bad to worse.
And twice he lifted ten quid from her purse.

Here’s how they rated him when they looked back:
Sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that.

The character in this poem was nothing like my father, except that sometimes he did this, sometimes he did that. He was just a man. And so am I.

I want to remember him as he was – the good and the bad – in the hope that the bad becomes a little more ordinary, a little more forgivable, and the good becomes a little more extraordinary. Mark Antony says of Caesar, “The evil that men do lives after them; The good is oft interred with their bones”. I don’t want that to be the case with my dad. I want to inter the evil with his bones and let the good live after.

2018-03-23T08:59:57+00:00

25 Comments

  1. Sue Johnston-Wilder March 21, 2018 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing. Everything I have read about bereavement suggests you start from where you are, and what you feel, not what you should feel. It is from that point that the recovery and growth will come, in time.

  2. Sherry Bandy March 21, 2018 at 12:36 pm - Reply

    Wow! Your post is so powerful and moving. My condolences for the loss of your father.

  3. billie daniels March 21, 2018 at 12:49 pm - Reply

    I lost my dad when I was 15- a very difficult time but I was lucky because I was young enough to remember him as a “perfect” dad- which as an adult I now know that isn’t the case
    As a parent we do the best we can with what we have – be kind to yourself David

  4. englishteacher688 March 21, 2018 at 1:01 pm - Reply

    David, this is a very honest, moving and thoughtful (and thought-provoking) post. Thank you for sharing it.

  5. Rachel March 21, 2018 at 1:15 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts and making us also reflect on our own relationship with our fathers. I remember when my daughter was born I briefly recovered my sense of empathy for my own father who could be very difficult at times. Remembering that he was also once vulnerable like a small child softened me but it’s hard to retain this. You’ve reminded me to be kinder.

  6. David F March 21, 2018 at 1:36 pm - Reply

    I went through this last year with my mother, so you have my thoughts. When you’re ready to read again about fathers and sons, may I recommend The Return by Hisham Matar….

  7. vgunnrms March 21, 2018 at 2:00 pm - Reply

    A most moving post. As someone told me when my mother died recently – think about the good memories but also about the times of irritation. Poetry can say it all for us and the one you included really struck me because I remember teaching it in an old GCSE spec, and because Simon Armitage is about to turn up at our school to run a workshop and give a talk. I turn to Tony Harrison for his poems about his parents.

  8. mrlock March 21, 2018 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    This is so good David. I admire the honesty and the way you’re dealing with it. The writing is really touching.

  9. RH March 21, 2018 at 4:17 pm - Reply

    Parents can be difficult indeed, and their deaths a very unique and baffling time as our emotions fit no given stereotype. My condolences.

  10. Helen Pegg March 21, 2018 at 4:28 pm - Reply

    David. I wept for us all, as a family. Your thoughts are my thoughts

  11. Robert Massey March 21, 2018 at 7:24 pm - Reply

    Whatever else this is, David, it’s also some of your best writing.

  12. Bee March 21, 2018 at 8:49 pm - Reply

    This is so true for so many of us who have a strange, ambiguous relationship with a parent. Thank you for being so honest and real because it is rare to find that these days. Beautiful writing.

  13. mezzanineteacher March 21, 2018 at 9:16 pm - Reply

    David – thank you for such an honest and open post. My condolences at this sorrowful time.

  14. Kate C (@kateab) March 21, 2018 at 10:49 pm - Reply

    There are similarities with your story and with that of my family with the recent sudden death of my mother. I think I am still in a bit of shock and it happened 6 weeks ago. Today would have been her birthday and although I made sure I didn’t have too much on, I ended up working fairly normally. I felt OK. I think the problem is I don’t know how I feel. As my sister said, “she may have driven us mad sometimes but she was our mum”. I get more emotional about all the support I have had from other family, friends and colleagues than I do about her loss. Maybe it still doesn’t feel real.

    Be kind to yourselves in the coming weeks and months. What’s done is done. Hopefully, we will find a way. I think it’s a long road.

  15. Catherine Scott March 22, 2018 at 12:34 am - Reply

    Thanks for your post. Had you considered that your father may have had bipolar disorder.

  16. Imran March 22, 2018 at 3:59 am - Reply

    Thank you for such a beautiful, honest, painful sharing. It resonates. When one writes from the heart, it reaches the heart.

  17. lizzie March 22, 2018 at 8:16 am - Reply

    Beautifully honest, as always.

  18. Julie Niven March 22, 2018 at 8:45 am - Reply

    A great piece. I can relate. I am on my way to visit my 75 yo alcoholic mother who is only 5 stone as she won’t eat, take advice or do anything that any professional or family member advices her to do to keep her healthy. We live on a cycle of deteriorating health, continual falls, hospitalisation, release, attempts at ‘trying’ to eat and not to drink and revert to deteriorating health. The cycles are getting shorter, her determination to live a selfish, non life gets stronger. She is my mum, she gave us life and with my Dad a great childhood. She now gives us stess, worry and very little else. Be thankful your Dad got enjoyment from his Grandkids my mum has 6 fabulous ones and she doesn’t ever ask of them, talk to them when in their company or have any real desire to know them. We know she is depressed, we know she is an alcoholic we also know to our cost that she has capacity and unless she wants help we cannot help provide it. When my mum is gone I will remember the good times, our childhood, how welcoming she was to everybody and I will remember that she was just a woman with depression that greatly limited her life choices. I will try to forgive the times I cursed her or or sobbed on despair or frustration or was so angry I temporarily hated her. My condolences to you, enjoy the good memories, forgive the bad.

  19. Paul A. Kirschner March 22, 2018 at 2:55 pm - Reply

    Beautifully said.

  20. Mirjam Neelen March 22, 2018 at 10:43 pm - Reply

    You had me teary eyed. Such a genuine and moving post, thank you. Family is a fascinating phenomenon. Whatever you feel is ok.

  21. Peter March 23, 2018 at 3:42 pm - Reply

    Thank you for sharing this David. Moving, honest and I sure represents the start of coming to terms with the grief and guilt. Best wishes

  22. […] The death of my father, by David Didau […]

  23. ferret March 24, 2018 at 9:37 pm - Reply

    A wonderful, honest obituary. Thank you for sharing it.

  24. Tim Jefferis (@tjjteacher) April 17, 2018 at 10:40 am - Reply

    David, thank you for writing this. It powerfully expresses the mixed emotions which people often feel but rarely ever express.

Constructive feedback is always appreciated

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