Wednesday, June 13, 2007


This weekend it's Father's Day. Though it has been twelve years since my father died, I have been thinking about him a lot lately. So the next few posts are all about him. These are intensely personal memories, so if that kind of thing makes you uncomfortable look away. I'll be back to posting silly stuff in due course...

I lie in bed, early in the morning, sun streaming through my window, silent tears rolling down my cheeks.

It is twelve years to the day my father died. Often his anniversary passes unnoticed - or I remember then forget the day itself. For some reason, though, this year, he has been much in my mind.

As I lie there, unable to sleep, I remember another sunny morning, literally half my life ago, in Liverpool.

It was the end of my exams, and I think if memory serves, I had made a bit of a night of it with my flatmates in Ye Old Cracke, thanks to John Lennon, one of Liverpool's most famous drinking holes. I awoke with my first ever hangover, brought on by an insane notion that drinking whisky doubles was a really good idea. I've never touched the stuff since.

At some point when I am slightly compos mentis, I decide to ring home and let my parents know how my exams went. They had been up to see me only the previous week, and I am guiltily aware I should probably have rung them by now.

My mother answers. There is a slightly odd tone to her voice, explained by her first words, "There's no need to worry..." I feel a very big but coming on.

The very big but turns out to be that my father has had a heart attack. He's actually been in hospital since Monday, and she hasn't told me. I know it's to protect me. But...

My father has been in hospital for a week and I didn't know.

And the stupid irony is, that he had mentioned having bad indigestion the day before their visit. We had joked about him not having the steak at dinner. In actual fact, he'd had his first heart attack the day before driving two hundred miles to see me. Not content with that, he'd gone on a round trip to see two of my siblings who were also at northern universities. He drove over six hundred miles in just over twenty four hours without realising that in fact, he ought to be in hospital. It's a miracle he didn't crash on the motorway.

But hospital was where he was now.

There's really no need to worry, my mother assures me. It's only a mild one. A bit like a warning, really.

When I suggest coming home, she tries to put me off, but I'm not playing ball. I have a week between exams and getting the results. I don't have to be here, and I'm not going to stay.

I can't remember now why I didn't go straight away, I expect it was money constraints or something. But I remember spending the rest of the weekend in a daze. I wasn't quite twenty one and my father had had a heart attack. I had no idea what that meant. How ill was he? Was he going to die? It seemed melodramatic to even have the thought.

I certainly couldn't articulate any of this to the people around me. We were young and free and living suitably young free and hedonistic lives. Barely anyone I knew had lost a parent at that stage in our lives. It wasn't how life was meant to be. My flatmate's dad had had a heart attack too, but though I mentioned what had happened, I can't really remember confiding in him. I didn't really know how.

I went home on the Monday, and entered a parallel universe, where my father was wierdly missing from the family home, and my mother was behaving as if nothing untoward had happened. Her only acknowledgement of the undoubted anxiety she must have been feeling, was to comment that she was wearing bed socks, as the bed was cold. I knew she was trying to protect me, but I was baffled too. I didn't want to be a drama queen, but this seemed a rather big deal to me. Yet time and time again, when I met people I knew in the street who enquired after my father's well being, I would smile and say, Oh he's fine, joining in the conspiracy. It's just a little setback. All will be well.

And all was well. After a week, and having reassured myself that he really wasn't at death's door, I headed back to Liverpool for the end of term, where I threw myself back into my partying hedonistic life style, and tried to put the unsettling events at home behind me.

Looking back now, after all this time, I am struck now how absent my father is from my memories of that period. I remember so many occasions of that bright, sunshine-filled summer, and for the year afterwards, when he just simply wasn't there.

Arriving in Manchester to cadge a lift home from my mum who was driving a sister back to London, it was a shock to see her alone.

On my 21st birthday, I wanted to see Shakespeare at Regent's Park. Father couldn't make it, and we went without him.

A year later, when I graduated from university, on another bright sunshiny day, my parents came to see me take part in an outdoor performance of the Chester Mystery Plays. I was so excited that they were there, but the evening turned cold - too cold for my father - so he stayed where he was in the car, and my mother watched my performance alone. In the morning, having indulged in his usual practice when in Liverpool of eating black pudding, he felt ill, and therefore missed coming to the sherry reception in my department, and my mother and I went out for lunch without him. I think though we tried very hard, we both felt all at sea. I can remember to my shame, feeling rather cross about this. It was the most important moment of my young adult life. Was he intending to miss everything?

I am happy to relate that he recovered enough to see me graduate, and I have the pictures to prove it. But it was a strange and unsettling period of my life, and I never knew how seriously I should worry about his illness.

Time passed, and eventually Father had a heart bypass, from which he made a full recovery, and then he and my mother moved from our family home in North London and went to live in Shropshire. From there he lived the next eight years in a great deal of happiness, I think. Once more, all was well.

The years passed, and I had semi forgotten my worries about him, although there was always a slight residual angst. Did he seem over fatigued? Was it wise to drink quite so much red wine?

I am good at worrying about things before they happen, so I dismissed my fears as being foolish.

Then the year before he died, he ended up in hospital again for a prostrate operation. His heart was causing concern so they performed an angiogram. It revealed that the bypass was beginning to fail. He was going to need another one.

