Riyadh: Thursday 27th September 2012
My father did not have a vivid or comprehensive memory of anecdotes from childhood, and I sometimes felt that he would rather not talk about something which was passed. Given half a chance he prefered the practical present or the future: politics as opposed to history. It was not that he saw no lessons or value in his past experience. He was quietly proud of his upbringing and steadfast in upholding the lessons and values it instilled. And yet, he did not waste time on pondering the past, as I am apt to do.
He had learned its moral lessons, and these formed the basis of his moral understanding. The lessons thus learned, that, as far as he was concerned, was the end of the matter.
And yet, occasionally, he would find something which chimed in his memory, some vividly conveyed rendering of a childhood or place which set off a memory.
On one such occasion, we were watching a drama on TV, The Leaving of Liverpool, one scene of which depicts a group of 1950’s school boys in short trousers, and sleeveless pullover’s, sitting in a cinema matinée, eating licorice and watching the latest Western. The camera panned down to their shoes which stamp excitedly.
Later, my father recalled, doing the same in the Glasgow of his youth, describing how the boys would all stamp their feet when the cavalry arrived to save the day. “Because they were the good guys.”
For me, memory and the past have a much more intimate and detailed relationship, and I sometimes feel cursed to be perpetually in dialogue with my own self from another generation. Just, as I found as a teenager, that I increasingly appointed myself chief judge and prosecutor for my fathers values and decisions, so I find, that same self-righteous youth, now sits in judgement of me, pronouncing on my own choices, values and foibles. And, unfortunately, for me, he has a richly recalled memory from which to draw.
I can remember almost everything that I did on the day, my father died and recall explicitly the events of his passing. It was approaching midnight when he went, and yet, somehow the whole day leading up to it, which was neither dramatic nor unusual, has been preserved in immaculate detail, as passersby are captured in holiday photographs.
I have tried in the past to understand why an ordinary day might be preserved, as if my memory had some unconscious premonition that the day would come to be significant, but in truth I can think of nothing satisfactory, beyond the sense that it was the last of the day’s when I had a Dad, when I could draw upon his reserves of wisdom, knowledge and character.
It stands in stark contrast to the barely recalled week that followed. If that, last day of my father’s life is recalled in high-definition, the week between then and his funeral is pure impressionism, lit by powerful emotive flashes of colour illuminating a truth, but eschewing detailed contextualising lines.
The immediate aftermath of his dying was, looking back, beyond comparison with anything else I have encountered in life. It was a remarkable mix of the extraordinary and the routinely bureaucratic. There was the call of the ambulance, the attempts at CPR, the arrival of the medics, whereupon my role changed to keeping my mother away from the scene, and, on a more esoteric level, preparing her for the news which I knew was to follow. A local Doctor arrived with two undertakers, one of whom grimly placed a business card in my right hand as I held my distraught mother in my left. And then a boyish police officer, who explained that he needed to ask questions in the event of a sudden death, sat at the Kitchen table, and took notes as I talked him through the events of the evening; that first pressing of the last chapter of the story of my father.
This initial phase was all firsts; the first shocking sight of a man suddenly and powerfully stolen from the living by the failure of his heart; the first time I had called an ambulance, attempted CPR, seen Ambulance drivers meander across a front lawn, exercising their training not to rush in. It was the first time I had been afforded any meaningful role in a death, beyond wearing a black tie and looking mournful. I had no idea that undertakers removed a body (I suppose I thought this was done by the ambulance crew). Similarly I had no idea that a policeman interviewed you in the event of a sudden death. I am not sure I had ever spoken to a police officer before beyond asking directions or the time. Now suddenly, I was being questioned and saw, that this bureaucratic measure was an automatic response in case the later autopsy was to reveal some sort of foul play.
I suppose on some unconscious level I was impressed that these things had all been thought out, that there were standard responses, a set way of doing things, that you made a call and things started working in the background.
And then, suddenly they were gone, leaving my mother and I to face the night ahead. A cacophonous silence enveloped the house. And I recall wandering who had thought to turn off the TV and when. I went through to the dining room, a sort of study, where my mother was ashen faced. I don’t recall much of the hours between then and the first phone call, except that we drank whisky, which seemed to have no effect other than fortification. I know we discussed our immediate course of action. The people we would need to phone and the timescales for doing so.
This, I recall was remarkably fraught and complicated. Who to call first? This should be obvious but wasn’t. Clearly my sister was most important but it was decided that she would want to come immediately and that it would be better to leave this until the morning. Even then, we had a problem. How to get her here? Would she be okay to drive? Clearly neither of us could drive her. His brother was clearly a priority but lived in Canada and was five hours behind. We decided, to leave it until it was likely that he had finished his breakfast. What could he do in his pyjama’s, about to go to bed. Better to allow him one more night of thinking his brother was still alive.
