“Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls. The most massive characters are seared with scars.” Kahlil Gibran
I was in Egypt when my father arrived in a dream for the first time since his death two months earlier.
I awoke with a jolt. Sadness rose up within me as the dark hotel room, illuminated by the bluish light of the TV screen, came into focus through a well of tears. The thin, white curtain blew inward from the open window in the dim corner of the room like a ghost. One of those international news channels was reporting on breaking news, its sound turned down but still audible. Nelson Mandela was dead.
I sat up. A multitude of talking heads, from the worlds of politics, science and the arts were all giving their views on the great man and his legacy. A preponderance of obsequious sound bites were being eulogized in somber tones as images of Mandela through the ages were flashed on screen. I watched silently, thinking, in my half-conscious inertia, how such high praise could be applied equally to many people really, less internationally notable, more ordinary, not least my own father.
He may not have been instrumental in emboldening the vigour of an entire nation, and liberating them of racial division. Nor was he venerated by millions for bringing to fruition a dream of a democratic and free society in which everyone could live together equally and in harmony.
But like Mandela, what my Dad was, especially toward the end, was a figure of great dignity in the face of cruel adversity. My pride in his quiet bravery has a luminosity that makes me want to write pages in his honour.
Although occasional parsimony became a running gag, with him there were no signs of personal avarice. His satisfaction came from giving. I recall the time he transported from the North all the way to London a huge fireplace surround he’d bought me, almost breaking his back carrying it up the stairs to my flat. He was pleased as punch when it was finally installed and alight in my lounge.
He’d give us anything we asked for, and expected nothing in return. That was his thing. I’d often return from work to find countless chores around the flat completed. And before he died he sent me out to buy the best computer I could find for my writing. The abiding impression is of enormous kindness.
He was a unifying figure also, a leveller; the great conciliator – especially in rare moments of family rift or estrangement. A true original, it was his warm, scouse wit that got him through. But he was a flawed man also, as all men are flawed.
I can’t ever foresee a time when we will never not miss him so acutely that the mere thought of him makes suddenly heavier that burden of sorrow of which all grievers carry and which is now incontrovertibly fastened to us. This much I know.
When he died, I voraciously collected all the books and texts that I could possibly secure on death and grief in the hope that they would prove epiphanic in my sadness and make bearable that silent devastation. I stalled somewhat at The Tibetan Book of the Living and Dying. At 750 pages long I knew it would be me dying, of boredom, had I continued with it.
I palmed some off on mum, but she swiftly packed them away in the cupboard with all the other pointless papery ephemera, choosing instead, in her new found ‘presence of absence’ to follow her own chosen voyage into grief, as have the innumerable widows before her.
The king and Queen of England
My parents came as a pair. It was all we knew. Now there’s a piece of the jigsaw missing. The puzzle is incomplete and always will be.
In his book Levels of Life, Julian Barnes says when you put two people together and one is taken away, “what is taken away is greater than the sum of what was there. This may not be mathematically possible; but it is emotionally possible.”
What remains is grief. Grief occupies the space, somewhat illegitimately, left by the departed. Sometimes you have to live, almost dwell, in the grief if you ever want to get over it. It’s no good running away from it, or even side-stepping from it. It will only come and find you. Maybe not now, or next month. But maybe in years to come. And then will exert a more extreme and powerful influence than it would if faced immediately. One can, in time, find what Robert Burns described as ‘the shining light between dark and dark.’ I’m sure my mum can find it. I’m certain I can. But first…..
There is no cure for the pain of grief, other than to avoid love in the first place, to not yield to the temptation to couple, and instead to disable that longing to create together 'a tapestry of a life that cannot be replicated.' Although then such a conscious choice to shut it out exacts an even greater loss.
As CS Lewis wrote: “As soon as we are fully conscious, we discover loneliness. We need others, physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves.”
So ultimately for those of us who don’t love, we never bear any true understanding of the self. For those that do, grief is the price we pay for intimacy.
A half a century; 50 years; over five decades; That’s how long my folks were together; in it, it seemed, for the long haul, unlike the transient relationships of the modern age when divorce is the easy option for the restless and those self-assured enough to believe they could find someone better. It seems then a betrayal of the highest order that it was not another human being that took away one from the other, or their own restlessness, but a wretched disease.
The Swiftest Decline
The chronology of the cancer is nonlinear; a jumbled, slow reveal of pain. It is a trial of the stoic and the brave, excruciating to both soul and body. Who is ever ready for their own death? Who is ever reconciled to the idea? My father, I’m certain, wasn’t.
