Five years ago today, my Dad died.
The phone is ringing, but when I try to answer I’m disconnected.
We’re standing, as it happens, in Canada, next to the grave of our eldest child, who was taken from us in infancy six and a half years ago. He lies in a corner plot next to the bronze statue of Rachel grieving for her children. It’s a warm September day, and time seems to be standing still. We’ve rescheduled things a bit to make this little outing while his brother is at school. It’s his first week.
We’re standing at our child’s grave and somebody is desperate to get hold of me. I feel not irritated by this ugly intrusion but strangely frightened so we hurry home and open the door to be greeted by another persistent ringing as we step into the living room.
As I lift the receiver of the land line phone I hear the voice of a brother thousands of miles away in London and the very instant that I hear it, or perhaps within the intake of breath just before he starts to talk, I know that I have a parent who is dead or dying. Then my brother starts to actually say stuff. Dad is alive but critical and if there is anything I am to tell him I need to tell him now. I mumble something love related and say that I’ll be there as quickly as possible. I run downstairs to our basement bedroom and struggle to pack.
Then everything starts to fall apart a bit. To begin with, the drawer containing my clean clothes that’s under my bed has jammed. I can’t access the stuff I need to travel. I hit the drawer and pound the mattress above it. I curse. I blame myself for everything under the sun. I lose it completely. Then I start to think about a suit. Do I pack a dark suit? If I pack a dark suit am I saying my Dad is already dead? Am I giving up on my Dad by packing a dark suit? How can I not think about a dark suit. Then two solutions occur to me. I grab the metal holder for a paint roller and use it to prise open the drawer. And I will wear the suit, which is somehow better than packing it. I will wear the suit and bring only carry on luggage – just to speed me on my way. And as I make these resolutions, the phone rings again.
This time it’s my mother. Dad has gone. He passed a few minutes ago with herself and my three brothers gathered around him at the hospital. I tell her I’m on my way.
I prove, however, completely unequal to the task of booking a flight online. My fingers aren’t really working for me. So I decide that the only way to get to London in a hurry is for me to be driven to an airport (the nearest tiny airport) and cry at somebody until they put me on planes to London. My better half drives me swiftly and safely to Windsor Airport, meagre belongings already packed, and once there I’m astonished to discover that my hopelessly clumsy plan works with remarkable speed and efficacy. After the swiping of a credit card and the authorisation of a surprisingly small sum of money I’m in possession of boarding passes to London Heathrow via Toronto Pearson. The small plane to Toronto leaves in about an hour and a half.
Time I need to tell our son. So, she drives me to the school, where I find the principal and ask for my son to be taken out of class. He arrives, cheerful and curious, in the main school corridor promptly enough and he’s sat down on a bench where I inform him that his Grandad is dead and I’m going away for a few weeks. He’s five. He wrestles for something he suspects might be an appropriate response and doesn’t come up with anything. And that’s fine. I will miss him.
Then it’s back to the airport. The airport is both close and the airport absurdly small. You cannot possibly miss your flight if you’re in the building within ten minutes of departure. But I still feel rushed. She kisses me and lets me go. I will miss her too, but I need to focus on missing my Dad. I need to start getting used to that. I send little messages to myself every three minutes. “Dad’s dead – get used to it”.
The flight from Windsor to Toronto is soon over. Even grief can’t stretch its duration unduly. Unburdened by check in baggage, I’d be at the Heathrow gate in record time were I not selected for special additional screening going through another security check, a tiresome ordeal that I have never undergone so patiently. I realise that I must look funny – maybe even a bit dodgy. It would be incredible if I didn’t. But when I’m in the appropriate transatlantic gate area, I phone my brothers again. And I get a proper notion of what actually happened.
Dad has been failing for a while, slowly undergoing intellectual degradation while developing a remarkable degree of cunning when it comes to coping with this same degradation. He’s had various mnemonic tricks to get him through the day, but the effort has become harder and harder. The decisive point of full time care is now in the middle distance, to be measured in months rather than years. But he’s still been mobile. And today, like many other days, he has strolled half a mile around the corner to drink a pint of beer and have some “food” with his cronies. And today, like many other days, he started to walk back. Having just crossed the railway bridge he collapsed. Somebody who knew him found him minutes later and deployed skilled and aggressive means to revive him while calling an ambulance. But he never really regained any meaningful form of consciousness and I shall always think of that spot on the North Circular Road as the place where he “really” died.
One brother phones another. London, Brighton, Bristol. And there’s a scene at the hospital which I don’t yet get to hear about in any detail. But I do get to hear about how everybody, once assembled, agreed to raid my Dad’s wallet and buy a very large and very cheap bottle of whisky with its contents. It is, incontestably, what he would have wanted. Over the phone, I am advised to find an airport bar and buy some very cheap whisky to settle me down. My dad used to stand in off licences and make calculations regarding price versus ABV. Usually he made them out loud.
I last spoke to Dad on the preceding Sunday. He was in good form and wanted to talk about Normans. “Well, that’s one in the eye for Harold” I said, and he guffawed at an old joke that he’d probably told me himself, long ago in a different century. I promise to order him a book on the Normans and say goodbye. Oddly enough (for me), I immediately fulfilled that promise, within minutes of putting the phone down, although the book cannot possibly have arrived in time.
I am struck of course by how quick and comparatively clean this departure has been. No hospice, no weeks and weeks of agonising decline, no “difficult end of life decisions” to be made. He woke up, went to a pub and left this world on his way home. And then, I resent in advance everybody telling us how much better this way was, how we should be “grateful” for such an easy departure. I don’t want to feel “grateful” for any circumstances involved with my Dad’s death. I want the full luxury of grief thank you very much – you can all stick your mitigations where the sun don’t shine.
With a responsible quantity of Canadian whisky inside me, I board the plane and try to get comfortable, wondering if I’ll allow myself to sleep. I nuzzle against the window frame when somebody looms over me and ask me if I could swap seats so as to allow a family to sit together. I immediately comply. I could have told them of my circumstances, but somehow I cannot bring myself to exploit my father’s death for the sake of personal convenience. I just can’t. And the question of whether I should allow myself to sleep becomes irrelevant because my new seat is wedged between two very obese men who will allow me rather less than two thirds of a seat for the next seven hours. Sleep (or the lack of it) is no longer a choice, and I can do without having to make unnecessary choices right now. Since I can’t sleep, I do however take the opportunity to rewatch a rather good 1970s film with Christopher Plummer as Sherlock Holmes on the trail of Jack the Ripper. The recent Johnny Depp film From Hell ripped off the plot of this earlier ripper flick in its entirety. I watch the film guiltlessly, just sending the same message “Dad’s Dead – get used to it” to myself at regular intervals.
The messages aren’t getting through though. They are just piling up, like spam email, threatening to overwhelm my inbox.
As we land, I hurry off the plane, knowing that folks have my flight number and will have tracked my arrival online. I’ll be picked up. My bladder knows nothing of the dignity of grief however and demands that it be evacuated. The obese and blissfully sleeping men on either side of me did not afford me the dubious favour of permitting me to pee in an airplane toilet. Rushing out of a Heathrow gents, I realise too late that my fingers and sleep-deprived brain know nothing of the dignity of grief either and that I am approaching the Arrivals barrier with my fly half done up.
Twenty four hours ago I was standing over a grave, grieving for my son. Now I am grieving for my dad. Something is very wrong with Time itself. But I have no time left to ponder.
On the other side of the barrier is my family. Or what’s left of it.