The first, draftiest of drafty drafts of this blog was actually written around the first anniversary of my father’s death in July 2007. I have taken that draft and tidied it up, updated it and polished it. I decided it needs a permanent home, like a photo on the wall.
Dad had rarely ever been ill, and had never spent a day in hospital as far as I know. Aged 64 he should have been starting out on the last few chapters of his life rather than finishing up his final sentence. Retirement beckoned and both he and Mum had plans. Aged 63 3/4 he was the epitome of good health, so why wouldn’t he?
I look back on my childhood with incredible affection. We weren’t rich, but we were safe and we were happy. Earliest memories are of me aged about 3 or 4. Dad was the car. I sat on his tummy (the seat), his upright arms were for steering, his nose was the horn, his ears were the indicators. We screeched around corners and I screamed and giggled as I fell from side to side. Always safe.
I remember we also played a game of cowboys and when he was shot, lying on the floor taking his last breaths, he would whisper to me that he had left me all his chewing gum (we loved Wrigleys back then, the white packet, and to receive his Bootee was the best thing I could imagine), and he would start to tell me where the his secret stash of chewing was stored.
“it’s in … the … in … the …”
“Quick! Tell me!” I would scream excitedly. But he would always die before I found out.
He was frustrating too.
“Do you know, if your legs were an inch shorter, they wouldn’t touch the ground? Isn’t it amazing how everyone’s legs JUST touch the floor?”
“Daaaad that’s not riiiight! If my legs were shorter I would drop down!”
“No you wouldn’t, your legs wouldn’t reach. Think about it. They only JUST reach the floor”
And I did think about it, rather too much than was good for me.
“Aren’t French people clever, they can speak French aged 3 or 4, whereas we can’t speak it until we are grown up?”
“Daaad, that’s because they are French!”
“But they couldn’t speak it when they were born, just like you, yet by your age they are fluent. Very clever they are”.
I thought about that a lot too.
And as I grew older I remembered his work ethic. As a young man finding my way in the world, I was always aware I had privileges he never had. I had opportunities he never knew, and I often felt guilty, drinking away my university education, acting the joker, doing as little as possible to get by, yet he had none of those trappings.
Finally, I left university with a crappy maths degree yet still fell into a decent job in London. Dad had spent his entire life in Barnsley leaving school to find much needed work aged 16, working in the day and studying in the evenings, but he was still infinitely wiser than I would ever be with my university education handed to me on a government plate. Materially, aged 30 I already had a bigger house than he had, yet he was always “better” than I would ever become. Not superior, he was never that, just more genuine.
I now realise why he was, and always will be, a better man than me, and that’s because he lived a genuinely noble and honest life. He believed in endeavour, first and foremost. His Conservatism annoyed me, but I came to realise it was the work ethic he most admired. I felt like a fraud in many ways because I tended to coast through life. I always got by in the end, somehow. I achieved, but never in the way Dad achieved things. It was like he worked hard and earned everything. He was never lucky, he was just deserving. In my dad’s world you invested to make gains. In my world you took the piss as much as you could, and hoped against hope that you would never get found out.
As an adult, returning home was always a treat – whether it was from University, from London, with girlfriends, with Donna, or with Donna and the kids – Dad was always the perfect host. He was always interested, with an innate ability to connect to anyone, and everyone, at all levels – students, male, female, young, old – he was able to tune in to people.
That was his second greatest quality, his greatest undoubtedly being his approach to dying. He had every right to be bitter and angry – just four months from beginning to end, the world pulled from under his feet. I often wonder how I would (will) react? Badly, angrilly, self pityingly no doubt, yet Dad showed none of this.
I’m never sure if he did that just for us, his family, but he never faltered. Right until the end we talked football, talked about the minutiae of life like nothing was different, although he knew it was different, he knew he was dying long before we ever really understood how bad things had become.
When I saw him for the last time in hospital before we left for a family holiday to America, I’ll never forget the moment. Everyone else had left the hospital room and we were alone. And we shook hands. Father and son and all we could do was shake hands, that’s the closest we ever got to physical affection and it remains my biggest regret to this day, but shook hands we did, northern stylee, and he looked at me knowingly, like he knew he wouldn’t see me again, and yet he managed to remain completely noble, suggesting I remind Mum to give the kids, their grandchildren, some pocket money to spend in America.
He had a look in his eye as he nodded his farewell and raised his arm as I left, and in that moment I remembered everything. I remembered playing cars and cowboys. I remembered playing football with him on the beach, I remembered him taking me to Oakwell in 1972, I remembered his last game at Oakwell earlier that year and I like to think he was having similar thoughts too.
The difference was I thought I would see him again. The consultant was confident he had some time left but Dad had insisted we still go on our planned holiday, like there was nothing to worry about. But when we shook hands I think he knew, he just wouldn’t let on. He didn’t want to spoil the holiday for the kids.
He died a week later.
It’s been over five years and I’m no longer sad. I still think of him most days, and always think of him when I go home and whenever I visit Oakwell, but it doesn’t hurt any more. Of course I miss him, we all do, but as the pain fades, the good memories remain and for that I’m very thankful.
And I never found his secret stash of chewing gum either.