In the beginning, chemotherapy was our only hope and we latched on to it in desperation. He saw it, optimistically, as a lifeline, so determined was he at the start not to let it beat him. For the dying, an overwhelming instinct for survival must kick in. But for their loved ones, and I thought of this often, what emerges is the slow preparation for letting go, despite how sad that can be.
In hindsight, although the treatment prolonged his life, it also wholly diminished it, destroying what valuable time he had left with us until all hope of reprieve from its lethal influence was lost. It was lose lose.
Like Dante, he went to hell and back in that last year. Toward the end he could barely stay awake, and when not asleep would shuffle around the flat where once he strode. It was a time of hard truths and glimmers of false hopes. But above all else, there was to be no happy ending – age is the final betrayal.
As anyone who has experienced it knows, life becomes a series of awful shocks and emergencies; incident precedes incident, marking the vicissitude of the ghastly situation. Every miserable development is dreaded but gradually accepted. There were falls, dead sleeps requiring ambulances, blood clots (which necessitated daily injections which my mother diligently administered until there was no longer sufficient flesh to inject.)
The efficiency in which marked his deterioration was astonishing and shocked everyone. His spirit faltered. As did ours. At times his private agony was difficult to encompass, though for the first time in my life his vulnerability was frighteningly apparent. I saw him fearful and frail. Cancer was a vengeful monster laying waste to the family we knew and the father we loved.
In Africa, circumcision ceremonies, or Ukwaluka, are a rite of passage for teenage boys. Sat side by side, naked below the waist with legs splayed, they wait anxiously while the ingcici, wielding his assegai - a fighting spear - goes from one boy to the next to carry out the cruelest cut. At the precise moment said cut is delivered, in accordance with Xhosa tradition, the victim is urged to shout out Ndiyindoda.
This tribal battle cry would be to signify strength and stem the shock; to avoid flinching, and to resist the urge for tears. It heralds the reaching of adulthood, and translates to - I am a man.
For to be a man, tears are not allowed. Where a boy may cry, a man must suffer in silence. It is the natural order of things, particularly for men from that buttoned-up era from which my Dad belonged. And so it was, he swept away the anguish with a broom of inevitability. Hiding the pain became a way of life for him.
To think that this vital man, who only 18 months prior was joyfully doing somersaults into my sister’s pool, should have been struck down and in such suffering, and then look at the shabby ones, much older than he, shuffling along outside, or the drunks and the criminals, nefariously carrying on, leads me to distressful and adolescent cryings-out against something or other. I scarcely know what.
"Why should dog, a horse, a rat have life, And thou no breath at all?"
So unbearable is the sadness I feel now that his last months were spent in the strangulating grip of such an illness, and one which would dominate every part of his body, denying him of all vitality, robbing him slowly of every pleasure, every activity and all independence until this malign bastard had done its dirty work, stopped toying with him and allowed him to go.
The dressing gown
In the months after he died, the first thing I turned to was his guitar, hoping to secure his presence again through the familiar melancholy tone of its gnarled steel strings.
The traces of the departed are boundless and provide a drip feed of sadness and memories; a pair of dusty shoes in the wardrobe; the cancer cup at the back of the kitchen cupboard; the cardigan on the back of the chair; a favourite song of his coming on the radio.
"I hear the train a-comin', It's rolling round the bend, And I ain't seen the sunshine since I don't know when."
On the back of the bathroom door hangs forlornly his tatty dressing gown like the soiled armour of a conquered king who met his untimely end on some inhospitable battlefield. I stare at it sometimes when on the lavatory. This piece of clothing, with frayed sleeves and hard stains, becomes both symbolic and allegorical of the journey in which he and us all went on in order to arrive here; him gone, and us bereft.
Father and son
I hope he forgave me in the end for not being the son he would’ve preferred. In his last book, Howard Jacobson believed his father had made peace with the fact he was not the easy-going rough-around-the-edges son he would have liked, and from a practical point of view, could have done with.
I had been shy, arty and introspective, sensitive and highly strung. My sister was more rough and tumble, laddish and straightforward. They once even hired motorcycles to go riding over Sydney Harbour Bridge together. I’m sure he was delighted with that. I don’t recall ever asking. Hers was the confident and outgoing personality my dad had been looking for in a child. I know this, and yet I do not know this.
He mellowed with age as I matured, and so, any early teething problems to our relationship improved and he became the cornerstone upon which I came to rely and depend on as the years passed.