He recovered from the first operation, and everything again, seemed well.

Until the day I came home from work to a message on the answerphone. My father had had a stroke, and was in hospital. Again, my mother hadn't told me straight away. Trying to protect me (I was nearly thirty, I felt rather cross that she still felt she had to), trying to protect him. When he woke up in hospital he was unable to communicate anything other then the fact he didn't want any of us to see him in the state he was in. I can understand that now, though at the time I felt shut out, and angry.

As it happened I was going up north on the Monday to give a talk in a library in Tamworth. I went a day early and stayed with my mother - if I couldn't see my father, I could at least keep her company. She was upbeat and optimistic about what had happened. The stroke was caused by a blood clot. His heart trouble was at the root of this. The letter for the date of his second bypass, ironically arrived the day he was taken to hospital. When he recovered, he could have the operation. All once more would be well.

I wasn't so sure. I can remember a distinct feeling that our luck was running out. How much longer could my father sustain these assaults on his body? It was a feeling I only articulated once or twice, worrying that I was being overly dramatic. But I had the strongest feeling we would be celebrating the next Christmas without him.

The next three months were punctuated with trips up and down the M40. One I remember particularly, as it was a rare weekend spent entirely alone with my parents (as I am one of eight, opportunities to be on my own with them didn't come by very often).

My father was an eloquent man: words were what defined him. Words were his bequest to me. And the cruellest part of his last illness was that his words deserted him. He struggled to string a sentence together, and at times I found it unbearable to listen to him try.

During that weekend I sat listening to him painfully trying to explain to someone at Barclays that he had been ill and therefore hadn't made a payment on his account. It was clear from his frustration that the person at the other end thought they had a nutcase on the line. When he finally managed to spit out the words, I could almost feel his interrogator relax. I wanted to weep, but I felt proud too. Father could have asked me to do it, but he was nothing if not determined.

Two other important things happened that weekend.

I've mentioned before, on this blog, that Jane Henry, the name I blog under is actually my grandmother's name. She died when I was a baby, but my father talked of her so constantly, I have a very clear picture of her in my head, and I feel an immensely strong connection. He had told me in passing that when she was young she had a place at Liverpool University to read English, but thanks to a father who didn't believe women should be educated, she never took it up. I was twenty when he told me that and it made me hugely sensible of the privilege I had been given, and determined to always make the most of my opportunities. It suddenly occurred to me, that I had never told him how inspired I was by the memory of his mother, and I finally did so. He was touched to the core, and I feel grateful to this day, that I did tell him. It was probably the most important thing I ever said to him.

The second thing, was something he said to me. Which gave me strength and sustained me for the weeks that followed.

Your mother wants me to have another bypass, he began. Then he paused and pointed to his chest. I'd rather take my chances with this old ticker though. I laughed and said, don't be silly or something. But I think he wanted to tell me, so I would tell my mother, who quite rightly was trying to be positive. I think in fact, he was then preparing to leave us. He had had enough of being ill and hospital. He knew there were things he would never do again. I think he was tired out from the effort of keeping going. Knowing he was content, made everything a lot easier.

The last time I saw my father was a bank holiday weekend. We had been up north again, visiting friends, and we called in on the way back. It was a busier time as several of the family were there. So I didn't speak to him alone. We had had our moment of shared confidences. Then I didn't know there would be no more opportunities to talk again. But even if I had, would it have made any difference? We'd both said all that needed saying. There was nothing more to add.

He was sitting in the garden as we left, not saying a good deal. I think the effort of speaking was probably a bit much. I kissed him goodbye, and walked away in the dappling May sunshine. I never saw him again.

A few weeks later, on another sunny day in May, I was sitting at my desk when the phone rang. It was my mother, and I didn't need to be told that my father was dead.

The shock - though I was expecting it was enormous, and the feeling that the world had shifted on its axis one that I have never quite recovered from.

The sun shone through my office window, as I sat ringing people up, all of them crying when I told them my news. I grew quite impatient in the end. He was my father. And I wasn't crying.

It felt like a block of ice had settled in my chest.

My father was dead, but I didn't think I would ever be able to cry again.


Dumdad said...

"Words were what defined him. Words were his bequest to me."

My father was a writer and broadcaster and his whole world was made of words, orally and written. In Who's Who under recreations he put being with family, listening to music, talk. So it was tragic when a huge stroke robbed him of speech and the ability to write. So many things I should have said to him and never did. He died in 1985 and I think of him often; there are echoes of him in my son.

Evocative blogpost and I look forward to more of the same. Thanks.

Jane Henry said...

aw thanks, dumdad - I feel terrible calling you that, as I am sure you arent' at all (dum that is...)

I think we as a family were very blessed. The last three months of my father's life were incredibly happy ones and I know how lucky I was to have the chance to say the things that needed to be said.

My fil was very active in the garden. His stroke affected him physically, and that seemed cruelly ironic in another kind of way... Odd the way such things happen I think.

As to echoes... my oldest daughter was born the year after my father died, and for the first year of her life she had this mischievous grin which was my father's. She's lost it now sadly, but it was a great comfort to me at the time.