I’ve been thinking a lot about my dad just recently. It’s been seven and a half years since he died yet surprising for me, who is not someone who spends time fretting over past bereavements, but that’s what I have done. It all started after I saw my latest mental health therapist. In the first few sessions, we have once again been raking over the past and it so often comes back to my dad. If I can work out why, then maybe I will finally achieve something and get out of this chewed-up, mental mess.
I wonder if this thinking about my dad is because of the sense of loss. Not just the loss we have all suffered following his death, but the loss of what went before. Or rather what didn’t. Allow me to explain.
My father was a sailor and I have very few recollections of seeing much of him as a child. My mother brought me up pretty well single-handedly, albeit with much support, financial and otherwise, by my dad who lived in Canada. My mother was a simple Dutch woman with little by way of social interaction with others and very few skills in bringing up a child, other than what she brought to the table through the school of life. This is not criticism, far from it. Despite her background, she still guided me through school and life to the extent that in late middle age, I am still here. But I now know how much I missed my dad and miss him still.
I am not one to visit gravestones of family members who have died. Speaking personally, it would achieve nothing for me. I accept death as the end of life. Why risk further upset by visiting the ashes or decomposed bones of loved ones? I would expect that when I die, people would react in the same way to me. Yet with my dad, it is slightly different.
I realised only late on, in his retirement years, how much I loved him and how much he loved me. I recall attending his 75th and 80th birthdays in Ottawa and suddenly it was all there. In his environment, he was proudly showing me off as his son. It had probably happened in years gone by, too, and I am guessing he said as much to Canadian friends and family. But now, as I was in middle age and he was long into retirement, this was the life, the love, I felt I had missed. Late on, I was in a close, physically close, environment with this amazing man and I loved him like I had never loved him before.
And like most good things in life, you want them to last forever. After his 80th birthday in 2009, I hoped I would visit him much more and that I would be able to take him on what might be his final UK tour. On 28 February 2011, that dream ended when he died after a short illness against which he fought all the way. Of course he did. He was a tough, stubborn old bugger. So my final visit to Ottawa was for his funeral, or rather the celebration of his life. Way over 100 other folk turned up.
I had a massive mental meltdown in the months that followed, in a way that never happened when my mum died in 1999. She had been in terribly poor health and, if I am being brutally honest, it was a blessing when she died, as it was when my stepfather died of Parkinsons and dementia. I understand how people feel when they say they missed those who have died every day and would love to see them for just one more minute. Many years of suffering and agonising pain perhaps steeled me for the end. I got no pleasure from their suffering. And it reinforced my atheism and humanism. The nonsense that they would somehow survive their own deaths and somehow turn up in some absurd spiritual world, cured of terrible diseases, convinced me, if I could possibly need anymore convincing, that the sad fact their lives were over also meant their pain and suffering was over, too. You, my loyal reader, may have felt different about the passing of others. I am only telling the story from my side.
My dad’s death hit me hard because, I believe, there was a considerable amount of unfinished business. There was so much I could have learned at all stages of my life that might have enabled me to do better, to achieve more, to not have my life regularly crushed by poor mental health.
Yes, I do think of the good times we spent together. The campaign expedition of 1975 when we drove and camped all over Prince Edward Island and drove the Cabot trail in Nova Scotia. A wonderful weekend in Sidmouth a few years before he died. Going to see John Fogerty in concert in Ottawa in 2009 and seeing this 80 year old singing and clapping along with the genius who created Creedence Clearwater Revival. And my last memory of my dad when he was playing one of his favourite vinyl albums All Things Must Pass by George Harrison. A day or so later, I was boarding the Air Canada Boeing 767 to London, never to see him again.
I am very tired from yesterday’s operation which is making me very tearful about bringing back these memories, memories are becoming better with each passing day. My dad’s ashes, as were his father’s, were scattered at Battery Point, Portishead and I may visit that special place sometime later this week. I won’t go there and imagine that somehow these ashes haven’t long been blown away and that some part of them was still there. No. It’s where my dad used to sail past many years ago. And that is undoubtedly the nearest I will ever get to him again, a vision created by my own imagination, not some spiritual experience.
Perhaps, even at this late stage I will still somehow achieve my dreams. These will almost certainly centre around writing. I am still trying to learn how to write better, which is not easy with my threadbare understanding of grammar. I have written one far from perfect book and now I want to write a far better one. I don’t just want to, I need to.
My dad said he loved my writing and plenty of other people have said, sincerely I believe, that they like it too. If he had been around in my teenage years, who knows where I might have ended up, although I must make full disclosure here that I did not always respond with the par avion correspondence he sent me regularly at the time. My failure was not a one way street. And even, at this late stage, I still want to succeed at something. But is there a way, is there the time? That’s something I would love to ask my dad but I can’t.