He expressed surprise once, toward the end, when I reminded him of the regular walks he’d take me on when I was a child. We’d often go and see the trains from on the railway bridge near our house. I loved the anticipation of waiting for them to magically appear from below us and speed up the tracks to the city, sometimes sounding their horn and startling us both. He was delighted that I was in receipt of this memory, as if relieved that I would take with me at least something in which only him and I had enjoyed together. There was little else.
Recently, Flander and Swann’s Slow Train song played on a late night radio show, and immediately I felt the whoosh of reverie at our walks. Looking back it feels like it was a regular thing for us throughout childhood though in all likelihood, was only a handful of times. But they’re memories of the small things I’ll certainly treasure, and now make me see how dreadfully fond of him I was.
“We won’t be meeting again, On the Slow Train, They’ve all passed out of our lives, On the Slow Train.”
Even now, I find myself talking to him even more now. This is strange, as we never really talked when he was alive. We enjoyed each other’s company, but neither of us were good with the chat, to each other at least. We had nothing in common, except blood and genes. I used to think he’d rather talk to anyone else, even the Algerian street sweep, than with us. Though oddly he would be great on the phone to me. It was as if the distance would embolden his resolve to speak authoritatively and with a fatherly wisdom, the like of which had developed over years rather than having formed in a moment, perfectly. He'd happily speak down the line for ages, like a sage, or wise shaman. Or like, just a father to a son.
I wanted to speak to him more during his illness about how I felt, or what he felt. I knew it would be my last chance. But I didn’t want to raise from dormant that white elephant which I knew would overshadow the room.
Silence is so often synonymous with fear and while his dignified silence on the matter was a noble stance to take, it stopped us from saying so much more. By not speaking about it, I'm certain he believed it wasn’t going to happen. But as Aldous Huxley once said: "Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored". I wish we’d had that conversation. I wanted to tell him how much I would miss him. It's too late now.
When someone who loves you dies, does the love die with it? Or does it transmute, remain in spirit, or translate elsewhere? Although my dad didn’t always like me. I’m certain his love for me was unwavering. I suppose, in the end, given the reserve that existed between us, I didn’t need to say anthing. Instead I wrote what I needed in a Father’s Day card, the last, it turned out, I’d ever need to send.
The blue wings of magpies
For a time I had the idea to write a play based upon some of the dialogue I exchanged with the numerous cab drivers who delivered me back and forth between my parent’s home and Lime Street train station in that final 12 months. It would be a darkly comical yet serious meditation on family, loss, death, growing up and growing old. The cabbies became a springboard for all my swirling, howling emotions; the uncertainty of arriving home and not knowing what awaited me, or else the abject sadness of leaving every Sunday having said what I believed to be my last goodbye.
One cabbie, who compared my dad’s battle with his own late mother’s plight, declared nonchalantly, “He’ll be dead before Christmas”. So brazen was the announcement that he could’ve been talking about some nameless person in a news story across the world. I looked to the handles of my rucksack, and then the inviting pink corpulence of his neck and considered strangulation. My mother, however, had enough on her plate so I refrained.
But he was right. The morning he died was a glorious sunny Sunday morning in September. “This was not judgment day – but morning. Morning: excellent and fair.” We’d hosted an endless stream of hatchet-faced district nurses over the last shattering week. In pairs they had arrived, all neutered empathy and disinterest, and had left just as quick after furtively scribbling their every soporific action in their folders. Rather than appear as angels of care, they became, particularly in the half-light of the early hours, mistresses of death.
To escape the miasma in the flat in which mum and I had been held captive in for several sleepless days and nights, I sat on the doorstep and wept. A boy may cry, but a man must hide the pain. I walked to the dirt track out the back, and in a clearing knelt down and wept once more, shaking, trying to hold back audible sobs. Nydidoda. I then walked the empty streets, the autumnal sun, low in the sky, and tears blinding me.
"Neither the sun nor death can be looked at steadily."
The wings of magpies are blue. Not black, as I’d presumed. This I noticed that morning. Those magpies, so feared by the superstitious, with their capability to make sane and rational people run for cover, or else ritually chant peculiar mantras as if blazing with madness, were surrounding me. Good morning Mrs Magpie, hows your husband?
Can a simple mantra negate the perceived bad influence of the magpie and the bad omens they’re purported to bear? Devil, devil, I defy thee. You’ll see them nestle in the conifers, or stalk the streets, walls and aerials. Their beady eyes scan the neighbourhood like surveillance cameras. But never before had I noticed the blue in their wings, iridescent blue plumeage - beautiful and poignant.
Good morning Mrs Magpie, hows your husband?
I wanted him to die when I was out as I was tense and nervous about it, uncertain of my reaction when the moment came. For days there’d been a 'slight failure of nerve' on my part at the gathering darkness. I’d already said my goodbye the day before, I’d taken his hand and said my piece, but by then he was already beyond the clouds and stars.
