At the age of 48, and as it’s his birthday, this much I know about why my dad still matters!
The Guardian Family page always does it. The article today about the man who struggled to have the meaningful final conversation with his dying father set me off weeping uncontrollably. I ought to know better than to start reading – it spoils my Saturdays!
My dad died when I was twenty, during my second term at university. He was just 57. We thought he had gall stones but he was full of cancer. He’s been dead nearly 28 years yet I still have moments like I had this morning when the grief is as raw as ever.
He left school when he was just 14 and began work as a Messenger Boy. He was a Postman for 43 years and hated every minute of it! He could read but could hardly write. His talents lay in golfing and gardening.
My dad was an Artisan Golfer – an organisation which provides working class people the opportunity to play golf. We have separate clubhouses and restricted times to play at weekends. When I was good enough to play for Sussex I had to join another club because Artisans did not qualify to play for County level teams.
He tended roses with pure artistry. He died three years from retirement and the chance to lie in his own bed of roses forever.
I have become the depository for all his possessions. Mother sends me odd artefacts she finds, like his National Service discharge documents – he spent two years in the Navy. His glasses were a shock when I opened their case; they are half-rimmed ones and the way he used to look over the top of them and grin seemed encased with them.
His alarm clock is one of my most important possessions. He hated getting up at 4.00 am every day and it was his Baby Ben which woke him. It sits on my desk at home. It reminds me of him and the consequences of having no choice about how you live your life when you have no qualifications.
Recently I have been collecting old Ladybird Books; they are what engaged me in reading when I was young and you can find them on Ebay for very little. When I re-read Scott of the Antarctic it was unnerving as the pictures and words set off memory depth-charges. I bought the Postman edition in the People at Work series.
I still haven’t written poems about my dad that get to the heart of what I felt for him. I wrote one early on, when I was completing my PGCE at Sussex, which won the Robin Lee Memorial Poetry Prize but most of what I have written is ham-fisted and either bitter or mawkish.
We had no religion. In a completely uninformed way we assumed he would go straight to heaven, whatever that meant. A Methodist preacher popped in to help, having heard the sad news, and when mother explained our simplistic thinking about dad’s destiny the preacher was unequivocal in his judgement that dad would not go to heaven as he hadn’t taken Christ into his heart. Mother was devastated; four of the last six weeks dad was alive she spent in hospital, having had to be sectioned.
From the age of 20 until the age of 32, when we had my son Joe, the worst thing had already happened to me. I think that helped form who I am. As Hamlet said, there is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.
When he died we were studying Chaucer and Pippa Tristram was my Medieval tutor at York. The end of Chaucer’s Troilus and Criseyde really helped. As Troilus is killed and his spirit floats away, Doun from thennes faste he gan avyse/ This litel spot of erthe… And in him-self he lough right at the wo/Of hem that wepten for his deeth so faste. Chaucer was so wise about it all.
When he was getting proper poorly it was difficult; one time he dropped his fruit salad on the floor and proceeded to eat it off the carpet. I went back to university in the January and he died in the February. I don’t know why I did that now. I’ve done some pretty stupid things in my 48 years but that is one of the very few I truly regret.
We shook hands three times: once when I won a play-off for the Sussex Under 18 Golf Championship; once when I got my A level results; and once when they dropped me off at university and mother was too tearful to do anything!
Mark Twain was right when he said, When I was a boy of 14, my father was so ignorant I could hardly stand to have the old man around. But when I got to be 21, I was astonished at how much the old man had learned in seven years. Sons are boomerangs – they leave you in their teens and come back to you in their twenties. I’m afraid I was at the point on my boomerang parabola furthest from my dad when he died.
I taught Death of a Salesman to my A level group last year and the bloody play took me by surprise! We were looking at the final scene when Willy and Biff wrestle and Biff kisses his dad. I was suddenly in the middle of a Saturday Guardian Family moment and had to leave the room as tears fell down my face. I took my dad’s alarm clock into class next lesson and explained to them what happened.
I still have a soft spot for Postmen!? I was giving a tour of the school to a family last Thursday and the dad turned up in his Postman uniform – he’d taken an hour off from his round. We immediately struck up a rapport. At the end of the tour he admitted he’d come to see what I was like and he reckoned I was OK.
Dad would have been 85 today.