Recently I wrote about a birth that came too early, that shook me up, left me scattered – and that somehow brought me understanding of things I’d never grasped before. This post is about a death that did the same.
It’s a year today since my father died. He’d been in hospital just over two weeks and that day he got up and dressed, expecting to be going home. Then, as can happen with cancer, something caused a rapid change, and he became very ill. Around noon I got a tearful call from my sister to say the doctors were doing all they could, but that it was unlikely I’d have time to get there before he’d gone. Still, I tried. Every flight was fully booked, but in didn’t matter. Less than three hours later he had gone.
Our last phone call, the day before, was interrupted because the occupational therapist arrived to discuss what aids he needed at home.
“We’ll speak again,” my father said.
“Yes,” I replied. “We’ll speak again.”
We never did.
And yet we do.
I hear his hoarse voice telling me he realises that most of the conversations he has with people are small talk. He wonders why he’s only now talking about the things that really matter. He expresses regret at not getting a better education, and not being kinder.
The first time he said those things, the time I heard them on phone rather than in my mind, I replied that he had educated himself, and that every thing he ever did that hurt anyone was made up for a thousand times with the kindnesses he did. I can’t remember if I told him how much I admired the way he’d educated himself, but I’m sure it was in my voice.
The topic of kindness was one he kept returning to, in those last few days. “When children ask why, you say, “Because I say so,” he said, and wished that he been more patient when we were young. He compared himself as a parent unfavourably to me. This felt painful to hear. It was true that sometimes he wasn’t patient when we were children, but I have not always been patient either. It is true that I have memories of feeling afraid of him – but I realised that those memories stood out because they were more intense, more emotionally charged than the others. We remember those times more because they are not the norm. I told my dad this, and reminded him of his kindnesses again; I also reminded him to think of what he’d come from. My grandparents’ marriage was not a happy one, and my father had his share of fear as a boy. On top of that, by seventeen he worked at the building of a World War II radar station, sometimes hiding in cliffs as Nazi planes flew overhead.
In our last conversation Dad talked about his school days. He said that he was a slow learner at school. He didn’t say why. My mother told me later it was because of his poor eyesight. He had to put his glasses on to see the blackboard and off again to write. More often than not, the teacher had wiped the board before he finished. On the island where he grew up, education finished at 14. For children to go further, they had to pass an exam and go to state boarding school. Children whose parents wanted them to sit the test enrolled in extra lessons. For some reason (probably fear and feelings of not being good enough) my grandparents did not enrol my father in these lessons. But, they decided, or perhaps a teacher suggested, that he should sit the test. Of course, he failed.
In another life, in different circumstances, my father would have been a professor, most likely of geography. We used to joke about the time it took to go around a museum with Dad – everyone else would be finished, and he’d still be reading the information beside each exhibit. He was as thorough with the many books he read. How cruel it seemed that a combination of the cancer, macular degeneration and cataract ravaged his eyesight. When he couldn’t see to read even large-print books, he used first a Kindle and then an iPad. He read my novel – with a magnifying glass and the Kindle’s text set to its second highest setting.
Even that became tiring, so he got the local newspaper on cassette, and my mother read books to him. During his time in hospital in his final weeks, my sister borrowed talking books from the library for him.
I was visiting my parents when Dad became ill and was with him the day he was admitted to hospital. The admission procedures took almost four hours, and in that time we waited in a little room off A & E. It’s only as I write this now that I realise why. He had been told by the hospital to come, they were expecting him, so I expected us to go to a ward. But it wasn’t a scheduled arrangement – a blood test had shown he needed a transfusion.
So we sat waiting. A nurse came, did some tests, went off again. A doctor came, did some tests, went off again. Another nurse. One of them left Dad lying on a bench that was far too high for him get down by himself.
I helped him down.
Dad said I could go; he would be fine. I stayed.
He talked about if he died in hospital.
I can’t even remember what he said, just that I said, “Don’t. I don’t want you to die.”
“I’m not planning to die,” he replied. “But it could happen.”
In the last few years of my father’s life, he had a bone marrow cancer that destroyed vertebrae in his spine and meant he couldn’t stand straight. He shrank about 6 inches, and was in constant pain. I’m not going to pretend he accepted his lot without complaint – at times he talked angrily about, “These bugs that have got to me.” Sometimes he felt frustrated when he couldn’t do jobs around the house, and when his eyesight went into rapid decline.
But mostly, he was grateful to still be alive, mostly he adapted to how he was and did what he could. Amazingly, on his better days he still managed to use a chainsaw to chop up wood in his barn. The latch on its door was broken and sometimes the wind howled through, banging the door. Dad couldn’t see to mend the latch. So he took a block of wood, placed it on the doorjamb and drove a nail through it. Then he could tilt the block enough to keep the door closed. One of my sisters showed me that wooden block on the day of Dad’s funeral. She said, “That’s the kind of man he was. He didn’t give up. When he couldn’t do something, he just did what he could.”
In his last ten years, I got to know Dad in a way I hadn’t before. On a visit to see him shortly after the cancer diagnosis, Dad and I sat in the porch, looking out over land that has been tilled by our ancestors for centuries. We talked about the past, and he said that he realised he’d taken the “path of least resistance,” in life. He’d drifted into returning to the island after several years away, and then when we, his family, were born it seemed easier to stay. He thought that instead perhaps he should have made considered choices. At his funeral, the minister had a different perspective – he talked about how my father gave up a promotion that would have meant moving away so that he could be nearby to help his elderly parents. “He chose duty,” the minister said. He chose love.
Another time, sitting in that porch, Dad and I talked about his illness. I asked if he was afraid of death. He replied no, he wasn’t. What he feared was being useless.
He spent just over two weeks in hospital and in that time he made friends with other patients and with nurses and doctors. One man, a patient, shared a room with my father for a couple of days. They’d never met before, but, after discharge, this man came back to visit.
One afternoon my sister and I went to visit Dad, and he said he hadn’t yet listened to the audio books she’d brought because he’d been too busy socialising. Another day, the last day before I had to fly home, he beamed and said, “You’ll never guess what I’ve been doing today!”
Then he explained that one of the nurses had been singing Shetland folk tunes. This nurse came from the Philippines but had lived in Shetland for many years. Dad joined in the song she was singing and then taught her another one. They sang it together. The day before his death, he sang with the nurses. One of them later told my sister they’d got too fond of him.
And this man feared being useless.
I have thought about this many times in the last year. Over and over, in the days around the funeral, people told our family about what a remarkable man he was, how modest, how special. Months afterwards, my mother was still receiving cards from people who said how much he’d touched their lives. At his funeral, the minister spoke about my father’s life. