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.