He had been sick with complications from diabetes for more than two years and had suffered a stroke the year before he died. He was depressed and indescribably sad that recovery was unlikely at best. He rarely smiled and retreated, physically and emotionally, from his four older children. My much younger sister, thankfully, brought him uncomplicated joy during those last tough years.
When the second stroke hit he fell into a coma, succumbing three days later when his heart failed. It was the defining moment of my life and I remember it with a clarity that makes every memory from the years before scatter like dandelion seeds in the wind.
I remember the fog that enveloped us – the denial, numbness, anger and relief; a swirling tornado of emotions. I remember my Mum’s grief. I remember making phone calls with my three brothers to tell everyone he was gone. I remember the funeral, the burial and wake. I remember reading the sympathy cards over and over. I remember making my debut a week after his funeral and feeling like I was dislocated from my body. I remember the awkwardness of going back to school when no-one spoke to me about it. I have never felt more alone.
Life went on and we all learnt to accept that Dad was gone. We banded together and got through it, just like the members of other families when they lose someone they love. My brothers and I were adults (or almost adults), just starting down the road to independence. My sister, who was only seven when Dad died, became Mum’s focus and lifeline. We got used to missing him. We laughed. We finished school and university, got jobs, fell in love. We lived without him. It got easier.
I have always missed my Dad, but lately I have missed him with an intensity that has, at times, taken my breath away. I am getting closer to the age he was when he died. I have three young children. I am finally starting to understand, after years of feeling hard done by, just how tragic and difficult it must have been for him to know he was going to die, to know that he would miss so much. I have real empathy for him at last and I want to tell him so. I felt abandoned by him long before he died and I resented him for that. I was a normal teenager – more than a little self-absorbed. I couldn’t understand his suffering then, but I certainly can now, when I myself have so much to lose.
I mourn the loss of the adult relationship I will never have with my Dad. I long to sit with him, even just for one day, and tell him all the things he’s missed. It feels like a lifetime to catch up on. I would tell him about the five wonderful people my siblings and I married – fantastic people he never knew. I would tell him about his fourteen utterly astonishing grandchildren who would not be gracing this earth without him. What a great ‘Pa’ he would have been!
I would tell him about the unbelievable changes that have happened in the world over the past twenty five years – how he would have loved the internet. I would talk to him about religion and politics and sport and parenting. I would listen to his answers. I would love to debate with him and laugh with him and be treated as a friend and not a child. I would love to see him relaxed and happy – it’s how I imagine he would have been as he grew older and the pressure of parenthood eased.
Would he recognise himself in us? Would he see our younger selves in our children?
My eldest brothers, who are twins, just turned 47, the same age Dad was when he died. They look so young to me, so vibrant and full of life. They have so much ahead of them. They are not weighed down as Dad was and we can only be grateful for this, but their birthday has been a stark reminder of how young Dad was when he died.
On the 20th anniversary of his death Mum gave each of us a photo book that told Dad’s life story. She wrote a letter to accompany the book that talked about the photos she had included and the memories each had elicited for her. She wrote about falling in love with Dad and the many happy times they shared. This letter was very powerful for me as I can’t really remember Dad being happy. It was so lovely to see him through her eyes and memories.
Mum wrote, “He told me, on more than one occasion, that the worst pain, for him, was the thought of leaving his family. He need not have feared – his spirit and goodness live on in each of you, his much loved children.” How true this is. He is reflected and honoured by each of us in our own way. We speak about him often and I know that his grandchildren feel like they know him. You can see him physically in the looks and gestures of my siblings and me and you can certainly hear him when we trot out one of his catchphrases! We all value education, good manners and excellent grammar! We have a keen sense of social justice and a propensity to be over-protective of our kids. Mum, of course, could be credited with all these things as well, but they were big on Dad’s agenda and we all remember that. My brothers are all excellent husbands to their wives – they definitely had a good role model in their Dad and were lucky to witness the way he respected and loved Mum. I can really see him in each of my brothers.
I know he would be proud of us all, especially his much loved wife. Since losing him, Mum has led her life with dignity, patience, love and a keen sense of adventure. He needn’t have spent time worrying if she would be ok. Her inner strength and faith are legendary. His love has sustained her and always will.
Dad’s death was tragic and unfair. Who knows how differently our lives and relationships with each other would be had we not lost him at such a vulnerable time? It will never be ok that he died when he did. There will never be anything good about it. The best we can do is to remember him with love and understanding, spend quiet moments talking to him and nurture those special Dad qualities within each of us and our children. We will live life knowing how precious and fragile it is and make each day count. That will be our gift to him.