Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Father and Son

The call comes on Saturday evening as Dearest Wife, the children, and I dine on pizza among the chaos and boxes of having just that day moved house. Mother tells me Dad had been taken to hospital with severe abdominal pain and the doctors do not think he will last the night. My head swings and swims as I scramble to rearrange the flight to New York I had recently booked for late May. The supremely nice lady at BA asks when do I want to travel. Tomorrow, as soon as possible, please. There, all done, and at no charge. Then on to first finding, then packing, clothes. I'd better take a suit, just in case. And a dark tie. Three hours of sleep, then up. Shower. Another call, 9:20 AM Vancouver time. It's Mum, saying Dad had died twenty minutes earlier with her by his side. His heart just slowed, then slowed some more, then stopped. I was too late.

My father had been diagnosed with cancer in October, since when he had been dutifully and diligently following the experimental chemotherapy regime prescribed by his brilliant, yet frighteningly young oncologist. Dad had immense faith in the medical profession, and it was a great comfort to him that there was A Plan to be followed. Yet his was a particularly virulent form of the disease, and statistics were not on his side. A month or so back I had asked Dr Braniac what the prognosis was. His answer was unexpectedly blunt: 6 to 12 months. I told neither my father nor my mother. I thought I knew time was short, but I was not prepared for how short. All this is overlaid with bitter irony as it is subsequently revealed that his sudden death was probably not even related to the cancer or its treatment. A blessing that saved him from further suffering? Perhaps, but I don't know.

The plane lands in New York at 9:15 PM. I have slept, bone-tired and drained, for most of the flight. The airport taxi dispatcher, who looks like a sixteen-year-old 50 Cent, smiles so broadly and beautifully when I thank him that I almost hug him. Warning, emotional dampening field is offline. Direct the cab to my parents' house, my mother's house, my childhood house, the house. Mum opens the door. She's stooped, hollow-eyed, much thinner than I remember her. The physical result of six months having to care for her husband of 47 years as he progressively became less able. We hug, she cries, I choke up. You must eat, she says. I don't want to, but I know I have to. Soup? That sounds nice, Mum. Here you are, she says, your father had some the other day. It tastes delicious, but I can't shake the though that I'm sharing a dead man's meal. I look over to his armchair, padded with pillows, flanked with a now-obsolete arsenal of pill bottles. I still talk to him, Mum says, just like he's still sitting there.

The following week is a blur of arrangements, preparations, and details, details, details. Mum, still suffering from the shock, is finding it hard to focus, so it falls to me, the only child, to handle it all. I hadn't anticipated the sheer volume of minutiae, but in a way I find it oddly comforting, if frequently surreal. Picking up Dad's wedding band from the hospital in a biohazard bag. Sorting through Dad's clothes to decide which ones the funeral home should dress him in. Wandering through the casket display -a cross between a car dealership and Macy's bed department- trying to decide which one Dad would have wanted (definitely not the Reynoldsville Tribune in powder blue). Figuring out how he paid the newspaper subscription. Bumping into a bejewelled Sean Paul and his entourage at JFK Airport while waiting for Roman, my 80-year-old maternal uncle to arrive from Poland. Fielding a neverending stream of phonecalls and e-mails. Gritting my teeth every time a well-wisher says "I'm sorry for your loss" (was a more awkward, anodyne phrase of condolence ever devised??). Tactfully deflecting Mum's attempts to give me large parts of Dad's wardrobe.

Dad's funeral is on a sunny, warm Saturday, a day short of a week after he died. All goes smoothly: the limos and hearse arrive on time, the service at St Luke's Episcopal Church is tasteful and well attended, the last goodbyes at the crematorium are fitting and poignant, the reception at the West Side Tennis Club Dad would have thoroughly enjoyed. I am satisfied with my performance as lector, pallbearer, logistician, host. Yet that evening, with all the ceremony and ritual behind me, my apparent calm and lack of emotion begin to disturb me. I have shed no tears apart from a few upon initially hearing of his death. Am I callous? An ungrateful son? Maybe I have effortlessly achieved acceptance and serenity? Or will it all come out the sides at a later date and plunge me into a breakdown? That night I am confused as I dream of myself weeping inconsolably over Dad, asleep in his bed. Somewhere Kate Bush's "Cloudbusting" is playing and as she sings "I wake up crying," I jolt into consciousness. Lying on my back in the darkness, I listen to my calm, regular breathing. I can feel the hot, damp tracks where tears have streamed out of my eyes and my diaphragm aches as though I have been sobbing for years.

Who was my father? My father was born in 1932 in Huddersfield, England and grew up in Nottingham. After completing his National Service, he embarked on a banking career that took him to Africa, Holland, the US, and Brazil, and which earned him the respect and admiration of many. His hands were enormous. He always did what he thought was right. He held strong traditional values that differed significantly from mine, and this was a source of much mutual disappointment and friction. He enjoyed, as did I, the rare occasions when we could share a pint together, as his father died too young to do the same with him. He loved sailing. He was stubborn, generous, sentimental, tenacious, bull-headed, dutiful, meticulous, and proud. He died on Sunday, 30 April, 2006. He loved me. He was my father. I loved him and I will miss him.

Many thanks to everyone for your support, in all of the wonderful forms it took.

The Smiths - Asleep (buy here)
Daniel Johnston - Funeral Home (buy here)
Sean Paul - Get Busy (buy here)
Billy Bragg - Tank Park Salute (buy here)
Vera Lynn - White Cliffs of Dover (buy here)
Dead Can Dance - The Writing on my Father's Hand (buy here)
Kate Bush - Cloudbusting (buy here)