My father, Graham, died on the 3rd December after a long and hard fought battle with motor neurone disease. It's a cliche to talk about battle with illness but in his case I think it is right. He fought the good fight, cheerfully, positively, with immense courage and determination. It is over now and I am glad that he doesn't have to fight it any more. Who would have thought that such an active, physical, practical man, such a talker, a joker, a story teller, could find a way to live with profound physical disability and eventually with his own silence. But he did. In a life filled with action and achievement that was perhaps the most extraordinary achievement of all.
I feel now, in relation to this blog, as I felt just over two years ago when my mother died. My mother's death was sudden, unexpected, terrible, full of the anguish of a loss which was totally unprepared for. My father's death was a long time coming and because of what he lost as he died so very slowly it is, in its way, both a terrible loss and a relief and a release. Both deaths leave the world an emptier and colder place for us their children. I don't use this blog generally as a place to bare my soul. I use it for gardening and cooking and books and the small pleasures of the moment. But I felt when my mother died, as I feel now, that if I did not write about my parents the blog itself would simply be silenced by the enormity of what was unsaid. Ian has blogged about the eulogy which he read at my father's funeral so here is a song to my father, as I wrote a hymn to my mother. Here is a tribute to both an ordinary and an extraordinary man.
First of all he was not my father. My own father was in the RAF and was killed in a flying accident when I was three. I remember a tallness, how I had to stretch up to hold his hand. I remember a sense of safety and that is about it. His family loomed large in my life when I was a child and remain important to me. After his death, my mother returned with her two very young children to her home town. Dad's family and hers were not friends but it was a small community in a northern milltown. Everyone knew the story about the young widow. Eventually she came to live in a terraced house built, in a working class echo of a London square, with a large central garden behind iron railings. Dad's family lived in a house on the bottom of the square. My mother moved in with my brother and me to a house on one of the long sides.
Dad was energetic, practical and hands on. He began doing small jobs for my mother, mending things and making things and helping to make her life easier. After Mum died Dad talked to me about seeing her first on the street with her two young children, realising who she was and longing to look after her. This is quite funny when you knew the two of them because, while Mum was undoubtedly struggling with her loss at that time, she was a person of great inner strength, not a natural damsel in distress. She was young, beautiful and alone. He fell in love with her and he fell hard. "There was never anyone else for me" he said in those weeks after she died when I stayed to look after him, the MND already biting deep. My mother and I were close and we had talked about all sorts of times in her life over the years. Dad didn't talk much about feelings except at that time of loss and, occasionally, in the two years that followed as his illness progressed. I am glad I had that time. In the immediate aftermath of Mum's death, his talking to me about my mother was painful because it was as though he almost mixed me up with her in those first shocking days. He would come to look for me if I sat in her room or talk to me when I helped him to bed. But that period means now that I know him and see him in a way that I would not have done without it.
They married when I was five and my brother was three. Mum told me later that he had moved too fast for her and that, while she loved his energy and cheerfulness and his wholehearted commitment to her, it was only years later that she realised that she would have needed five or more years to pass after the death of her first husband before she regained anything like her old sense of self. Dad thought any reservations she had were to do with the difficulties of taking on a ready made family. He had clearly thought about that long and hard himself. "I wouldn't have married Mum if I hadn't been absolutely sure I could love you and Paul properly" he told me. And he did. He wasn't a man to examine himself and analyse his actions. He decided what was right to do and he did it. He decided he would love us as if we were his own and I truly believe that he did. Even the birth of his own child, my sister, made no difference at all to my sense that he loved us all, we all mattered just the same. Had it been me I would always have been examining myself, poking at the issue to see if I was really doing what I was aiming to do. Dad just got on with it. I admire him for that.
Throughout my childhood and adolescence much of my relationship with Dad was defined for me by my sense that he was not my father. I do not mean by this that I did not love him. I did. I knew he loved me too. I relied upon him and doubtless took him for granted in the way children and teenagers do and he was always there, always ready with lifts, with help, with time and energy. He was a very good father and he was later a very good grandfather. I knew I was lucky to have him in my life and this feeling has only grown stronger as I have grown older. But he was very different from me: an extrovert, a joker, a man with a short fuse and strong enthusiasms. My mother was the thinker, the peacemaker, the person who encouraged me to put myself in other people's shoes. My mother had a natural empathy with people and I learnt from her to try to see the world with the eyes of another. Dad didn't really do empathy. Sympathy he had in spades and if he thought you needed anything he would be the first to help but he was always so busy charging his way through life that thinking his way into someone else's head would simply never have occurred to him. So I identified with my mother and in a way I suppose I also wanted to continue to recognise somehow my own father. For years, until after my own children were born, I referred to my own father as "my father" and to my stepfather as "Dad". I must have been in my thirties when I ceased to make the distinction. What did it matter? He fathered me. He was a loving and involved grandfather to my children. Could I have asked anything more of him as a father? No, I could not. Whatever you asked of him, he would always step up to the plate.
So what else was he, this man who gave me love and confidence in spades? He was adventurous. Physically fearless, strong and fit, he simply loved doing things. I am sure my love of walking and of being outdoors was down to him. Given the choice my mother would be found in a chair with a book. Her adventurousness was of a different kind and showed itself in a readiness to do new things, go new places, have a go, make a change. The combination of the two of them produced for their family a energetic, happy, adventurous childhood and adolescence and a sense when we became adults ourselves that we didn't have to be worrying about our parents or guiltily wondering whether they were waiting for us to go to see them. They would be out there, having a good time, embarking on yet another project, delighted when you appeared but returning cheerfully to their own lives when you walked out of the door.
He was determined with a readiness to learn and a stubborn streak which prevented him from giving up when times got hard. He regretted that he had had to leave school at fifteen and was a natural self educator, reading his way through the classics, immersing himself in local history. At seventy he decided to learn how to use a computer and over the following few years (and not without various explosions and much telephone and face to face advice) digitised a lifetime's work as a photographer. When he put his mind to something he would make it happen. He wrote copiously about his early life, revealing a memory for the telling detail and a straightforward and accessible writing style. He was a generous man, with his time, his energy, his money (not that there was ever a great deal of that but he and my mum had a way of making it deliver more than anyone ever had a right to expect). He was a loyal man, ultimately to his wife and family but also to his friends. He was good at friendship as the numbers who turned out for his eightieth birthday and later for his funeral demonstrated. Even in his last year or so, in a wheelchair and with his speech at first failing and then gone, he made new friends.
Above all he was courageous. He faced the last two years of his life, without his wife, his home and his health with a determination to take whatever pleasure he could in the every day which was quite simply extraordinary. Because you knew that he did not want you to weep over him but to take him outside into the sunshine, to walk with him and the dogs, to stop at a cafe and drink coffee and eat cake, that is what we did. While he could speak he never failed to tell Ian and me that he had a good day when we went out with him and to thank us for driving the long journey to see him. He endured helplessness with humour and without self pity. He loved to make people laugh and to be made to laugh. Until three weeks before his death, and while profoundly helpless, he was still being taken out by us, my sister or our friend Bob who became for Dad like another member of the family. I am glad he did not linger long when that was lost to him.
So that was my Dad, my father: loving, constant, brave, adventurous, short tempered in health, enduring in illness, funny, hardworking, reliable, generous, explosive, patient, always open to life. It does not matter that I don't share his genes. I would not be the person I am today without him. Thank you Dad for everything. I love you. I miss you. Go gently.