Thursday, 3 May 2012

A Landmark

My dad died this morning. He was 76. This was the end of the ten-year fade out that is Alzheimer’s. You lose the person bit by bit as the disease progresses, disengaging somewhat from them as they do completely from you, imagining that the end will not come as a jolt, but it does. My sister and a family friend had stayed with him at the nursing home for three days. Text this morning at seven: ‘still hanging on’ then at eight ‘It’s all over. x’.

He was always extremely practical: a joiner, a decorator, a builder, a maker of furniture. Yet six years ago, switching on the central heating system he had installed himself twenty years before was a task that completely stumped him. He was a solidly-built, muscular bloke, but when I last saw him a month ago, there was hardly anything left of him. He was awake, but since he has been unable to move or communicate for two years, I don’t know if he knew my sister or me.

Alzheimer’s with Lewy Bodies is a variation on the theme of dementia which substitutes hallucinations for the more common memory loss. Dad’s memory for names and events was unimpaired, but in 2006 the house was peopled with builders, vagrants, ‘that plug-ugly woman’, removal men, wedding parties and blokes digging up the garden to lay copper pipes. He would rise in the middle of a conversation to open the front door ‘to let that chap out’, then realise as if waking up that there was nobody there. Publicly, he laughed this off. Privately, it must have been terrifying. He began to have difficulty standing up and maintaining his balance once standing, and for my Mum he became a full-time job. For Christmas 2007 Mum, Dad and I travelled from Huddersfield to Ipswich to stay at my sister’s in Bures. Only later, to my shame, did I understand why Mum had been dreading the journey. Dad would fall over like a domino on rising from his seat, go wandering off down crowded platforms with seconds to go before departure, and when we got back to Huddersfield, as we alighted from the train he fell straight down the gap they always urge you to mind. All of this he laughed at as if it were some silly fault of his own. This was very brave, done for all our sakes, because it really, really wasn't funny. 

In June 2008 I stayed a weekend at my parents’ as I had an interview at Sheffield University on the Monday. On the Sunday morning Dad had what must have been a mild stroke. We called the emergency doctor, who gained him admission to hospital. It took the ambulance five hours to arrive because on sunny Sundays, large numbers of drunks topple over into their barbecues and have to be rushed to casualty. When at length we got to the infirmary, the ward sister told Mum she had been doing the work of two nurses every day for two years. Back home, Mum declared she would not feel guilty for getting a couple of weeks’ respite, which was the time scale we were thinking in then. I cooked and we sat down to eat. I put on a CD, a compilation of stuff I'd never normally give houseroom to. Jennifer Rush came on. I was about to comment snidely on how much I loathed this trite rubbish when mum said 'this is a nice song', and burst into tears.

For I am your lady, and you are my man,
Whenever you reach for me, I'll do all that I can.

That sudden coincidence of commercial crap with real experience was heartbreaking: thank God I had kept my sarky trap shut for once, or it would have been even more so. Normally that blowsy, overblown song moves me to nausea rather than tears, but at that moment it had real poignancy. I have a heart of mush in a lead casket, decorated with tinsel. I cannot expose the mush lest I become mush entirely. This resolve not to become mush is what has made my mother determined that neither Dad nor she will have a funeral. Their bodies are donated to medicine, and… well, we carry on as if nothing has changed, I suppose. (I flunked the interview.)

It is not for any of this that I want to remember my Dad, of course. I didn’t always appreciate as a kid and teenager and even as a young(ish) adult what a kind and patient bloke he was, driving me all over the place to rehearsals of this play and that, driving me to Cambridge, bringing me back home from Cambridge, picking me up from Heathrow or Gatwick, putting himself to considerable inconvenience, all for my convenience. I always think our relationship was the perfect refutation of the old ‘weak, distant father’ hypothesis as cause of homosexuality. Dad was the perfect traditional male role-model: athletic, practical, hard-working, responsible, generous and fair-minded, utterly dedicated to the well-being of his wife, kids and grandkids. He would have loved a son who was into cricket, cars, football - a son who was his mate. I wasn’t that son. Sport and cars have never interested me in the slightest, and as a young teenager it was I who rejected him as symbolic of everything I did not then want to be, despite understanding nothing of what I was rejecting. I’m told, but cannot remember, that if he entered a room, I would immediately leave it. It hurt him, obviously, but he never showed it. Now, not for the first time, I regret the years spent away from home, the fifteen years in Greece in which I saw him maybe fourteen days each year. By the time I got back to England the fucking disease had already started - early, as he was only 65 when the first symptoms appeared. You should always tell people you love that you love them, they say. It’s soppy shit if you’re a British bloke, so you don’t do it. But you’ll still wish you had.

28 comments:

Jenny said...

A very moving piece, and I feel for you. Fortunately I still have my dad (90 in a few weeks!) but lost my mum many years ago. It's never good.

I will raise a glass of something nice to you and your dad.

christine said...

don't know what to say...sitting in tears ... take the risk of being 'mushy' but that was a beautiful love story.

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks for commenting each. Raising a glass mushily is about the only thing i can do now!

Ikben said...

«Τωόντι», είπ’ ο ανθύπατος, κλείοντας το βιβλίο, «αυτός
ο στίχος είν’ ωραίος και πολύ σωστός·
τον έγραψεν ο Σοφοκλής βαθιά φιλοσοφώντας.
Πόσα θα πούμ’ εκεί, πόσα θα πούμ’ εκεί,
και πόσο θα φανούμε διαφορετικοί.
Aυτά που εδώ σαν άγρυπνοι φρουροί βαστούμε,
πληγές και μυστικά που μέσα μας σφαλνούμε,
με καθημερινή αγωνία βαρειά,
ελεύθερα εκεί και καθαρά θα πούμε».

