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.