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.
“No you wouldn’t, your legs wouldn’t reach. Think about it. They only JUST reach the floor”
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.