Courage, they make you believe, is a prerequisite of manhood, so I suppose it was my duty and destiny to be there. To be purposefully absent would have been a sign of weakness. And so it happened that I was there. From the start, throughout, and at the end, I was there. Nydidoda.
The death of a parent is a surreal nightmare. In those last 72 hours we’d been teetering over the abyss. By the start of that week I knew he had finally accepted what was to come. The pain had become unbearable. He was ready to go. The haunted look in his eyes said it all. There was no hope of reprieve. The reaper had signed the death warrant, and he was being hurried along death row.
Death shall have no dominion. But being privy to it also opens the window for one to confront, perhaps for the first time, ones own mortality and acknowledge how much there is that one does not know. Montaigne said everyone should think about death for at least 15 minutes per day. I thought about it a lot more in that year, and it was the bedrock from which some mighty existential questions emerged.
We’re all just a fleshy casket of cells and molecules, sparked into life and yet hurtling toward annihilation in a gargantuan and inexplicable galaxy.
Us and Our lives
His death ushered in yet another long resigned sigh of a winter. This time it would be more harsh, cold and desolate than ever before. My mother and me were walking barefoot across a landscape of loss, beset by existential terrors and anxiety. We were new partners in crime - 2013 Bonnie and Clyde. This was the new normal, us both really not knowing what to do with ourselves other than get through the days without dwelling, and navigating our minds away from any too great a disturbing thought or horrid memory from then which rear up from nowhere, and floor you with their rawness. This trough of despair shall not, I swear, engulf me.
She acknowledged with gratitude my ability to cope, both practically and emotionally, and being there while coming to terms with these shifted circumstances. A whole year of criss-crossing the country to visit, thousands of miles. A crash course in determination and maturity. A friend told me - You stepped up to the plate magnificently. Perhaps I had. But home life had been utterly derailed, changed forever. I evolved and became the adult. Ndiyindoda, now. I was forced to face up to a changed world and in doing so earned nobility in her eyes.
A lost domain
Sometimes I stand at the window in what was his bedroom, looking at the scene with which became his daily view when his days had become marooned to a bed; when life had become more about surviving than living. What did he think about in all those quiet times of contemplation in between everyone coming and going, while observing his last changing of the seasons. How did those thoughts, hopes and dreams differ to those from when he’d spend days alone on the open road as a long distance lorry driver as a younger man?
Alec Guiness’ character in The Bridge on the River Kwai said: “Sometimes you cannot resist the knowledge that you’re nearer the end than the beginning.” It echoes something I read in a book recently. “I have come to believe,” a character reflects, “that there can be no adequate preparation for the sadness that comes at the end, the sheer regret that one's life is finished.” My father must have felt that sadness, for so long, though seldom articulated it, if at all.
Yet while his dying brought about a monumental melancholy hitherto unknown, it’s one, and it feels like a betrayal to even write it, which creates a feeling where there’s still much to be grateful for. We were lucky to have had our souls nourished by the loyalty and kindness of an honourable father for so much of our life.
There’s also the feeling after a death that one feels more alive than ever. I feel more finely tuned to the world, twice as sensitive and have sharper clarity over everything. I read someone’s grief story and they’d noticed that every detail is attuned to every nuance that underlines the gulf between the way they were, and the way they are now. She added: “The true meaning of life has hit me like a bolt of lightning and the previous version of me now seems trivial – but it’s a shame that this had to happen in order for this stoic version of myself to surface.”
My belief in the finality of death is resolute. I hold no truck with supernatural theories like reincarnation or childish nonsense like heaven. Oh, what a wonderful fiction. When you die, you die. You cease to exist. This is my belief. And I think my dad also expected oblivion. He wasn’t a religious man. Nor am I. But there again, how reassuring an afterlife would be now– a world of light or of deep dazzling darkness where he and the others we’ve lost would reside, unscathed, forever accessible, to have tea with, to talk nonsense with, to reinvent this flawed world with.
In the week after he left, the three of us saw to the death duties with unflinching precision, and drifted through the slower hours in reflection. We browsed shops for smart funeral gear, and walked the rain sodden streets of our city, along the banks of its river with its mocha brown waters, entwined and ingrained in the history of our family, our blood, our souls for generations.
We regaled a mute vicar with 50 years of stories, shed tears at choosing songs for the ceremony, and heaved with emotion on packing away medicines. We argued, and yet still we were glad to be together, in the comfort of each of our tangled personalities. For seven days we rode those highs and lows which ebbed and flowed at will.