His Father was uncommonly difficult. How do you tell a man that his son is dead?
I can’t remember all the calls now, though I think I made all of them, personally. Peoples’ reaction broadly fell into two categories. Early morning calls are apt to arouse suspicion and some people, you sensed, were already bracing themselves as we negotiated the initial Hello’s. “Who’s this?” Ah, right, Son. What’s wrong? Is there something the matter?”
When you broke the news, however you did it, the reactions were either instant, loud, shocked cries, or, more commonly, silence, as the listener processed the news and struggled for a response. I think some began to well up but their voices remained stoical, the questions dumbly perfunctory: when did this happen? What happened? How is your Mum; can I speak to her.
From there, my memory begins to fail me. Unlike the day before, so clearly preserved, the following six days are a blur of events. The registrar’s office, the arrival of his brother, the trip to the undertakers to allow his family to see him one last time, the interview with the landlord of a pub near the crematorium as we discussed what he provided guests to a reception and what he charged.
But these memories, I am clear, set the tone for the rest of the week, essentially, the work of planning and delivering the funeral was now mine, with my Mother a sort of high level Chairman of the family board, willing to allow it to be done for her but exercising a protective veto if things threatened to turn in a direction which she didn’t like.
These could be trivial matters of detail or high level matters central to the act of funeral, but the details of these decisions is mostly lost on me now. I can recall snippets, but no more than that.
Only the day of the funeral is clearly illuminated after that; its beautiful, unseasonal November warmth and sunshine and the fabulous golden leaves on that final drive. I recall it all, its intensity and brilliance and tragedy; how everything was invested with meaning and layered subtleties.
There were moments of farce and comedy too. My mother wanted to place a red rose on his coffin when it was carried in, but she couldn’t wait for the coffin bearers to lay it down, and fussed about them trying to find a way in to place her rose before they had finished laying it on its plinth.
Of all of us, my sister acquitted herself the best. She had written a poem and, tentatively, then with rising confidence, she recited it with clarity and humility. Her Dad would have been extremely proud of his daughter that day.
In stark contrast, I was altogether less composed, and struggled through the day until, with the service concluded, a great emotional weight seemed to lift.
And yet the trauma of his sudden passing was still in the post for me, would hit during the weeks that followed and affected me in powerful ways for a long time after. Even now, as the 9th anniversary of his death approaches, I still see the terror and anger in his eyes in those last moments. Witnessing those eyes, those fingers gripping the arms of his chair, turning the joints white and the tips pink, is to witness the extraordinary force with which death heaves humanity from a body. His face is what I recall most, during those terrible seconds of private struggle, (oblivious to me, staring over my face at some terrible vision beyond).
Later, when recalling those moments, I realised that I now saw something, I had never really seen before; the terrible aloneness of death. To recall those eyes is to understand that, in a very real way that my father was alone with his maker in those last seconds. Perhaps he had been alone with him for longer. Although his death was sudden and, physically, powerfully transformative, he had fallen silent in the minutes before, indicating that he may already have been alone, struggling silently with some discomfiture that I was too busy talking to see.
Only later did I recall how my arguments seemed to meet with uncharacteristic acceptance from my father. Was I really so arrogant that I supposed that somehow, the obvious rightness of my arguments had finally won him over? We had spent the last decade and more disagreeing on everything, and our political too & fro was an essential part of our bonding. It would have been a miracle indeed if he would have undergone a road to Damascus conversion in those final minutes, and wholly out of character for a man whose moral core radiated out into every aspect of his behaviour and whose world view was powerfully and unflinchingly articulated and aggressively defended when challenged. We were discussing politics on that last night, the subject we almost always discussed. Is it really possible that I could not have sensed something amiss in that silence?
Yet, deep down I know the answer. He would have hated my views going unanswered, unchallenged. Whatever discomfort caused his silence, it would have been aggravated by my self-confident, claret fuelled rhetoric on the latest twist on forthcoming Tory leadership coup, would have irked even more that I was drinking his claret while pontificating.
And yet, in a way that I cannot really explain, I am glad I was there in his last moments. I am glad that he was not alone, that he had his wife and son in the house. In those long winter nights which followed, when I would be tormented by panic attacks and sleeplessness my fear was less of death, than of the loneliness that accompanied it.
