Tuesday, 11 May 2010

My Dad

Mum and Dad on a bench in Calderstones Park, Liverpool, in about 1982. Dad never went anywhere without a knapsack and his camera. Now I'm the same!

Mum and Dad met through the Cyclists' Touring Club and their honeymoon was a wet week cycling in the Isle of Skye. That was probably Mum's thumb over the camera lens. Dad's sense of humour is certainly obvious here.

Mum, Dad and a cycling friend in Scotland. Love the plus fours that they all wore for cycling. It was still quite daring for ladies to wear trousers then. This was the 1930s.


My dad was born on 21st November 1905. He died on May 11th, 1992 aged 86. His birthday this year would have been his 105th!

The Book of Remembrance will be open at Springwood Crematorium today, showing his page with the gilded lettering and the few words my sister and I wrote to remember him by. We intended to go but, as it happened, it was not to be. (By the way, my friend's son's house is being mopped up and sorted out as we speak. The damage wasn't too bad.)

It was sad the way my dad went. My mother had been acting mysteriously. Usually so keen to have me visit, she had put me off for two or three months, not even wanting me to come up to Liverpool for my birthday. She cited various excuses; the house was a mess, Dad had a cold, Dad had an upset stomach. My sister was in the middle of one of her divorces, or house moves, or treks in the Pamir mountains or something, so she hadn't visited much. But, had we known it, something far more sinister was going on.

What neither of us realised was that Mum was developing senile dementia and that Dad had undiagnosed lung cancer. Then one day Mum rang and told me that Dad appeared to have had a stroke because he couldn't move his arm. For some reason she hadn't rung a doctor or an ambulance. I got there as soon as I could, though it took several hours, and found Dad in bed, unable to remove either arm, but his legs and his speech were fine. I asked Mum how long this had been going on and she replied that it had been a few days and she, a slightly built woman of 82, had been trying to haul him out of bed each time he needed the loo - which was often, as Dad's side of the family all suffered from weak bladders, and I have unfortunately inherited the gene.

I realised from his symptoms that it wasn't a stroke, but I rang the family doctor, who came round, hummed and hah-ed and said he'd get Dad admitted to hospital for 'respite care', to give Mum a break.

Now, I had a demanding job as an editor, struggling with a minimal staff, due to cut-backs, responsible for reading as many as 70 short story manuscripts a week that came in from would-be contributors and also, due to the same cut-backs, having to write all the features myself. I couldn't remain up there for long, but it was a desperate situation. The magazine would have to try and muddle along without me.

I'll never forget Mum and I heaving poor Dad to the side of the bed and trying to get him into clean pyjamas. He was weak and bewildered and Mum seemed equally bemused. The ambulance came and took him to the Royal Liverpool and we went in it with him. It was dreadful having to leave him there. On the bus going home, Mum admitted that when Dad had had his stomach upset weeks earlier, she'd called the doctor and a locum had come round, decided it must be one of his pills that was upsetting him and had taken him off them all. From ten pills a day for blood pressure (including Warfarin), rheumatism, kidneys, heaven knows what else, he was suddenly taking none and it seemed as if the sudden withdrawal from them all had been too much for his body.

The next day they did scans and that's when it was discovered that Dad had a massive lung tumour and it was this, pressing on nerves, that was paralysing his arms. While we were there he asked us to call for a bedpan and this dreadful kerfuffle with hoists and commodes began, in the middle of which poor Dad couldn't hold on. He was dangling up in the air on the hoist and he was sobbing with the humiliation of it. We left so they could clean him up.

By now my sister was back from wherever, so I went back to London. I rang every day, to be told there was 'no change'. I went up once more over a weekend and saw Dad and I can remember our last conversation. He asked me to cut his fingernails for him - Dad was always very proud of his nails, which were well-shaped and always neatly trimmed - and he said, "You realise you'll have to take care of your mother now. You have to keep an eye on her all the time, to make sure she turns the oven off, and things like that." It turned out he had been 'keeping an eye on her' for some time, as her memory had started to fail. Tragically, he kept asking when he could go home. I wonder if he could read the lie in my eyes as I said, "Any day now."

In the middle of all this I was told by my dippy landlady that when she rented the house to me, she'd forgotten she had a party of academics coming over from the states so I had to get out for month. I moved into a friend's back room. It was Easter Saturday when I had a desperate urge, like something tugging at me, to go to Liverpool and see Dad. But that very day my friend announced that I had to leave because his girlfriend, who he'd been trying to persuade to come and live with him for months, had suddenly said yes. He was scared that having me and all my bags in the back room would put her off (she was a bit super-nervous, like a deer, always wanting to dart away) and I had to get out right there, right then. Imagine the state I was in.

Where was I going to go on Easter Saturday, with all my bags and boxes, torn in two by this desperate feeling of wanting to be with my father? In the end, I rang a phone number in the local paper and found a flat to rent in a decaying 1930s mansion block in Crouch End called Monkridge. It was full of old ladies, it smelt of cabbage, it was on a main road and the windows wouldn't close properly, so sleep was near impossible. By the time I'd moved myself in, it was too late to go to Liverpool. I found out next day that I'd missed my last chance to talk to my dad because that evening he'd slipped into a coma from which he never regained consciousness.

But one day I awoke with the most terrible tugging feeling again and, I knew beyond any doubt, that Dad was going to die that day. But my horrible boss, a whip thin, vicious tongued, hard as nails cow, wouldn't let me drop work and go. She stood over me while I called the hospital. They said again there was 'no change', though I felt in my bones that they were wrong.

