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Seven years

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Seven years

Sunday 6 March 2011 is a date forever etched on my memory, scorched on my heart. Although I have had to Google the actual address, I know exactly where I was. I was at the Central Chapel of Hulse, Playfair & McGarry, 315 McLeod Street, (at O’Connor) Ottawa, in Canada. It was the celebration of the life of Anthony Johansen who died on 28 February 2011.

I had flown out for the occasion which, no matter how I try to dress it up in my mind as a genuine celebration, was anything but a celebration for me. But it wasn’t about me. It was about my dad and, boy, did he have a life worth celebrating. You can click HERE to read about it.

In flying out, I had forgotten a golden rule I learned about dealing with shock, distress and upset: prepare yourself mentally for every eventuality. What do I mean by that?

Life experiences have left me found wanting in times of trouble. If I had approached a situation by drifting there, I was not able to control anything, especially not thoughts and emotion. If I had imagined as much as possibly could in advance, I would minimise surprise and surprise is the main giver of instability. I had imagined the bus journey from Bristol to Heathrow Airport but nothing else in between arriving in Canada. Literally hours had been utilised planning for the emotional arrival across the pond but the bits in between. Oh dear.

The first sign that things were not right was when I arrived at the check in desk. It was then I had my first meltdown in front of the desk. I was overwhelmed and I didn’t know why. Somehow I got through it, an emotional basket case now. I made my way to the departure lounge. I had prepared for this bit. It went without incident. Even though I was on my way to my father’s funeral, I was in control again. I felt far from normal, whatever normal is, but I was in control. I watched planes landing and taking off, I had a few beers, I read the newspaper. I knew this was not a pleasure ride, but I was all right. Then I went to the gate and I had not prepared.

I had another meltdown, this time so bad, I all but begged the Air Canada staff member to allow me to sit away from anyone else. To my amazement, they managed to oblige. I cried all the way to my seat on the Boeing 767. Then it stopped. Yes, I’d pre planned all this stuff again, albeit not consciously. I didn’t cry again until my return flight lifted out of Ottawa and then, I knew, because I now accepted that I would never see my dad again.

I wrote a speech to the large crowd of friends who attended my dad’s life celebration. My brothers Noel and Vaughan sang and played instruments, their courage dwarfing mine. I don’t remember what I said and I didn’t keep the speech either, because it was for that place and time. When I wrote it a few hours before – I’m better writing under pressure: don’t ask me why – I could see all the words and all the memories I spoke about and I had a constant vision of my dad at the very front of my mind throughout. I am not a natural public speaker but I felt it went okay. I think we did the old boy proud. I wish I had done that more often.

I am not normally very good with dates. I don’t remember the date of my mum’s death, I have no idea what year she was born in. Of all my deceased relatives, the dates surrounding my father I have retained.

The loss of Anthony Johansen was the greatest of my life to date. Because of my parents’ divorce when I was young, I missed out on the traditional upbringing. At the time, it was not something that greatly concerned me, at least not until my mental health – yes, that old chestnut, again – unravelled as I reached puberty and adolescence. Even then, many years passed before I found out what I had missed out on and rather than seeking to regain lost ground, I often turned my back on my dad (not literally, since he lived in Canada) and rejected his overtures. I found I was punishing myself, a kind of mental torture of self-harm. What I didn’t have, I did miss and I became perversely determined to make myself feel even worse.

Why on earth had I turned my back on my dad? It was not as if my mother had ever said a bad word about him. And when he saw me there was never hostility, just kindness. I was the only person seeking isolation. The rest of my family saw me as mad, possibly literally so. When I flew to Ottawa for my dad’s 75th birthday party and five years later to his 80th birthday, suddenly, like never before, I had a father-son relationship. On 28 February 2011 everything changed as my dad died. The loss has been hard to bear. Which takes me back to the Central Chapel of Hulse, Playfair & McGarry.

Once the celebration started, I never wanted it to end. I knew what it meant, selfishly I knew what it meant to me, too, and I wanted it to last forever. It did end, though, and a few days later I was flying back to London with my dad’s ashes, which we later scattered at Battery point in Portishead where years before we had scattered his father’s ashes when he had died.

Almost all the people at the celebration I know I shall never again meet. The whole afternoon felt like an emotional door slowly closing and forever to leave me standing outside. Today, I am exhausted, partly through physical illness and partly through mental exhaustion, trying to get my head around what happened seven years ago today. What I do know is that I miss him and I missed the life I never had. Call it self pity, call it what you like. It’s my life, my dad and I’ll feel as bad as I want to about it.

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