I had nearly been sick when my sister had stated how she had wished she had been there. Something had jarred with me. I interpreted her remarks to be selfish, born of self-pity, merely dressed up as concern. I had stayed silent, but I had hated her misery and the implication that somehow she had missed out.
Of course, I had no business feeling that way. She had been right, and, later, I knew it. Had my sister been there that night, he would have died with his family around him, or at least, as was the way with our family at the time, in neighbouring rooms, alone but connected. If his not dying alone mattered at all, it mattered that she was not there.
In our family, the passing of my father, came as the passing of an epoch. There was no significant continuity between the day of his death and the days after it. A line was drawn. Things that rang true before, fell silent. Nothing was ever the same again.
Each of us, needed to emerge from his protective shadow and find our own path. It was, I think, as though suddenly, the Romans left.
For my sister, there was, is, a special hole where her Dad once was. She is, I think, protective of it, recognising that unless it is frequently exposed, people will forget how much his absence still affects her. As children there was a frequently expressed truism that she took after my father, and I took after my mother, and of course there remains truth in this. But, if anything, since the death of my father, my sister, has turned this theory into a mantra and like all disciples, has corrupted and subverted its truth. In latching onto certain perceived strengths of my father, and emulating them, she has somehow lost the essence of his character and her similarity to it. Her will and strength are pure him, but she has lost sight of the bigness and generosity of the man and inhabits a colder, less self-assured or kindly place than he did.
And yet there are times, when I see my father in her actions, if not her public self. She remains a formidable, at times combative force in pursuit of her priorities, and is fiercely protective and proud. She lacks his deep core of self belief, but possesses a similarly deep core of inner fortitude, which is perhaps why she is sometimes a less sympathetic figure than our father.
She lacks two, I think, his deep charity and generosity, and warmth, but then, she has suffered from different tribulations to him, has had fewer opportunities to live life truly on her own terms.
My mother, more than either of her children was set adrift by his passing and it took many months and the discovery that my sister was pregnant for her to once again find any direction or even to contemplate its finding.
Her life, has been dominated by her relationship to strong-willed, powerful men and with my father’s passing she was left, for the first time, without the ballast their presence had provided her. In some way’s this was true of my sister and grandmother as well, and I became acutely aware of the vacuum that was left in their respective lives without this masculine presence around which to orbit.
If my sister has found men of her own generation unable to live up to her father, my mother has found a succession of plumbers, and gardeners, and assorted other traders incapable of filling the domestic void, and has resorted to relying on my own moderate skills on my occasional returns to the family home.
But there is a male figure who has, to some extent, had the expectations of our families women thrust upon his shoulders. Now seven, my sister’s son, never knew his Pappa but has been raised with a vividly conveyed image of his larger than life qualities. I once heard that some of the best fathers who ever lived, died in foreign wars before they ever met their children. Instead, a uniformed figure on a mantelpiece, their lives became fables, their failings erased, their example an unalloyed good, providing a loving, stable and moral guide for the fatherless children to look up to.
To some extent, this has been my own father’s legacy, providing his grandson with an ideal of masculinity to strive for.
And in part this has been the work of my mother, whose own life has found meaning again in the presence of her young grandson and his triumphs and tragedies. She credits me, although I cannot recall this, with giving her fortitude when she found out of my sisters pregnancy. Accustomed to seeing all news as black, she had been surprised when I had greeted the news as worth celebrating. I am supposed to have suggested that the family had been dying long enough and that it was about time it began to have some fresh blood.
If I did in fact say this or something like it, it is perhaps the most influential thing I have ever said, for it has become my mother’s own mantra, and she has opted to retain the family home, with its garden and safe streets as long as possible to provide a safe and fun place for him to visit and stay.
I too changed following the death of my father, though the change often attributed by my mother and sister is overstated.
I have been lucky in the years that have passed, and for as long as this luck continues, I will seem to them, to an extent, to have risen to the challenge of filling his shoes as a provider to the family.
Yet, while I see clearly the profound differences between my father and I in a way that is understated by my family, it is true that somewhere in the process of recovering from the trauma of his death, I have emerged a very different, hopefully more substantial, but certainly, more empathetic person.
The self-righteousness and hectoring certainty of my youth, have I think, mellowed, to the point where I no longer really believe that I have answers or that anything I say will make much difference. More importantly, I realise, as I certainly did not realise before my father died, that his real gift was not his sharpness of intellect or his imposing masculinity and latent aggression, but the way these were subsumed within a warmth and generosity of spirit that brought out in people, genuine love and affection.
In the course of writing this post, I have recalled for the first time in years, something said to me at the reception, by a former colleague. “Your father. He was one of the good guys.”
And he was right.