I first met my dad 37 years ago in 1975. I don’t remember much about the encounter, though I’m told we hit it off pretty well.
I’ve been wracking my brain trying to think of a first memory of my dad – hoping it would be something poignant – something I could draw some sort of profound symbolism out of for this occasion.
Unfortunately my first memory of him is of him scaring me witless with a rubber lobster. He certainly didn’t mean to – my dad was far too good natured to deliberately frighten anyone, much less any of his sons – but for some reason he seems to have thought that it would be a good idea to present something with six legs and two large claws to a toddler as a sort of cuddly toy. I wasn’t too traumatised by the experience – although, to be honest, it probably did have some long lasting effect on me because I’m, still to this day, always rather wary around crustaceans.
I remember him as a big man – broad shouldered, strong, thick black hair. For a while he had a moustache and then a beard until one morning it disappeared and when I asked where it had gone, he told me that it had fallen out in the night and that he was a bit upset about it. I think I remember offering to search for it so I could put it back on and dad told me to get the Sellotape. Sadly, the beard was nowhere to be found.
It took me a while to cotton on to his very dry sense of humour that lurked beneath a deadpan delivery. Once I’d worked it out – I learned to appreciate it. My dad was often pretty reserved in his relations with others – like many men of his generation, I think, he was never one for demonstrative shows of emotion. But underneath this sometimes rather formal and reserved façade there was quite an impish wit, a wry sense of humour and a genuine charisma – you just had to work at it to discover it and appreciate it, get acclimatized to it in a sense. He didn’t shout about it – you either got it or you didn’t. I liked that.
I have lots of happy memories of going for walks with my dad and my brothers and Lukie our golden retriever in the countryside around and near to Oakham where we were brought up. We used to like going to Wakeley Woods – and he’d remind us of the story of the giant spiders that lurk in Mirkwood in ‘the Hobbit’ (one of our favourite stories and which dad would read to us at night) just to add a little frisson of excitement to the experience. We used to go for walks in an old disused quarry on Brooke Hill, too, and then perhaps to the stream that wound through fields near Brooke village where we’d watch the minnows in the water. Once or twice we’d attempt to catch one in a glass jar brought along especially for the occasion, but we’d always have to put it back. Dad was clearly quite worried for the minnows when we attempted to do this. Famously, dad owned an old fishing rod and fishing gear that he had only ever used once. He told us that he’d felt so dreadfully sorry for the fish when he first caught one and hated so much having to pull the hook out of its mouth that he decided never to do it again.
That was one thing about my dad – he was probably the gentlest and kindest man I’ve ever known.
As I grew older other of my dad’s qualities became more and more apparent. One of the best things about my dad, I discovered, was how incredibly knowledgeable and well-read he was. It seemed that I could ask my dad anything and he’d probably know something about it. And – this was great for a school kid – he was really really good at spelling and grammar and he didn’t seem to mind reading through my English homework for me. If dad hadn’t insisted that I learned how to use a dictionary and thesaurus I never would have needed one – my dad was a walking dictionary and thesaurus. This continued through my time as an undergraduate studying English too. I remember phoning my dad after drafting every essay I wrote and reading it though line by line over the phone to him so that he could point out any mistakes or suggest more impressive synonyms from time to time. I’m not sure that he really wanted to do this – but he never complained.
As you grow older you need your parents less and less or at least you think you do – it’s not until it’s clear that you’re going to lose one of them that the degree to which you still need them and indeed the amount that you owe to them becomes clear. Watching my dad slowly degenerating with illness was very difficult. It seemed to arrive and he seemed to deteriorate very quickly and yet, at the same time, it was in many ways a cruelly drawn out process. One thing that occurred to me in his last few days was that in all the weeks and months of his deterioration I never once saw him show any sort of fear. I’m sure he was afraid – but he never showed it in front of me at least.
My dad had quite a stoical nature and he didn’t ever like to be made a fuss of. One of the last times he left the house was to come and visit my flat in Southampton and, on leaving, he apologised to me for what he called ‘all the idiocy’ – by which I think he meant having to be carried to and from his wheelchair and so on. It may seem strange that someone should apologise for being severely ill – but my dad had a sort of quiet dignity that he clung to until the end. He wouldn’t express anger or fear about what was happening to him – he was more concerned to apologise for not being able to walk to and from the car himself.
Shortly before my dad entered the last stages of his illness I came across a line from Plato – at least it’s attributed to him. It has a sort of tragic-heroic beauty to it that struck me at the time. I remembered it as my dad got worse. It seemed to reflect the sort of things that I was thinking about, learning or re-learning, remembering as I watched my dad dying.
He said – and it’s very simple – ‘Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle’. This isn’t mushy sentiment – the Ancient Greeks didn’t go in for that – he’s not saying that everything will be fine if only we are kinder to others. He’s not saying that the struggling and the battling will abate or even become less cruel if we are kind. This isn’t a numbing platitude about everything working out all right in the end, or that good things happen to good people, or that everything will be ok because everything happens for a reason. He’s saying that the battling and the struggling is inevitably there and that we should be kind because it’s there – not because the kindness is a solution. The struggle that Plato’s talking about could refer to lots of things specifically of course – and this includes illness, grief and loss. Plato’s saying that, though it’s easy to forget or ignore, everyone has their own various hardships and pain and loss and that this is reason to understand and be kinder and more patient with the people we know and meet. There is a dignity in kindness and in love even if these don’t or can’t end or dissolve these hardships.
My father had a particularly difficult battle to fight in the last few weeks and months of his life – as indeed did (and still does) my mother who looked after my dad at home, almost singlehandedly with amazing determination and courage until the last few days. My dad could not have beaten the cancer but he struggled anyway and his struggle was to maintain his dignity and his stoicism right up until the end. And he did. And he won.
I hope that the memory of this helps me to remember to be brave but also to be kind and to be understanding. And indeed if there’s one virtue that my dad had in spades it was kindness. I hope to emulate him in this.