20 May 2005

About my father and his death

My father, John, was born on 2 January 1936. Fascism was in its ascendancy in continental Europe. His father, Jim, was in the British army, and lived in Marylebone, central London, UK. Rene had lived with her family in Harrow, north west London. Jim and Rene moved into a flat in Marylebone, and before Jim left the UK in 1939 to fight for his country, they had a second son, my uncle. However, Jim was already married with two daughters. When he returned to the UK, after the war, Jim returned to his wife and daughters.

I wonder what it was like on that doubtless cold, probably miserable, January day, seventy years ago. How frightening it must have been for Rene to give birth to her first child having little certainty about how the baby was to be supported.


Aged 48 years, my father had his first heart attack in January 1984. It very nearly killed him. A year or two before he had bought a small, unexceptional terraced house, in which he was now living, in Enfield, north London, UK. He had recently started in a new, though somewhat menial, office job in nearby Palmer's Green. He remarried in spring 1983, at a civil ceremony in Liskeard, Cornwall, UK, at which I was a witness. Anne Stevenson wrote them a wedding poem that was subsequently published in The Times. Their first, her second, his third, daughter was born in December 1983. That first heart attack was also the start of his life.

My father's final, fatal heart attack struck some eight years later, when he was aged 56. He was now living in an attractive, stone-built cottage that he and his wife had bought and renovated on the edge of Bodmin Moor in Cornwall. He was working as a counsellor and counselling trainer; he was reading and writing a lot; he was able to spend time walking on Bodmin Moor, time learning about the local history and natural history of eastern Cornwall, time on his small-holding, time raising his daughter. During those eight years, he lived more, and more richly, in ways that were meaningful to him, than he had been able to live in the preceding 48 years. He had become interested and interesting, someone who had something to say, someone I could relate to. On the one hand it seems to me desperately sad that six sevenths of his life were dirt-poor, unfulfilling or deeply unhappy, and often all three. On the other hand I am thankful that he was able eventually to find happiness, and also that it was the final stage of his life that was the most enjoyable, fulfilling and personally rewarding for him.

He died on a Monday morning. His death was sudden and unexpected. Whilst his health since the first heart attack had required management, the triple-bypass operation had been successful. He had an ischaemic heart attack in 1991, and was subsequently subjected to hospital tests ("testing to destruction" he called it - I wonder if he was, in fact, correct). However, to all appearances, he could have lived a further ten years.

I was teaching at the time, and received a telephone call informing me of his death. For some reason I was not surprised. My co-tutor assumed responsibility for the class as I prepared to leave. I drove home, packed a few things, and set off for Cornwall: 400 miles, door-to-door. Several abiding images: sitting alone in a motorway service station drinking a mug of coffee, thinking about the bleak telephone call that told me of his first heart attack eight years before; an empty neon-lit motorway at midnight swooping down into Bristol; the narrow country lanes of eastern Cornwall, always so full of primroses and promise, now devoid of meaning, their sole and barren purpose to lead me to my father's dead body. It was something after two in the morning when I arrived.

I spent time with him, alone, reflecting on my experience of his life, my experience of my life with him, this experience of sitting in a room with the dead body of my father, this experience of sitting in a room with a dead body. His body had been laid on the bed, a loving, if practical, gesture, about which there was something calming, and amplified by the apparent peacefulness of his repose. I should have found it disturbing had his body shown indications of pain. I never doubted that he was dead, even though I expected to. His body looked lifeless, in the same way that the engine of a car recovered from having been swept out to sea is far beyond any hope of repair. His body appeared separated from life, like a spacewalking astronaut whose umbilical was accidentally, catastrophically, severed. I could see that my father was now beyond my reach, further receding as each moment passed. Although I debated the issue this way and that, I had no desire to touch his body for I was clear that I wished that my last and lasting memory of his physical presence should not be one that was cold and alien, but instead was visually warm and homely. Not everyone is offered my advantage of choice, and I remain sure, and thankful, that I made the right decision for me, about him, at that time.

We held a public funeral for him in Bodmin one morning the following week, playing tapes of music meaningful to him, such as from Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde. A huge number of people were in attendance, almost all from his life since his move to Cornwall after his first heart attack. In the afternoon we held a more intimate gathering in the tea rooms at Lanhydroc. His body had been cremated, and we scattered his ashes in places that had become important to him: up on the moors, and in the local woods and rivers. Each event involved acknowledging and accepting the reality of his death and embracing the pain of loss. I realise now that inevitable tectonic movement was taking place in the dynamics of family relationships, for since his life had restarted my father had become the hub connecting people. Without him the old model would no longer function. I was also at a watershed in my comprehension of him as a person: no longer able to check things out with him, no longer able to interact with him, in the main all that I shall ever understand about him is already within me. I have spent the past twelve years slowly getting to know what kind of a person he was and what kind of a life he led, both before and after that first heart attack.

Now that I am entering that same age-window, I cannot help but be aware that the ages at which he had his various heart attacks seem so young, premature, and frighteningly close-to-hand.

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