A Break From The Usual Contumely
I've been feeling quiet this last couple of days, because I've been thinking about my Dad. Next week, he will have been dead for a year. He was old, his physical and mental health was in decline, and he died quickly. Simple, bald facts; I quickly got used to saying to people "it was a good way to go" and "he had a good, long life and it wasn't going to get any better". I soon began to believe that that was the way I felt. I forgot to miss him.
And then, the other day, I was stopped in my tracks by realising "it's a year since I spoke to my Dad". It was like turning round to speak to someone as you're walking, expecting them to be right by you, and then seeing them miles away, not moving. He's getting further and further away, and I'm thinking: that's not fair, man. I should have had a good look at him a year ago, 11 months ago, 6 months ago.
But then, I had other stuff. Stuff he never knew about, which would have upset him greatly: my disintegrating marriage, the obligatory mental health implosion, financial whammies, getting beaten to within an inch of my sight, hideous complexities and secrets and lies, other deaths... a hundred adverse circumstances, a thousand tiny cuts which I dealt with by keeping them to myself, and by keeping on keeping on. Eyes fixed on my feet, one step, another step, I'll eventually put some distance between me and all this shit. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
Only now, now that I've stopped to see my Dad so far away, I'm struck by how much less far away the stuff I'm trying to put behind me is, and it's in between me and him. And... fuck that. I want to see my Dad, not all this shit. When I said above "I've been thinking about my Dad", what I actually meant was I've been trying to think about him. I want to think about him, I want to remember him. I don't want to leave him any further behind. So, here goes:
The last thing he said to me was "good night, pet". I remember being tickled by the term of endearment, because they were rare from him. Not that he was distant, he was just one of those men, that entire generation of them, for whom emotional expression was embarassing. So what would have been a tiny throwaway remark for the rest of us, constituted a big deal for him. I could almost see his face as he said it, grinning awkwardly. When something amused or pleased Dad, he smiled like a surprised child, and it was infuriatingly infectious.
As a child myself, what surprised me was other people's houses: they were so bare - whole square yards of wallpaper, with nothing in the way. Even though next door's house was exactly the same as ours, it seemed so much bigger. My house, on the other hand was full of books. Full: bookshelves on every available wall, piles of them on the floors, on top of wardrobes, under beds. Thousands upon thousands of books: fiction from every era and every country; poetry; politics; music; religion; art; history; every scientific discipline - nearly every single one of them, my Dad's. There was nothing that didn't interest him. From the sublimely bound and illustrated 19th century dictionaries to the ridiculously otiose and esoteric "The Life Of The Ant" ('something of a classic', he told me - apparently a fair call, if you're an entomologist... which none of us were), there was no shortage of things to catch the eye.
Inevitably, with such wealth at my fingertips, I read voraciously as a child: explored the stars and their atoms; the world distant in time, culture, and place; all the rhythms of number, of sound, of thought and blood and heart; murders most foul, loves most perplexing, odysseys most heroic. Above all else, his legacy to me is that I continue to do so: like him, I will read anything. But when he started to lose his sight about ten years ago, it became a guiltier pleasure for me than ever before. (I still think "Dad would love this" (if I'm lucky), and then "awww, man." Then I remember that he's dead, not blind, and perhaps I don't feel so bad.) Still, though - nothing worse could have happened to him, and nothing made me sadder. It was a challenge he didn't rise to - never learned braille, scorned audio books, and always believed that a miracle cure was just round the corner.
So, it hurts to remember him - because the last ten years of his life were blighted by a misery-go-ground of frustration, treacherous hope, and - I shouldn't wonder - loneliness. He complained every time we spoke, of not being able to recognise people in the street, of how "annoying" it was. I was never done trying to describe what my daughters looked like to him, because I wanted him to know how beautiful they are. And of course he never saw their faces.
There is no heaven, no afterlife, only an end. I don't believe for a second that our loved ones look down on us (and frankly, good: you don't want your Great Auntie Gladys checking up on you from the other realm, God's reassuring hand on her shoulder, only to find you jerking off to some porn). It's up to us to remember our dead as they lived, not to slack off by assuming that they're somehow still hovering around. It took one look at him in his coffin to confirm that people are either here, or they're very, very gone.
Eh. I've been writing this for a couple of days, trying to get it right, as a means of getting a focus on him. And the difficulty is that in the years before he died, he was... sad. As I said above, there was considerable deterioration in his mental as well as his physical health. And even though there were glimpses of him as he used to be, the dominant image is of the shell rather than the man. Maybe I don't need to miss him after all; maybe I'd been missing him for years before he died. Maybe I just want him to take up a bit more of my consciousness than all the other ghastly shite that's there.
Anyway, I guess there's nothing remarkable about feeling you owe a debt of remembrance. For Dad, because he loved this, and to help poke the tears out: Sunset and evening star, And one clear call for me! And may there be no moaning of the bar, When I put out to sea, But such a tide as moving seems asleep, Too full for sound and foam, When that which drew from out the boundless deep Turns again home. Twilight and evening bell, And after that the dark! And may there be no sadness of farewell, When I embark; For though from out our bourne of Time and Place The flood may bear me far, I hope to see my Pilot face to face When I have crossed the bar. - Tennyson
Happy Birthday, Dad.Oh, whatEVER.