Dear Readers, so here I am again,the only passenger on a train heading west to Dorset. As you might remember, my Dad was released from hospital to go back to the nursing home last week, and it seemed as if he might rally. But since then, things have gone downhill. Dad was heavily sedated in the hospital to prevent him from wandering around on what was, after all, a Covid-19 ward. The staff at the home were hopeful that when the sedation wore off he might be a bit more able to take his medication and to build up his strength. They wanted to give him a chance, because my Dad is a great bull of a man, and has been a fighter all his life. But the chest infection is not responding to antibiotics, and Dad is becoming more and more breathless and agitated. As you might know, breathlessness and anxiety can form their own circle of hell – you can’t breathe, so you become anxious, so you become more breathless. They have tried everything to break this cycle, but yesterday I spoke to the staff nurse, and we took the decision to return to morphine. Dad is no longer eating or drinking, and it seems as if all we can do now is make him comfortable, and ease his passage.
Having witnessed my mother’s passing, I know that dying is hard, physical work. I wanted the chance to sit vigil with him, to be there as a witness, but that’s unlikely to be possible, as there’s nowhere to stay overnight in Dorchester. Still, the home is letting me visit (once they’ve taken my temperature and gowned me up), so this is an unexpected boon, a second chance to see Dad and be with him. There is nothing left to say, but the chance to sit with a loved one on this last, longest journey is a privilege, and a gift.
Somehow, though, I don’t want to just remember Dad how he is now. So I thought I’d share a couple of memories of him in earlier, happier days. My earliest memory of Dad is of me washing his back when i was about six years old: we didn’t have a bathroom in our house when I was growing up, and so we took it in turns to wash in the kitchen sink. I remember how enormous his back seemed, and how he was always caramel-coloured: unlike the rest of us, he tanned in the first glimmer of sunlight. It was a shock when I washed his back more recently and I noticed how pale it was, and how the vertebrae formed little mounds in what had previously been a great prairie of brown skin.
At one point when we were growing up, Dad was working three jobs: at Fords, as a part-time postman, and running a market stall at the weekends. He also had an allotment, and some of my happiest memories are of helping him clear the waist-high weeds. He seemed omniscient to me: there wasn’t a plant that he didn’t know, a bird that he couldn’t identify. How an East End lad learned all this I have no idea, but he set a spark of interest in the natural world in me that has burned ever since. How proud he was of his cabbages and tomatoes, his strawberries and his runner beans! He would produce the food, and Mum would freeze it or preserve it or give it away to neighbours. Mum and Dad felt as if it was the pair of them against the world, and they turned to face it together, armed with nothing more substantial than a garden spade and a gigantic saucepan.
Dad left school at 14, and yet his intelligence and hard work was recognised at United Distillers, where he went from being a clerk to the dizzy heights of Overseas Distiller. This meant that he went to a country and made up a batch of ‘flavour’ to Gordon’s secret recipe (kept in a safe) which could then be diluted with spirit to provide gin for the next few months. His first job was in Venezuela, which he flew to in the teeth of a hurricane, and where he realised that the crash course in Castilian Spanish that he’d undertaken in London wasn’t a lot of help in South America. But still, he flourished. My grandmother was dismissive when Dad came home and said that he might be going abroad – she told my mother not to worry, as such jobs weren’t given to ‘people like Tom’. But there he was, and for the next few years he travelled to Spain, Jamaica and Venezuela. My cousin said that, when he was growing up, he thought of Dad as being a bit like James Bond, heading off to all corners of the world with his suitcase. Dad certainly made me think that a job with travel might be fun, and I followed in his footsteps with my love of jumping onto planes and going to places that no one normally went. He faced down his fear of flying, and had more adventures than I can remember – he was in Jamaica during a state of emergency, was knocked over by an earthquake in Venezuela, and would sometimes get stuck for months at a time if the ingredients for the flavour didn’t turn up. If you asked him, though, I think his favourite memory was of travelling First Class.
‘You can’t beat sipping a glass of champagne at take-off with Peter Wyngarde’ he used to say.
Dad was such a company man that if a pub didn’t sell Gordon’s Gin, he would walk out and find somewhere else. The highlight of his career came when he was fifty, and was put in charge of the Heritage Centre at the brand-new, state of the art bottling plant at Laindon in Essex. He would take parties of people from all over the world around the gin ‘museum’ that had been created, and then take them to the boardroom for lunch. He had a team of three young women working for him to act as guides, and he was never happier. Imagine, then, how heartbroken he was when, after the takeover of United Distillers by Diageo, he was taken aside for a ‘chat’.
‘Tom’, said the corporate raider who had been brought in to deliver the bad news, ‘How would you feel about taking early retirement?’
‘Don’t fancy it’, said Dad, who was no fool. ‘I’m enjoying my job, and there’s a good few years in me yet’.
‘You don’t understand’, he was told. ‘I’m not asking you, I’m telling you’.
In some ways, Dad never got over the shock, but he made the best of a bad job. He and Mum were pretty well provided for, and he started to make plans to move to Dorset as soon as he could persuade Mum.
Before they went west, however, there was a brief period when Dad and I used to have outings to a tapas bar at Liverpool Street. After a gin and tonic and a few glasses of wine we’d actually start to discuss things: how Dad felt about the job that took him to Spain and Venezuela and Jamaica, and the adventures that he’d had there. Then we’d round off with a couple of carajillos (strong black coffee with brandy in it) and stagger gently back to our respective partners.
One thing that he said really stayed with me. ‘I just want your Mum to be happy’, he said, one evening after a few glasses of Rioja. My Dad, my brother and I all adored Mum: we were like little planets orbiting her sun. But, in truth, it wasn’t always easy to keep my Mum happy. She suffered from depression all her life, but worse, she was one of those people who are completely unfiltered. So, if I made her pancakes, the lemon juice was always too cold. If I warmed it up, the sugar was too crunchy. If I replaced the granulated sugar with caster sugar, it made them too sweet. None of this was meant to be hurtful: what she said was just an observation, but it could be utterly exasperating.. I think Dad’s love of marathon sessions of Last of the Summer Wine were a reaction to listening to Mum’s stream of consciousness monologues, and were also a way of dealing with the helplessness that is engendered by listening to someone who is in chronic pain about which you can do not a thing.
I think that it is telling that, once in the home, Dad never watched Last of the Summer Wine again: he was much more interested in what was going on around him and, once Mum died, he no longer had to worry about her. His last year in the home has been so much better than I could ever have expected: he has been cheerful, engaged and really seemed to feel that he was at home. This, too, is a blessing.
None of this, though, is to take away from the ferocious love that Mum and Dad had for one another. For all the gripes, all the sighs and shaking of heads, they were inseparable. I believe that if Dad hadn’t had dementia, he wouldn’t have survived Mum’s passing, and there is no way that she would have managed without him. They were entangled like conjoined twins, and it was impossible to imagine them apart.
Dad could put his foot in it too – I once did a five-course dinner party for Dad, Mum and my brother, and Dad announced that he’d have been just as happy with egg and chips, at which point I burst into tears. Mum made him ring me later to apologise, and very contrite he was too. But now, all these years later, I recognise that he was right: what was important about those occasions was the chance for us to get together and talk, not the precision of the presentation or the complexity of the food. I have enjoyed meals at the nursing home with Dad as much as if they’d been Michelin-starred, because every visit has been precious. I remember thinking how grown-up I was back in the days of the dinner parties, but I wonder if we ever really do achieve the perfect degree of maturity, because I feel as if I’m finally an adult now, at sixty, and yet I wonder how I’ll feel, looking back, if I’m lucky enough to reach seventy.
Ah Dad. You did so much in your 84 years, and yet it’s never enough, is it. We fight so hard for one last sunrise, one last trip to the seaside, one last kiss. I so wanted another summer so we could go to Weymouth and I could push you along the seafront in your wheelchair, a Mr Whippee ice cream running down your arm. I wanted to find you another tapas bar and get you mildly drunk on carajillos. I suspect that you won’t go gently into that good night, and that your fight won’t make your last few days easy for you or for me. But it would be entirely in keeping with how you’ve lived your whole life, and so I’ll stand in the ring with you, for as long as I’m allowed.