My dad died December 27, 2017. He was 96 years old. A month later, it would have been my parents’ 70th wedding anniversary. He’d been admitted to hospital in late November with a chest infection that was successfully cleared, only to be followed by him catching an antibiotic resistant E. coli. It took up residence in his bowel and worked its way up to his chest. As always happens with these things, the hospital suggested he could have brought it with him but I don’t think so. It’s obvious why they sow the seeds of doubt, although I don’t blame them for doing so. Blame would be pointless.
Over a year and a half ago I lost my best friend to lymphatic cancer. In the same year, both my parents needed to go into residential care. I was lucky, they were lucky, because I was able to find them a home in which they could share a room and stay together. There were ups and downs but they were mostly content, with my mother still residing there today. I don’t like her being there without Dad but the chronic pain condition I live with – fibromyalgia – makes most days difficult for me, without taking on the responsibility for the 24-7 care my mum requires. Mum doesn’t think she needs it, not unsurprisingly. I told her, though, the test for me was whether she could boil a kettle of water and make herself a cup of tea, which she can’t. She can wash and dress herself, but uses a frame to walk or I push her in a wheelchair when I take her out for day trips. Mum doesn’t have dementia. It’s her fragility and vulnerability that comes with great age which means she needs care I’m not physically capable of giving around the clock. My dad, on the other hand, suffered from vascular dementia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) for at least the last seven years of his life.
I was the only person in the hospital room when my father died. It was, and remains to date, the only time I’ve been in the presence of someone when their life has ended. His was a peaceful, pain-free death. He took a final, deep breath and was gone. You might think, having been there, going on to organise his funeral and wake, the fact of his death would have sunk deep into my brain as indisputable; and yet, there are times, almost four months on, when I can’t quite believe my dad has gone.
Able to spend more time with my father when he entered care than I’d ever enjoyed as a child, when he was working hard long hours, we forged a deeper understanding of each other that now, looking back, was a blessing for both of us that we chose to make happen. I took him for his hospital appointments, which given his great age were quite regular, and during which trips involved us having a lot of conversations. I came to know my father in his final years better than ever before. For decades, I’d had moments when I wondered whether he loved me because he certainly found it hard to understand me. By the time of his death, I had no doubts at all.
Dad’s inability to understand my life choices stemmed from his being a traditional working class white male. But he learned to accept the things he could not understand, while I developed a great deal more empathy and understanding myself as I got older and just a little bit wiser. I suppose you could say we grew together. You never stop changing but there’s a choice you have to make, whether to evolve or devolve as the years advance. My father and I chose to evolve. While there are those who referred, in the presence of my mother, to my trans friends as ‘freaks’ and, at times when they didn’t know my mum was listening, used derogatory terms for my sexuality, my dad, just like my mum, was completely accepting and old-time respectful.
When someone dies, in many ways you close the book on the relationship you had with them but – and this is important – you never stop going back to read it. You’re able to look back and see what that person gave you more clearly than you ever could while they were alive. As a teenager I thought my father and I were as different as chalk and cheese, the divide between us vast. This was an illusion largely made real by teenage hormonal surges, the desire to rebel and wisdom lacking in one so young as myself back then. Today I recognise many of my own qualities came from my father, perhaps hardwired into our DNA or acquired through a slow process of osmosis. We really weren’t that different at all, both being generally courteous and polite, loyal, gentle and respectful until roused to anger.
I miss him. I miss having to care for him outside the residential home. I miss the smile that greeted me every time I went to visit, the concern in his eyes when asking if everything was okay, even the frustration when having to repeat something three times, only for him to still not hear me. Right the way through to his death and beyond, my father taught me many valuable lessons and helped me. He inspires me to keep going, to fight the good fight as he would put it. His death and subsequent absence did away with the so-called writers’ block that had bedevilled me for five years, during which I output very little and stuck to professional commissions, copywriting, rather than my own stuff. Now I have become something of a writing powerhouse again and I have no explanation as to why, other than I have a sense of my father being just behind me, looking over my shoulder, marvelling at the way I put words from my head onto the computer screen. I tell friends, my being able to write for pleasure and with purpose again is one of my father’s final gifts to me, though not the only one. He’d given me power of attorney to act on his behalf when he became vulnerable and after his death, knowing full well there were others who didn’t think I’d make a good job of it. He and I both proved them wrong. I guess I gained confidence alongside dealing with the grief when my dad died. In some ways I decided to live, really live, and not give a damn about others who would hold me back or knock me down.
Dad was buried three weeks after he died, and I know he would have been so proud of me for having organised everything. A few nights ago I dreamed of him, as far as I’m aware for the first time since his death. In the dream, he was sat in his chair at the care home and greeted me with a big smile. My mum wasn’t present. I sat down next to him and we talked, although what we both said to each other was lost to my conscious mind within minutes of waking up. I sat up in bed then, saying out loud, “I really miss you, dad.” Because I do. Every day. I focus on my mum, looking after her, doing my writing, living my own life, but the dad-shaped hole inside me will never be filled, I know. That’s okay. In fact, it’s really important to acknowledge and accept this is the person I am now. I’m halfway towards becoming an orphan. We all get there eventually.
I’m left with many happy memories, interesting stories, so much more laughter and joy now he’s gone than I ever thought would possibly manifest. I count my blessings and, foremost among them is the indisputable fact that I had a father who loved me very much, wanted the very best for me and valued what I did for him as well. I think of those who don’t have fathers or have bad ones. Mine wasn’t perfect, far from it, and I’ve no desire to canonise him like some sort of saint. But achieving perfection, while something so many people strive for, isn’t what matters. What matters, in the moment and in the end, is love. Yes, my father is dead but the love he had for me and the love I gave him, all that love is as timeless, eternal and meaningful as we mortal human beings can and should hope for. Death, for those who are left behind to deal with it, has much to teach us about living. I’m actually grateful for it.
The photo I’ve chosen to accompany this piece of writing is one I took of my father just a few days before his death. I’d bought him a toy dog, Jessie, to keep him company because it looked very similar to one of his favourite pet dogs, Curly, who died in the early 2000s. I found it in a shop at the hospital. Dad kept hold of it and found it comforting right the way through until he died. Mum now keeps Jessie close to her, while dad was buried, at his request, with Curly’s ashes in a casket alongside him. I like the photo very much. He is clearly ill and in hospital but the picture says nothing about the finality of death and everything, to my mind, about gentleness and love. Love endures. It doesn’t let something as simple and natural as death impact upon its power and the grace and wisdom it brings with it.
Thank you for reading.