family, meaning of life

And When Did You Last See Your Father?

Late last summer…

He travels to the funeral cross country. The journey from north to east takes five and half hours, involving three trains, two transfers, and a short drive in his sister’s new car. His sister says she loves the car, that she paid cash using some of her tax-free lump sum. His mum is sat in the front passenger seat listening. 

They make an unscheduled pick-up at the supermarket, for a pre-order of after-service prosecco to collect. He holds back in the car with his mum, who gets straight to the point, telling him his father gave up on life and that’s the reason he died. His mother looks straight ahead as she describes a chain of events lasting more than a year – a meaningful narrative she’s pieced together of how his dad lost heart. She recites her story and turns to look at him. She says his father died in his hospital bed early in the evening, alone and in his sleep. He knows this already but some things are to be repeated. As she describes the death – calm, but sad – he sees his dad in hospital. He looks down from the ceiling towards a solitary old man at rest, the figure who dominated his childhood has his eyes gently shut. The mental image gives him a fright. 

His sister returns with the wine and they drive on to the hotel. It’s a large Victorian pile plus grounds on the outskirts of the small East Anglian town. The proprietor seems flustered and under pressure, struggling with his own computer booking system, only seconds from becoming Basil Faltwy. Many people find their reserves of patience have depleted during 2020, it’s perhaps all the queuing outside shops. It feels painful watching the owner fumble with his touch screen. All he wants is to check in. My dad died two weeks ago, yeah, I’ve been travelling all day for his funeral, can you just give me my key?

He hauls his bag and suit up the winding stairs. The long corridor leading to the room is piled with bundles of starched white bed linen as if it snowed on the carpet.  He likes his big room. He pulls tomorrow’s funeral speech from his bag and props it on the table next to his bed, plus a biro for last corrections.

Downstairs at reception, ordering tea for outside in the garden is a production turning the owner’s face mauve. Later, settling the bill after dinner, splitting it three ways with his two sisters, escalates into a till-side epic. By this point in the evening he’s consumed a broad range of drinks which he rounds off with a fat brandy outdoors by himself. On the flagstone hotel patio the night is humming. He thinks of the cigarette that’s not in his fingers. Four years ago there would have been a Camel and his dad smoking next to him. 

He looks up at the dark sky and then down at the hospital bed with his dad laid out in a pale yellow light. His father is serene after all the upheaval. The five months leading to his demise was chaotic, with Dad stashed away in a jumble of hospitals and care homes. The eighty-nine-year-old was a hapless character riding the white-water rapids of a pandemic as it ripped through hospitals and care homes. Buffeted and bounced around, sequestered and out of reach from his family – even his wife – during twenty plus weeks of bad health their only contact was down the phone. Until finally his long months of exile ended. The doctors said Dad could go home tomorrow. The night before his release, he had an early dinner and returned to his room to rest. In the morning, his mum got a call saying her husband had died and she replied there must be some mistake as he’s coming home today.

Talk to the Bishop

After the late morning funeral, standing in the church car park as the sun tries to break through the clouds, the legally-permitted number of family and mourners mingle with the Catholic clergy, as the sombre undertaker and his crew hang back at the fringes. Waiting for the drive to the crematorium to load up, he stands in front of the art deco church talking to the bishop. Both of them admire the decorative geometric lines of the building, the styled brickwork and stained glass. The structure was built in the mid 1930s, says the bishop, paid for by a local businessman whose wife was a convert. The bishop confesses the church is still too modern for some, but he finds he warms to it. Behind large glasses with thick lenses, the bishop’s eyes are bloodshot and pink.

Standing this close to a ranking Catholic prelate, his inner Tourette’s cranks up many notches. Controversial words flare in his brain: sex, blow job, anal, condom, GAY. Stop! You’d die if you said it. Pedophilia, child abuse, cover-up! The brain loves its mind games. One day it will happen, you’ll blurt it out loud, and there will be a situation. 