«Πρόσθεσε», είπε ο σοφιστής, μισοχαμογελώντας,
«αν τέτοια λεν εκεί, αν τους μέλλει πια».

-Καβάφης

theialina said...

Νάσαι καλά να τον θυμάσαι,
όπως λέμε εμείς εδώ.
Γράφεις πολύ ωραία.

Alan Tait said...

I'm sorry.

Fionnchú said...

Condolences, VS. Like you, I admit similar feelings, and, honestly, a distance from such. My wife told my sons after we attended my dad's very sparsely attended funeral Mass: "the people there believed in the stories of heaven and angels and a better life"--leaving my family's contrasts unsaid. I went to teach the same night after I attended that funeral that morning. I did not feel much reason to sit "shiva," and after so many years ministering to his needs and wondering if each paramedics call oor hospital admission would be his last, one feels not much surprise when the inevitable arrives. Same for my mom, my father-in-law.

My wife and I both had parents vastly older than us, and born within a few years of each other, some during or just after WWI, to show the gap...My dad at 91 died two years ago almost exactly, and my mother-in-law about the same age of Alzheimer's a bit later. Like you, it's odd to be, these days at least (I predict in the future with "blended families" and second or third wives less so), a mid-century son with a parent passed away in his or her 90's--the gap that as a young boy was so noticeable never closes, I suppose, so that one feels (in my case) as if my grandparents fathered me.

Allow the time you need, and my best wishes are with you and yours.

Anonymous said...

So sorry Steve.

Candy said...

Dear Steve - my thoughts are with you. Be good to yourself and let your grief do its work.....

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks to everyone for stopping by and commenting.

Cerdo said...

My condolences to you and to your family at this difficult time.

Vilges Suola said...

Thank you.

Bo said...

I'm so sorry to read this. I'll be thinking of you.

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks a lot, Mark.

Joanna said...

Will be thinking about you, that's all I can do. Wish thoughts could make a difference

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks, Joanna.

richard worsnop said...

Steve, tried to put something on your facebook thingy, but it still defeats me. Our condolences to you and your mum (don't know if she'll remember us). Your piece is very moving; I don't think anyone departed could wish for a finer tribute. Love from us, Floredia and Richard.

Vilges Suola said...

Hi Richard, many thanks for stopping by and commenting, best wishes to you and Floredia.

Nik_TheGreek said...

Λυπάμαι πολύ. Είμαι σίγουρος ότι ο πατέρας σου ήξερε ότι τον αγαπούσες όμως.
Αυτά που γράφεις με αγγίζουν πολύ γιατί κι εγώ με τον πατέρα μου δεν έχω τις καλύτερες σχέσεις για παρόμοιους λόγους και επίσης ζω μακρύα τους... Δεν ξέρω ακόμα τι θα γίνει.
Ελπίζω να είσαι καλά. Φιλιά πολλά!

Vilges Suola said...

Ευχαριστώ, Νίκο μου, καλά είμαι. Πρέπει να πω ότι ο πατέρας μου δεν είχε ποτέ πρόβλημα με την ομοφιλοφιλία μου. Απλώς σαν άνθρωποι ήμασταν διαφορετικοί χαρακτήρες, και θα έπρεπε εγώ να έκανα μεγαλύτερη προσπάθεια να 'χτίσω γέφυρες'. Δεν ξέρω αν το λέω καλά στα ελληνικά.

Anonymous said...

I'm a new reader of your blog, and it pains me to leave my first comment on a tragic post like this one.

Whenever I feel upset or lost, I remember the line: 'All shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.'

Take care,
-Ignatius

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks Ignatius. Let's hope Dame Julian's prognosis is correct. I have my doubts sometimes.

Scarlet's mum said...

"He would have loved a son who was into cricket, cars, football - a son who was his mate. I wasn’t that son."
But you were the son he had and loved. He didn't love you less because you weren't the son he expected he'd have. Our children are never what we think they're going to be, and that is just fine - better than fine. You could have been a cricket/cars/football-loving son who was also a complete nerk.
I don't know anyone who has not reproached themselves when a parent dies. I bet your dad went through the same thing when he lost his parents. But stop imagining you disappointed him. Would he liked to have seen you more? Probably. Would he have wanted you to live your life differently to accommodate that wish? I seriously doubt it.
"It's soppy shit if you're a British bloke" to tell someone you love them. I know you're talking about yourself there, but your dad was also a British bloke. He may not have said it much, but he was lucky to have you, and I'm certain he knew that.

Vilges Suola said...

Thanks for that - very kind of you to comment, and you are absolutely right.

maria verivaki said...

i feel your pain in many ways - my parents died at a time when i felt that i could have related better to them

Vilges Suola said...

I think the feeling is inevitable when someone goes. But i'm trying not to do guilt.

The TEFL Tradesman said...

Strange, but my Dad also died quite recently. At least I had been able to see him frequently for the past couple of years or so, having returned from my my nomadic lifestyle abroad.

I saw him, breathless and motionless, on his death-bed, and thanked him for all he had done for me. I pledged to remember him for ever. If my sons feel able to say the same, I'll die happy.

Vilges Suola said...

I wish I had thanked him while he was compos mentis, but I didn't. I just have to hope he understood at some level.

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