Twelve years ago today, I sat by a hospital bed, holding my mum’s hand, as my dad passed away. I use the term ‘passed away’ because that’s exactly what he did. He had been unconscious for three days and with his family watching and waiting, he took his last breath and left us.
Dad hadn’t been well for some months, like many men of his age (82) he had problems with his ‘plumbing’ (quite ironic after the week I’ve just had).
For the last few years or so, every six months dad went into hospital for an overnight stay to have his pipes unblocked. He was waiting for his usual hospital appointment to come through. The doctors kept fobbing him off and telling him to be patient.
The appointment he had been waiting for never came.
Mum phoned me on the Saturday to say dad had finally been taken into hospital. For the last few weeks, she had been trying to get him to create a fuss with the doctors to bring his appointment forward, as it was now well overdue. But that wasn’t his style he would ‘sit it out’ and wait. I asked mum if she wanted me to come home. She said there was no need, now he’s in hospital they’ll do what they need to do and he’ll be back home in plenty of time for Christmas.
Sunday night the call came to say it was too late. The doctors couldn’t do anything more, if he had gone in sooner they could have fixed it. Basically, the waste he hadn’t been able to get rid of had slowly poisoned him.
I caught the next train up to Manchester and went straight to the hospital to be with mum. Yes it was my dad who was dying but it was mum who I wanted to be there for.
Dad was 49 when I came along, an unexpected fifth child. Not the menopause after all!
He was a strict Roman Catholic who went to church every Sunday, with his family tagging along. We had no choice. Eventually, in my late teens, I plucked up the courage to say that I wasn’t going to spend another Sunday sitting in a cold building listening to rubbish. I waited for lightning to strike. It never came.
Dad’s parents were strict Catholics and so religion had always been an important part of his life. Often more important than his family. I can’t remember a time when he didn’t go to church. When he retired, aged 65, he went every day. I think this was to give him some kind of routine and structure to his day. But we joked it was an insurance policy to ensure he got the ‘best seat in the house’, when the time came.
Everyday, as long as I can remember, dad wore a shirt and tie, even at weekends and holidays. I can recall a family day out to Blackpool with him sat on the beach, shirt and tie tightly fastened and a flat cap to stop him burning his head.
In his youth, he was tall and slim and I’m told a bit of a ‘looker’. He met mum when they were both in the army, serving King and country. They married in December 1945 and were together for 53 years.
Dad smoked since being a teenager. His fingers were stained the colour of English mustard. He would easily smoke his way through 60 Senior Service a day.
To me, dad was this person who sat in the other room reading the Daily Express or Manchester Evening News, puffing away, while the rest of the family, well, were being a family.
Every night his dinner was ready for him as he walked in the door, even though my mum also worked. I suspect this was how life had been for his father too.
He taught both my brother and I to swim and had us reciting our times tables every night before going to bed. He would get so frustrated with the fact that we both didn’t ‘get’ maths. But most Friday’s he would present us with a bag of sweets from the newsagents where he bought his daily paper. We always looked forward to Fridays. When I smell the scent of parma violets, or chew on a drumstick lolly, I’m 10 again.
Dad never raised his hands to me, or any of us as far as I’m aware. But he also never wrapped them around me. I never heard him swear and he very rarely raised his voice. Although he went out for a drink most nights, I never saw him drunk. I also never saw him let his hair down or have fun. He was from the old school of fatherhood – he provided for us. He wasn’t a coldhearted man, he just found it incredibly difficult to express his feelings. But I know he loved us in his own way.
The last time I saw him was the October before he died. We were visiting in the half term holidays because my mum’s birthday is in November and so it was an early birthday/Christmas visit. I noticed he was quieter and less cantankerous than usual.
By now, dad had given up smoking. After years of living in a pea soup fog, at the ripe old age of 70, he finally gave up the fags. One day he was sucking in 60 a day, the next none. An unopened packet sat on the windowsill for months. This couldn’t have been easy for him. Years after I remember him saying he could still ‘murder for a cigarette’.
For the next 12 years, with more money now spare, my parents enjoyed many holidays in the UK and overseas. They always returned like two lovebirds. However, it was short lived, dad was a jealous man and didn’t like to share mum, even with his children. The childish bickering would soon resume.
Although quite a chunk of money was now spent on holidays, dad also replaced his high tar addiction with sweets, chocolate and cakes. His particular favourite being Turkish Delight, something we bought him every Christmas. And soon his waistline resembled Colonel Mustard!
Too late to worry about his teeth decaying, for every day of the 21 years I lived at home dad’s pearly whites glared at me, from a glass in the bathroom. In fact dad’s teeth played a cameo role on my wedding day.
December 1985, it was once again his turn to ‘give’ a daughter away. Obviously a role he thought he’d never be required to do again. Years later he was called upon again and he saved his best performance to for the last. Just when you thought you knew him, he threw up a surprise or two.
My niece married a few years after her beloved dad tragically died, aged 49, of cancer. Her rather rotund granddad, now known by some as Big Frank, stepped into Kevin’s shoes to proudly walk ‘Ragga’ (Helen) down the aisle to the handsome young marine nervously waiting at the front.
The speech he gave at their wedding breakfast was entertaining and yet incredibly moving. One minute the guests in the room were howling with laughter, the next there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Some mean feat when you consider the majority of the guests were Royal Marines. Dad certainly did his family and Kevin proud.
The speech dad gave at my wedding was entertaining too. But for quite different reasons. As it was a special occasion he decided to wear his ‘best’ dentures. We soon realised why they hadn’t been seen, or heard, before. They were a little too tight and whistled when he spoke. So fortunately for all the speech was short and squeak!
I’m never really sure whether dad was upset or annoyed that I chose to abandon the Catholic Church and take my vows in the opposition’s. He never commented. And that was the problem with dad, I never really knew what he was thinking.
And so, Wednesday 16 December 1998, when the time came, I held my mum’s hand as the man she had spent the last 52 years with took his last breath and left us.
The funeral was held 22 December so in a way Big Frank would indeed be home for Christmas.
This post was written for the Writing Workshop – Remembering over at Sleep is for the Weak. It doesn’t really fit any of the prompts but to read some that do click here.