He switches subject. There’s something he wants to ask. It’s about the closed coffin, it’s been on his mind. In America they do open caskets, don’t they? (In The Sopranos, the coffins are always open.) Yes, but. The bishop shakes his head. It’s not something we do in this country. His head keeps shaking longer than necessary. Maybe he’s upset the bishop, but he thinks it would’ve meant something to have seen his dad. Or perhaps he’s just making drama? There are grey interludes when his emotions are a mystery. (‘I should have to search for a year to find a true feeling in myself’, wrote Kafka.) Must his father be hidden on his big day? It may seem ghoulish wanting to see his dead dad, but it felt peculiar after the service shouldering the coffin out the church, one of the six bearers heaving this heavy closed wooden box into the back of the immaculate hearse, knowing, but not knowing what’s inside – the sole reason for all of this today. What cost now to see his face asleep for ever? Why not one last time?

Actually, he’s already had his one last time. He just didn’t realise, despite all the warning signs…

Last Time He Was Up on the Hump

The last time he sees his father alive is the weekend before Lockdown One. Mid March and Dad has shrunk and shrivelled since the turn of the year. The transition from big to frail is dramatic. Sat in his armchair all day in a short dressing gown, his bare legs have turned painfully skinny. Adorno wrote, ‘life could be more than the struggle for self-preservation’. But just getting through the day is the only thing going on here. 

Dad’s lost his gravitas, even his voice has thinned out to become high-pitched and strained. For a long time, for years, he’s been preparing to see his dad like this, knowing the day must come. He read an interview with Nancy Sinatra about her father’s decline that stuck in his memory. Her dad was this powerful man all her life; a fiery, old-style, mobbed-up Italian-Catholic patriarch, forcefully holding sway over his daughter and so many others over several decades. But at the death all the power vanished. Vamoose. In Sinatra’s last weeks, his daughter witnessed her father toppled, reduced to a wasted figure gasping on life support. He thought that will be me and dad one day. So, he was ready – not surprised, but still shocked.

His sister and him drive up for the weekend. The mood at their parents’ is tense and exhausted. On Saturday his sister takes their mum out for a break and he sits with his father through the afternoon. Now and then, the tubby cavalier waddles by, tail wagging, a tiny cloud of odours. But really it’s just him and his dad, two grown men closely related but not so well known to each other.

His father is pretty much stuck to his armchair. He can’t walk; or has stopped walking. He has an ambulator to help balance, but little strength to use it, and anyway getting out of the chair is more effort than he’s prepared to make. He says, just bring the piss bottle here, to piss in sitting in the armchair.

Dad’s gone coarse now life is just surviving. He takes out his penis and attempts to line-up. It’s the first time ever he’s been this private with his father. The aperture for the piss bottle is narrow and his father’s hands shaking doesn’t help. Also the light’s not good in here. And anyway they have a hunch Dad can’t see much these days but isn’t telling. (He plans to start driving again soon, says Mum, despite crashing outside the charity shop last autumn, the car a write-off.) He tries, but Dad can’t place his penis safely inside the bottle. He’s getting exasperated. His useless son realises he’ll have to intervene. Do you want help? Dad looks at him surprised, like he’s forgotten he has company. He doesn’t reply. Do you want me to, you know? He kneels down close to his dad and helps. He thinks of the Annoying Son – hopes he won’t have to do similar stuff when his dad’s reduced to a frail hulk. (Pillow job, please.)

The delicate manoeuvre is a success. (But without any sense of gain.) They do a repeat later in the afternoon. His dad’s dehydrated. His mum said as she was heading out, make sure he drinks his juice. This performance, this wobbly-wobbly in-one-end-out-the-other is comically circular as his dad also battles to hold the plastic bottle to his mouth without spilling the diluted apple drink. He remembers the Annoying Son aged two and his orange cup with the yellow lid. He realises his dad needs a straw. He texts his sister to get some from the supermarket. For now, he holds the bottle still while his dad reluctantly sucks on the nozzle. 

Then pushes the juice away in a strop. Enough! Wagging his finger. I know, he shouts. His dad’s new voice is shrill.

What?

I know why you’re here! You reckon I’m finished. You’ve come because you think it’s curtains. 

Well, Dad, to be fair… He stops. It’s not looking good. 

His dad nods at the truth, eases back into his chair and falls asleep. It’s what he does with his days, drifting in and out of consciousness. He watches his father doze then makes a tea, but actually wants a cigarette. He checks his phone. Low signal. Always a bad signal here on the hump. His dad wakes and drifts and sleeps and wakes and looks confused. He coughs and takes a sip. He tries tuning in. He says his son’s name as a question. 

Yes, Dad, it’s me. 

He nods. Do you have any children? 

I have a son.

Are you married? 