One afternoon I take the car up to Cleeves Hill, a 10 minute drive from home, an elevated spot of imperturbable stillness, from which one can enjoy an almost 360 degree view of the North West. Beyond the gleaming electricity pylons and disheveled farmhouses in the valley below lies the North Wales mountain range in the distance, the Blackpool Tower and the Lancastrian coast to the right, and there to the left the Liverpool cityscape over which hangs a mournful and impenetrable dark sky like a widow’s veil.
The loss offers us the opportunity to rediscover our history, family and its roots. I learn of my parents’ courtship. My uncle gave me the family tree to mull over by way of taking my mind of things. I re-engaged with my sister. It was all bittersweet, evocative, vivid and affecting.
The theatre of grief
A funeral is a very public theatre of grief, though supposedly an intensely private experience. It was overwhelming as expected yet done with decorum and a quiet dignity.
A tremendous energy was present throughout, with waves of compassion and immeasurable comfort coming from the kindness of the many who attended. I was astonished at the turnout. He would’ve been too, I’m sure. Perhaps I’ll get the chance to tell him one day. It was a simple ceremony, and seemed fitting. There were no histrionics, no tears or overt displays of sadness. That was left for another time.
Days later we stood under the overhanging oak in the placid grounds of the crematorium, blossoming with life, the golden branches casting its dappled shade over the spot of grass where together my sister and I returned him to earth.
At once it feels like a celebration and a source of unrivalled sorrow. Weeks later my solemn sibling cast the remaining ashes to the wind at Stanwell Tops in Sydney, a place familiar to us all and where my Dad took delight in roaming its jagged cliff-top coastline, especially with his grand daughters beside him.
And so, we emerge from the depths of the week slowly like dazed creatures coming out of hibernation, and enter a new and reordered universe. We hold the threads of our experience and new life like newly-found artifacts, knowing they’ll be weaved into the unfolding weeks, months, years.
Time may deaden the memory of those final gut-wrenching moments, but they won’t deaden the memory of what he was, and is. If anything, time will restore that image of him to what he once was before the ravages of what robbed him from us.
Weeks later, when driving to the shops, past his final resting place for the first time, we are held rapt by an astounding sight which seems to celestially appear from on high. A magnificent rainbow arches gracefully and poignantly into the space behind the trees, into the actual crematorium. There was Dad represented in this most arbitrary act of nature. We drive on, smiling.
Do we still dream?
I wonder how I will think of him when I too am an old man. When I shuffle where once I strode. When I look upon the ruse of romance, and the transience of past loves with a weary shrug of wistfulness. How do we begin to remember, when the years drift by so quickly, like copper leaves from the gnarled branches of the oak of which hang over that piece of grass, that symbolic piece of earth which by then will be well trodden with the bereaved and filled with the remains of countless others. Does our recall fade? Do we still dream?
My mind returns me to that dream I had in Egypt. Isn’t it strange how a dream can prove more reliable, meaningful and clear than mere memory alone? In it, I was a child again, my father middle-aged, still vital and full of vigour. It was one of those childhood summer evenings which seemingly never gets dark. We were walking, our usual route, from the swamp of housing estates, the urban conurbation and out towards the sunlit fields under Tiepolo-blue skies. Just me, and Ince père, two silent refugees, looking for our own little piece of freedom.
On the bridge over the railway lines, he lifted me up from behind, as he often did there, as though offering me to the Gods, giving me an uninterrupted view over the iron wall. My hands would rest on the cold rusted surface, and I’d look toward the maimed skyline of Liverpool, the light ebbing slightly in the crepuscular firmament.
We don’t have to wait long before we hear the rumbling of a train approaching, and then there it is, speeding from underneath our feet and up the scuffed tracks, but this time it’s a glorious old-style steam engine locomotive of verdant green, like the Mallard, Tornado, or Flying Scotsman, its plumes of grey smoke billowing upwards and engulfing us until the scene becomes obscured.
As the sound of the train fades, I hear my dad whistling a tune behind me. He loved to whistle, when he was joyous or content. The Happy Whistler, we’d call him. I’m soothed immediately by it’s plaintive and elegiac tone. But it sounds like he’s saying goodbye. Then it gradually gets more distant, like the train, till I can hear it no longer. "They've all passed out of our lives, We won't be meeting again."
As I’m gently lowered to the ground again, I feel his presence recede. As the fog of smoke slowly clears I turn to him, still hoping, still believing, in anticipation of sharing my delight at seeing the train, but I was alone. It was night now. He had gone.
The curtain blew in the corner of the room like a ghost.