Nine years ago, I took a telephone call from across the pond to say that my father, Anthony Johansen, had died. He’d been sick, laid up in hospital since just after Christmas 2010, and the updates I received varied between he’s going to make it, albeit with one or two issues in the future, and it looks like he might not make it after all. I suppose I had secretly feared the worst while I hoped for the best. Sadly, that hope was all in vain.
I’d never had a bad relationship with my dad, just a very distant one, and it wasn’t until later in his life where we connected as father and son. I had taken him to a gig for his 80th birthday (John Fogerty, if you must know) and I was finally doing things with my dad that I’d rarely done before. When they say you don’t miss what you don’t have, tell them they don’t know what they’re talking about. Of course, you do. In my case, I always will.
Anthony got a scholarship to Bristol Cathedral School, was almost killed during the war when the Luftwaffe dropped a bomb that exploded just outside his classroom, signed up for the Liberty Ships after lying about his age (he was 15) to help bring supplies to hungry Brits, despite the unwelcome attention of U-boats all across the North Atlantic, he worked his way up to captain in the Merchant Navy, packed it all in to get a degree in Commerce at McGill University in Montreal, worked in the office of Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau, sang in a choir, played piano and told a million stories. Larger than life doesn’t go close.
The last time I saw him was in 2009, a few days after his 80th birthday party in Ottawa. I was preparing to fly back to England when I found him in the front room playing some music. It was a vinyl copy of George Harrison’s first solo record All Things Must Pass. It was an album I have always loved, too. I didn’t appreciate the unfortunate irony of the album title until many years later.
I boarded the Air Canada 767 to London not knowing I would never see him again. Although I was long past the childish delusion that we will all live forever, as I had now finally understood the relationship between us, I never thought for a moment it might soon be over. The next time I flew back from Ottawa, I had his ashes with me, ashes that were later scattered at Battery Point in Portishead, a place past which he had sailed many times in a long, proud Merchant Navy career.
Having had what I’d missed and then seen it taken away, I collapsed inward. I had barely cried after previous family deaths, probably because so many of them represented a release from pain, a blessing, if you will. I did this time. This was no relief, no blessing. This was the passing of the head of the family. The nine years since his passing has slipped by alarmingly quickly, but then it was only yesterday, wasn’t it, when I went camping with him in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island. Except that this happened in 1975.
I took my dad for granted because I didn’t think he might not be there forever. And I will regret that until the day I shuffle off my own mortal coil.
I’d give an awful lot for just one more day with my dad. I’d want him to talk about his life and tell me stories, even the ones I have heard several times before. Maybe especially the ones I have heard several times before because there is a certain satisfaction in knowing the punchline ahead of everyone else.
I’ll leave the last words to George Harrison:
Now the darkness only stays the night-time
In the morning it will fade away
Daylight is good at arriving at the right time
It’s not always going to be this grey All things must pass