Not so far. But never say never.

And do you work?

Only if they make me.

He shares a bit more about the current state of his life and then reminds his dad of some family basics. You have four children, Dad. Seven grandchildren. And two great grandchildren. But you haven’t met those two. His dad sighs. I know all this, he croaks. 

You May Find Yourself Asking Unexpected Questions

The clock on the mantlepiece chimes four as the electric cuckoo clock in the kitchen chirrups a short extract of birdsong. Each hour plays a different bird. There’s a list on the wall identifying which one. His dad lifts his eyes from the carpet. He looks into his son’s face. Warbler.

Warbler? I didn’t know that.

His dad nods and narrows his eyes. Those signature bushy eyebrows are wild hedges now, curling in on his smeared trifocals. He smiles at his dad. An invitation. His dad doesn’t send one back, but his face is calm, and his voice less pained as he reminisces about his boyhood and the war. It is somewhere he often goes. Listening to his father speak about his own father, the adventurous chief petty officer, a thought bubbles up inside. He waits and asks something he maybe shouldn’t – exploiting his dad being vulnerable. It’s something he’s wondered about: All in all, Dad, are you glad to have been a father? 

Oh yes, his dad replies, lucid and almost pleased. It’s brought meaning to my life. I know that through my children I have left my mark. 

He listens carefully, hands in a bunch, but his dad has nothing to add, drifting out of range again, turning his gaze towards the dog asleep on the sofa under the window. He observes his father, assesses the sum of his decline, and thinks often big changes upset the natural order. You may find yourself asking strange questions. Who is he in this family, and as the youngest of four, how close was he to never existing? His parents might have stopped at three – forget it, I’m tired, we don’t need another one! Maybe the youngest in larger families would do well to wonder. (Or perhaps, not do so well to wonder.) Such contingency hadn’t occurred until now. They told him growing up he was especially wanted. But what if they were just being polite? Did anyone else in the family mind when he showed up as number four? Maybe one of his siblings –  his brother or his two sisters – considered three hungry young cakeholes preferrable to four come teatime. Maybe all three of them felt a resentment towards junior. (It should be said so far they’ve seemed quite benign.)

What other speculations might he expect now the trap door’s swung loose? Always more questions beneath your feet. Except he can’t go there now with his mum and sister just back from the shops. Soon his parents are bickering. And shortly his mum and his sister start up too, while his dad nods back to sleep. 

That’s the last of the last time, of just him and his father. And now it’s late August and they’re ready for the crematorium.

But not his mum. She doesn’t want to go there. She’s decided she can’t face watching her husband’s coffin depart. That it will be the same for her two daughters. In fact all the women stay back at the church for sandwiches and prosecco, while the men drive ten miles there and ten miles back, to be witness to the concluding movement. 

He grabs a lift with his brother. It’s almost lunchtime and the road leaving town is busy. They talk about the service, agreeing that it went well. His brother taps on the steering wheel, then picks up speed, beige fields scrolling past on their left. 

At the large roundabout, twin streams of traffic head north and south. Imagine if the order of the southbound cars – red, silver, white – had some significance? But there’s no brain space for idle abstractions, as once more he mentally fills up with the singular image of his dad’s last breath. The thought that keeps returning, always with a fright, suggests a difficult idea that must be allowed. 

Heart Pills – Lost in His Beard

His mum’s constructed a timeline for her husband’s decline. It dates back over a year. She told him while his sister fetched the wine yesterday, she laid out her theory. Their local medical centre in the village is mostly good, she says. They do have a policy though of allowing new doctors in the final stages of their training to work as locums, and she wonders about something. For years his dad was sustained by a daily cocktail of meds. He bragged about his pill count for heart and diabetes. But she says he stopped being dutiful. Your dad often forgot his pills. And he was clumsy. Would you believes it, he threw them at his face and some missed. I watched pills roll under the sofa, or get lost in his beard. Silly man, she says. But he got cross for pointing it out, said stop fussing. She now sees his carelessness as a sign of giving up. 

When his next medical review showed a decline, the locum doubled the dose for the heart meds, sending his dad’s system into a spin. His mum says, your father went a bit ga-ga. He lost his motor, sleeping all the time, getting infections, losing weight, didn’t know what day it was. A steep decline, and the GP said it was to be expected. 

