After a long fight with Alzheimer’s dementia and then, finally, with other complications, my father died last Friday. How he did fight and fight too. This is the start of words, because words can help: where better than to start with what I know? I have been thinking of Dad and me when I was a child, and of his play, my play, our play. This is the start of words and I want to mark his passing in this sad surreal turmoil that we find ourselves in.
So I’m sitting here on the train as I write, heading for the playground, thinking of play and of that little hospital room and of lots of 1970-somethings, of some 1980-somewhens . . . in between places and times. Focus. Back and back through adult conversations we finally had; back through those awkward teenage years of mine when neither of us really knew how and what to do with one another; back to a time of play indelibly marking at least one of us (and who knows what remained, floating around in the depths of Dad’s memory during the disintegrating ravages of such awful disease as his).
Back and back. I won’t be able to capture everything here but this is just the start of words. There is no order — this is how it comes. Dad was a bricoleur: he often made things of just what he found lying around. His creations didn’t always stay up or stay stable but, once, I came home (maybe from school, I don’t fully remember for sure) and there he was, on the dining room floor, putting the finishing touches to a bike he’d made for me: cobbled together, bits grafted on from other bikes, painted black and white zebra fashion. I don’t remember what happened to the bike — I just remember that he made it for me. He cobbled together other contraptions and he made up games: board games from blocks of wood, and he was looking for a game he could sell, perhaps. He made up a simple game with cushions and hidden objects, which I passed on and on, it having stood the test of time.
On the beach, we dug the biggest hole I’ve ever been involved with! I got in and we poured the sand in and I was stuck. The sand pressed against my chest and it hurt. I remember Dad doing that calm sort of panic that I recognise now in myself sometimes: the one where you need to keep the finer details of how you feel away from the children! Dad dug me out and I can feel his relief here as I write. He gave to us children all those wide, high-skied beaches and secret coves of the far west of Cornwall: I have passed these on too.
Twice Dad managed to hide from me: maybe more in his play, but these particular times are most prominent here in me. Once, on a hot summer day when I must have been quite young, on a crowded beach promenade, when he was younger than I am now, he hid momentarily behind an advertising pillar. As I went round one way looking for him, panicking, he must have tracked me round out of sight. Another time, maybe when I was a little older, we were walking in the woods (me, one of my sisters, Dad, maybe my brother too). Dad played his hiding game behind a tree and I just kicked into big brother protection mode! I told my sister not to worry, I’d get her home. I don’t know if she remembers this! I have a vague recollection that I was blagging it. Dad jumped out and told me how proud he was of me.
He used to have a motorbike that he parked just outside the kitchen window. I have no idea what type it was but I remember sitting pillion, flying across the Devon and Cornwall moors, clinging on for dear life and wearing an ill-fitting helmet! Risky play, perhaps. It was the Seventies, or sometime around then. We did things differently! There’s a certain amount of manning up that can be done at or around the age of double figures. We toured the back lanes of leafy little Hampshire villages on that bike. Dad introduced me to the mystical world of pubs, where adults resided in the dark spaces I wasn’t allowed to go into: the hoppy, sweet, warm smell wafting out to me as I sat in the beer garden with shandy and crisps.
He told me about girls, of course, but in his own way: his conversations on the matter were a way of softening the blow of moving from the house and town of my childhood, all I’d ever really known up till that point. My youngest sister arrived when I was just into secondary school. Dad’s cooking skills, whilst Mum was in hospital giving birth, are now family legend! How could we ever forget his creations? Spaghetti bolognaise and crisps followed by ‘crunchy jelly’ with a chocolate bar wedged into it (something he was claiming deliberate creation of, perhaps, having put it in the freezer to set!). We all survived though and, I’m told, he was the one to look after the baby me when my other sister was born. Apparently, Dad and me would go feed the ducks in Walpole Park, or walk to the shops, though he’d be frustrated at the slowness of my pace. Others’ stories are just as important as my own.
My own stories have their own punctuated significances: it’s 1981 and, a few weeks before my birthday, Dad had a surprise for me. On some long November evening, we travelled by coach to the old Wembley stadium. He took me to watch England versus Hungary. I remember standing on the terraces of the old stadium, behind the goal, surrounded by the sweaty press and noise of men. I watched Keegan, Hoddle, Coppell play, and Mariner scored the only goal at our end. The next year, I watched the football World Cup, Spain ’82, on TV with Dad. I lounged on the sofa and grunted my pre-adolescent acknowledgments to his continuing brief match analyses. A few years earlier, I’d laid on the sofa with him as we watched Borg and Connors and McEnroe at Wimbledon. Always, it seemed, of a Saturday night we watched the football on the TV. These little significances come back to me.
Dad was the only one to ever deliberately use a certain form of my name. I don’t take that from anyone else (though I tolerate mispronunciations, even from the children I work with now, though I always correct them). Dad used this form of my name when he was well, and I don’t know why it mattered but it mattered. When we were able to talk, he would ask me when I was going to get a ‘proper job’! He never got the hang of the fact that I didn’t ever own a Mazda sports car (it was a Toyota, Dad!). I put it down to some form of communication play, forms of relating. ‘Work with your brain, son, not with your hands; everyone else on the road is an idiot.’ The things you keep with you.
Once, twice now, we didn’t so much need words: I don’t remember for sure how old I was when I sliced a lump of flesh from my knee playing football on my own up against a wall. Again, the late 70s or early 80s? Dad had the motorbike and the stories had circulated amongst the local children on the estate of how I’d had a terrible accident and broken my leg. They’d mangled it all up and exaggerated it, as children can sometimes do. Dad had pulled up on his motorbike and been greeted by all this chaotic traumatic excitement. I hadn’t broken my leg: it was a hanging lump of flesh sliced by a piece of flint. Mum had patched me up after I’d limped home feeling sorry for myself and somewhat in shock, and then I was lying down, being stitched up by some doctor. It hurt and Dad held my hand as the stitches went in.
Thirty-odd years later, last week, in a small hospital room in a soulless little town I never want to set foot in again in my life, I held Dad’s hand as he lay in a drug-induced sleep. There, quietly, I told him the story I’ve just told you. Things then went quiet for a while.
This is not all there is: this is just the start of words. This is the sad surreal slow-motion state of things this side of last Friday. We think we have time, but we forget about time: he was just 65.
Goodbye, Dad x