That night at just before ten, I had a weird feeling of something pushing me hard in the back. I was propelled out of the house, down to the off-licence, bought a bottle of wine and went round to my friend (the one who'd kicked me out, but had since apologised and been very sympathetic) and his girlfriend. I arrived at their door at 10.10 pm. "I don't know what I'm doing here," I said, but please humour me. I went to get drunk and talk about my dad."

It must have been 11.30 when I had a call from my sister to say they they'd visited Dad that night and had just got back when they had a call to come back to the hospital urgently as his condition had taken that dreaded 'turn for the worse'. They were too late. Dad had died at 10.10.

That night I stayed in my friend's back room again as I was in no state to go anywhere, and didn't want to be alone. And I had the strangest dream. There is some background to this dream which I must explain. It concerns a famous UK folk group called Fairport Convention whose lead singer was Sandy Denny. Lovely girl, fabulous voice, but died very tragically of a brain haemorrhage in April 1978, the result of a bang on the head when she'd fallen down the stairs four days earlier. In my dream, I was in a room and it was full of musicians. Jimmy Hendrix was there, Beethoven, others who I now forget, and Sandy Denny. I looked around and said in surprise, "But you're all dead!" and Sandy laughed, took my hand and led me over to a huge, floor to ceiling plate-glass window.

I looked through and saw my dad flanked by two huge ancient Egyptians in ceremonial garb who were ushering him into the base of a big pyramid. Dad looked proud and somehow exalted, the way he had looked when I'd visited him in the funeral home. "We were all here to help him," Sandy said. Now, Dad, like all our family, was very musical. He could play anything by ear on the piano, vamping a left hand accompaniment, as can I. So it made sense that he should have musical spirit guides.

This story has a postscript. Some months later, I mentioned my dream to a friend whose sister had once dated a drummer who had worked on some of the band's albums. He had told of a spooky experience he had had about a year after Sandy Denny died. He was sitting on the top deck of a bus when Sandy came up the stairs and sat next to him. They started chatting quite naturally, till he suddenly remembered she was dead. She laughed and told him she was a spirit guide, helping the souls of musicians through to the other side. Then her image just faded and vanished. He was shaken up for months by the experience.

It was comforting to know that Dad had help. It was great to see him having such a ceremonial send-off. I am in tears now, writing this. Miss you, Dad. Miss your awful puns, your little poems, the sing-songs we'd have at Christmas, the way you'd whistle The Keel Row and tap your foot up and down while our ginger cat, Sandy, would put his front paws on your foot and bob up and down and 'have a ride' on your toe. Mum would have her sighs and tempers and tears, but you were always so cheerful. My sister nicknamed you 'the happy chappy'.

I miss the holidays in Wales, Scotland, the Lake District. It was always raining, you always managed to park the car by either a reeking dustbin or an enormous, lake-size puddle. The sandwiches would get soggy, your 'short cuts' would lead us through muddy farmyards and fields of terrifying cattle at which Mum would have hysterics and vow, as she always did, that this was the last time she was going to let you map-read.

You and my sister tended to team up, as did Mum and I - the two practical ones versus the two artistic ones (wrong: my sister is much more artistically talented than I am!), yet despite the bad press about you which I got from Mum, the sighs about her having married the wrong man, the obvious tensions and discords between you, I never stopped loving you. God bless you, Dad! God bless you, Lawrence. Thank you for being my father.

Me (left) and my pretty little curly-haired sis, circa 1950. I'm sure this is how Dad always thought of us!


Teresa Ashby said...

Reading this has made me cry - your description of that awful hoist (they rob people of any dignity they might have had left and I have my own painful memories of watching someone I loved being hauled about in one), your poor dad's efforts to keep an eye on your mum and her confusion, it's all so vivid. He sounds like a lovely warm happy man and your dream must have been a comfort to you x

hydra said...

It was a huge comfort, Teresa, at a terrible time in my life. Glad you could resonate with it, though so sorry you have been through some bad hospital-connected stuff, too.

Perovskia said...

Thank you SO much for sharing memories of your father. I loved the photos of him.

He wanted you to be with your friends when he passed, so you weren't alone. I'm sure of that. Somehow the universe takes care of us when it's most important.

What a fantastic dream. I'm glad you had that for reassurance.


Jacula said...

I was moved to tears reading this. What a wonderful and tender tribute to your Dad and the family life you shared.

I understand the hospital stuff, as you know. That last thing I ever did for my Dad that his was conscious was to cut his nails.


Joanne Fox said...

I loved reading this and seeing your photos too. Thanks for sharing.

I've sometimes had dreams where I've seen people who have died. I do find those dreams very comforting and I rather wish they came more often.

hydra said...

Thank you, everyone. Jacula, what a coincidence that the last thing either of us did for our dads when they were still conscious was to cut their nails. To this day, I wish I'd had an emery board. I'd hate to think he had a horrid, rough bitof nail that caught on the bedclothes and ruined his last hours. That dream was so haunting. I shall never forget it. I had similarly powerful things happen when my mum passed, four years later. I think I wrote about those ages ago, at the start of the blog.

Jacula said...

Meant to say how much I enjoyed seeing the old photos, too. I particularly like that one of your Dad wagging his finger by the You Have Been Warned sign. He seems to have had a similar sense of fun to my Dad.

What had they been warned about, I wonder? A steep drop, a bad bend in the road?

hydra said...

Could have been rocks tumbling down the hillside onto the road, or even a bull in the field!

Jacula said...