By the last turning for the crematorium, the colourless clouds have peeled away. He looks towards a bright sun as he remembers last Christmas and asking, how are you doing, Dad? How am I doing? I’m not doing so well, son. What I’d like for Christmas, he muttered, it’s either illegal, or you have to go to Switzerland.

Early in 2020, his dad kept falling over, both out and about and at home. His mum couldn’t lift him up. He fell out of bed in the night and lay there for hours waiting for the emergency services to come and pick him back up. They told their kids it was a pain, but they were fine. They called the GP. Telling him, this isn’t good. The GP repeated that it was to be expected. They wanted him tested for dementia. But he couldn’t get a test. Then his dad fell out of bed again and this time was taken into hospital. For five months he belonged to them. In and out of different facilities – cottage hospital, care home, care home two, the big hospital in the city – his heart over-stretched, any remaining attachment to life fluctuating. Until a consultant at the big hospital reviewed his father’s meds and said, this dose is too high. They cut it in half, his mum says. It was the weekend before he died. Too late. 

Not-a-Church

The crematorium is up by the coast, but not so near that you feel the weight of the sea. The stylish contemporary building, sort of Scandinavian with grey pitched roof and shingled walls, is situated in a large plot of landscaped parking and is what you might call secular religious: the church as not-a-church. By the main entrance he stands with the Annoying Son, whose beard glows in the sun, while a clergyman friend of his dad explains what’s next. The six men from the family who could make it today will go inside and sit; and after a short piece of music the clergyman will say a few last words. There will be a quiet moment of reflection and after the coffin will depart. 

The clergyman leads the way into the not-a-church and its expanse of sky blue carpet tile. Pastoral classical is playing on the speakers with his dad’s coffin resting on a plinth in a central recess with long net curtains either side. 

His dad died early evening, but his mum didn’t get the call until breakfast the next day. She explains with conviction, one to one, emphatically, what she believes happened on her husband’s last night. The nurses saw an old guy with a clapped-out heart, she says, certain of it. A withered old bloke, confused and lost in his head, with little spirit left to draw on. They did not implement a DNR. But, on the Monday evening, following his meal, they left him to it. Let’s see if he copes, says his mum. They could’ve hovered. Monitored. Fussed. It was only two nights ago he came in with his heart all over the place and a suspected stroke. His mum’s decided that the nursing staff agreed to help prolong life only if the patient had the will for it. That you don’t keep sustaining an exhausted eighty-nine-year-old, on and on, when plainly he’s done with caring. These are the grey areas which grow blurrier and perhaps beyond sense because death is a puzzle. ‘At a time of pandemic’, writes the academic Jacqueline Rose, ‘like the one we are living in today, is there room for anything like a complex reckoning with life and with death?’

Having had his father’s demise already explained in detail, still he finds himself going over it again as the clergyman speaks. He looks down inside his dad’s hospital room. It’s beige with fake mahogany trim. There’e apparatus, monitors, cables and wires. But also a bunch of photo wallets propped up on a table close to his bed – the photos they sent during lockdown to help with his dad’s confusion over who he was, and what kind of family he had. 

‘The organism wishes to die only in its own fashion,’ wrote Freud. ‘But as we all now know,’ continues Rose, ‘to die one’s own death is not the same thing as to die alone in a world that seems deserted.’

Manic at the Care Home

His dad grew more confused during Lockdown One. He was convinced his wife had placed him in hospital while she got herself another man. He said it several times over the phone. A new bloke. I love your mum. You know that? It was a repeated refrain. The first thing he was doing, he announced, the first thing when finally he gets out, he’s going to get some money – some spondoolicks, he says – and buy a new watch. 

Dad, you have a watch. Do I? You probably have several. You’re never short of watches. (Even though he was always giving them away. A man who expressed love with gifts.) And do I have any trousers? Yes, lots. And you’re my son? Yes. Which son? Don’t tell me! You are… Wait a minute. You are… He says his older brother’s name. No Dad. I’m the last born, remember? He always got family names muddled. A week earlier, talking to his older brother on the phone, his dad blew up suddenly, started shouting. Shouting at the older son, but using the younger son’s name. So nobody’s clear who’s the villain. 

