A Whole Life

Tom Palmer in his early thirties, with our Ford Consul Sunshine

Dear Readers, by the time you read this, I will be on my way to Weymouth Crematorium, to say goodbye to Dad. Even two weeks after he died it still seems impossible that I am writing these words, and I keep expecting to wake up and find out it was all a nightmare. I am reminded that when we first started to discuss the nursing home for Mum and Dad, she would look at me and ask ‘Am I dreaming? Are we really having this conversation?’ and I wasn’t altogether sure myself.

But yes, this is real, and tomorrow will be the end of Dad’s physical form on this earth. He was always such a big presence, and so at ease in his body, unlike the rest of us: Dad prided himself that he could still beat us in a straight sprint until we were in our early teens, and he liked nothing better than to take his shirt off and get some sun on his back. He was a very attractive man, and yet he didn’t seem to know it: Mum’s friends were always telling her how lucky she was to have him, which was a cheek as she was utterly gorgeous as a young woman too. Right up until the end of his life, women loved my Dad: his key nurse at the home told me that he was ‘always a gentleman’, and he loathed any man who didn’t treat women with the respect that they were due.

Dad and Bugwoman on her wedding day in 2001.

Dad and I shared a sense of humour, and I loved how dry he could be. He often could barely contain his amusement at the idiosyncrasies of other folk, and I suspect that we are having a bit of a giggle about some strangeness that is going on at the wedding. This served Dad in good stead at the nursing home, because he never lost his notion of the absurd. He would often shake his head and tell me how confused someone else was, this from a man who thought he was on a cruise ship. When we were growing up, my Dad and I used to love The Goon Show, which Mum loathed, because she could never understand why it was funny. As a teenager I got into endless rows with Dad about the Benny Hill Show, because I said it was misogynistic, and Dad just thought it was funny. I was so enraged about the many things that were wrong in the world that Mum must often have dreaded opening her mouth, but Dad ploughed on anyway. In fact, he was quite fond of saying something contentious and then standing back as I flew into spluttering fury. It wasn’t until I noticed the little smile on his face that I realised that I’d been played.

Dad at the Marina close to Minneapolis

When he was younger, Dad was the most easy-going man that you could meet. Mum was the Designated Worrier, and Dad was always the one to calm her down. But later in life, this changed. Not long after my marriage, Dad developed an obsession about the car, and about parking. He once came to visit us in Islington, close to where he used to work as a gin distiller, and he spent the whole lunch worrying about how he was going to get home again.

‘They’ve moved all the roads since I was here last’, he said.

Now, I wonder if the damage to Dad’s memory that was going to lead to his dementia had already started as long as twenty years ago.

Dad and Mum’s trip to see Mum’s cousin in Minneapolis was to be their last long distance trip. Not long after this, Dad had a stroke, and soon after that both his lungs and his heart started to fail. Being a life-long smoker, he developed COPD, what used to be called emphysema, and his heart’s irregular rhythm was corrected with a pacemaker. Those of you who have followed this blog for a while will know that for the past five years life has been one emergency after another, with Mum and Dad in and out of hospital, on and off of antibiotics and steroids. Whenever Dad had an infection, he would become ‘confused’ – during one hospital stay he kept standing up and trying to ‘go to the shop’, in spite of being connected to a canula, a catheter and various monitoring devices. It was the first time that my mother and I had ever seen him like this, and I remember the cold sweat running down my back as I tried to persuade him to sit down. Later it transpired that after we left he had pulled out his canula leading to a spectacular bloodbath. It foreshadowed what would happen to Dad when he went into the hospital for the last time. In effect, it ended any attempt to give him the intravenous antibiotics that might have saved him.

Dad and Bugwoman in the bluebell wood near Milborne St Andrew

Every time Dad had a chest infection, his ‘confusion’ got worse. Sometimes, it cleared up and he seemed more lucid. It was clear that he was getting worse however. A couple of years before he died, he came home after a hospital stay, and he didn’t know who Mum was. He wasn’t sure if she was his Mum, or some random elderly lady who just happened to be staying in his house. Mum was heartbroken.

‘Do you think he thinks I’m his Mum because I look so old?’ she asked me.

When Dad was diagnosed with vascular dementia, it came as no surprise to anyone. The news was delivered in the nursing home by a very compassionate consultant. Mum heard the diagnosis, and I have a feeling that it was then that she decided to let go.

‘He had such a magnificent mind’, she said. ‘He was my rock’.

In spite of his dementia, Dad was still determined to make Mum happy. Mum wanted to go home when she first went into the nursing home (although she changed her mind later), and Dad latched on to that. I remember him sitting on the bed, gathering all his patriarchal authority, in spite of the fact that his shirt was done up wrong.

‘I think we should get your Mum home, and then she’ll be well again’, he said, his hands shaking.

‘Oh Dad’, I said, ‘If Mum goes home, she’ll just go straight into hospital’.

‘You’re wrong’, he said vehemently.

And all I could do was go outside the room and cry.

After Mum died, Dad went through a period of looking for her, though if you’d asked him he couldn’t have told you what he was doing. I think he just knew that something was wrong. But then, gradually, he settled in to the routine at the home, and somehow he seemed more like the Dad that I used to know: pragmatic, laid-back, wryly amused, mischievous. He was enjoying his life, and I am heartbroken that he didn’t get to have a bit longer to eat pie and mash, to sit in the sunshine and to plant out some little seedlings from the garden centre, handling them so gently with his big, brown hands.

The photo below is Dad as I remember him best – tanned, relaxed, at ease with himself. It was taken in Spain, which is the country that he loved most in the world after England. Like the people who are currently not being included in the Covid-19 statistics because they died in care homes, Dad had lived a full and interesting life and was still making the people around him happy. I heard Dorothy Duffy’s eulogy for her sister, who died from coronavirus, on Radio Four last week, and one sentence has stuck in my head.

‘Her underlying conditions were love, kindness, belief in the essential goodness of mankind, uproarious laughter.

Forgiveness, compassion, a storyteller, a survivor, a comforter, a force of nature and so much more.’

My Dad had a multitude of underlying conditions that contributed to his death, but that doesn’t make him in any way less deserving of grief, or worthy of remembrance. A community that doesn’t make space for everyone is not a community. Maybe this time will teach us how deeply dependent we are on one another, how intricately linked. When someone dies the reverberations in the web of life are felt a long way from the centre.

Rest in peace, Dad.

Thomas Reginald Palmer (5.12.35 to 31.3.20)

18 thoughts on “A Whole Life

  1. sllgatsby

    When I read this, I thought about how this will go for me and my husband. Everyday, we each more closer to the end of our life. I’m an “old” mom, so my son will be quite young when I get to this point. It is a wake-up call to think about preparing so that it is not too overwhelming for him.

    I love the pic of our dad on Spain, with his lux head of silver hair and his air of contentment. We all must die, we all must age. I hope when it comes my time, I go out with the same aplomb that he did.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thank you, slllgatsby – we have no children (long story) but it has made us think about what we would leave for one another to sort out, which is a good thing. I would say that the most important single thing that Mum and Dad did was set up Power of Attorney for one another, with my brother and I as ‘seconds’. It meant that when, in quick succession, Mum became ill and Dad’s dementia developed, at least we were able to sort out their affairs and sell Dad’s bungalow to pay for his care home. And having a will is important, too.

  2. Alyson

    What a wonderful life story and wonderful pictures. He certainly was a character your dad and it’s good that during this last year he had settled into care home life and was content. Thank you for being so open and sharing him with us. RIP Tom.

  3. Sara

    What a moving story about your Dad. Your last paragraph about how we are intricately linked is also in a meditation by John Donne, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral,1621-1631.
    No Man is an Iland intire of itself;
    Every man is a part of the Maine ………
    Any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
    And therefore never send to know for whom the Bell tolls;
    It tolls for Thee.

    May your Dad Rest in Peace

  4. Natasha

    You brought him back to life in your eulogy and I am sure that your memories will continue to do that as long as YOU remember him, and as long as your written words remain visible. There could not be a finer tribute. “What will survive of us is Love” (Philip Larkin)

  5. Liz Norbury

    You’ve been in my thoughts all day today. I do hope you have been able to derive some comfort from knowing not only that your dad had such a happy and fulfilled life, but also how much he loved you. What struck me in the photo of the two of you sharing a joke on your wedding day was the love and pride in his eyes.

    1. Bug Woman

      Thanks, Liz…Dad and I always shared a wicked sense of humour. There were times in social situations where I’d meet his eye and I knew that we were both amused by someone’s ‘funny little ways’.


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