Most phone conversations he’s not cross. Mainly he’s excitable. He takes his calls in the communal lounge, which is loud and piercing with the voices of his fellow inmates. His dad talks down the phone while simultaneously flirting with his fellow inmates, with his fellow inmates flirting back. The conversation goes up blind alleys as his dad can’t remember but also gets distracted. He says, everyone loves me here, son. And as if lined-up to prove it, a woman takes the phone from dad and starts singing his name down the receiver, then gives up. They all think I’m the bees knees, says Dad. 

The obtrusive soundscape makes his father’s circumstances seem manic. It’s little surprise his mood’s on the fritz – he’s up, then suddenly he’s way down. I’m not happy, he croaks. I need to get out of here. I miss your mother. I love her a lot. Do I have any money, son? He giggles. I have no idea. Do you know where my clothes are? If only I could get my hands on some spondoolicks. First thing I’ll do when I get home is buy a watch.

He’d get himself mentally prepared for these calls, while his mum had him on to her every single day. Twice if he could swing it. She blocked him from getting a brick phone because she knew he’d be calling in the middle of the night. She says she won’t miss those calls from the care home. The laughing and the flirting, like your dad was at a party. 

During their last conversation his father’s bursts of inanity get to be infectious. Going back over the basics of dad’s life, he embellishes for laughs. And you know, don’t you Dad, that before Mum you went out with Sophia Loren?

Did I?

Dad’s delighted, he shouts out to the other residents. Hey, I used to go out with Sophia Loren!

No, no – No! Dad, it was a joke!

A joke?

Sorry. A bad joke.

His dad sighs. (But surely he realises he never went out with Sophia Loren?) I love your mother, he says. I need some money. But Dad’s tired of talking. Shortly they hang up. At the weekend, the old man is whisked out the care home and back into hospital, and three days later dies quietly in his sleep. Alone. 

The dying alone part is still giving him the chills. He needs to absorb the thought and remove the fright, but the idea resists being integrated. This irreconcilable thought feels crucial to a story that is over but remains incomplete, which is probably what makes it eerie. 

It is possible that dying alone suited his dad. For all his sociability, being with others often stressed the man. Dad would look forward to social occasions only to be tense and uncomfortable and always the first to leave. A big bedside send-off would have been tempting but overwhelming. 

To know his dad died not awake but in his sleep should help. They say it’s the best way to go: frictionless, oblivious to the yawning abyss reeling you in. But who is ‘They’, what do people know, I mean really? When it’s his turn he’ll want to be properly tuned-in – or on heroin.

And anyway, plainly we all die solo. From locked in a room, all on our lonesome, to a flash mob livecasting from Piccadilly Circus, we go out solitary. You read obituaries in the paper – so and so passed last Sunday night, loved ones at their bedside. And though it sounds sociable, like a good death, you’re still dying by yourself.

Weird Seen Inside the Crematorium

      Inside the crematorium, the six men sit on pine benches, heads bowed and silent. The clergyman has said his piece. Nothing much is happening but the weight of the air, and the light flowing through the vast interior. It’s their last scheduled moment of reflection. He looks up and across at the coffin, leaving shortly. He feels he has to focus to make all the sense there is to be made out of this; and must do so now or the chance will have passed.

But all of this looking intently at the coffin, waiting for insight to land, isn’t helping. Is not a good idea. Momentarily mentally something goes askew. The same thing happened at the church at the end of the funeral service. And now it’s happening again. It isn’t a pretty sight. Staring at the coffin his vision passes through the wood to the box interior, where inside his dad is still alive with his head half lifted up. It’s wild and not funny. Elbows dug into the quilted lining, his dad’s head is twitching and jerking in anger. His dad’s in a fit of rage. The fury is a flashback to times when they were kids. He blinks to make it go away but the vision’s insistent. His dead dad’s raging at life being over. Fucking absurd! (Dad never used to swear.)  And what next, anything? His dad, frustrated and scalding. This awful thing we must go through to live.

He turns away from the coffin and looks down at the blue tiles. What did he just see? Where did it take place? Something happened, not in the coffin, but inside his head: a waking dream, a hallucination, a phantom he made without meaning to, a punishment thought of no sense. Whatever it was, it’s stopped. The coffin’s interior disturbance has passed and he’s gone back to calm.

It’s time to leave. The curtain starts to fall across the coffin. He looks on with a blank face – no sign of agitation. Any inner turbulence is imperceptible, or as slight as the movement of a plant responding to the stimulus of sunlight, or the wind.

And that’s 2020.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *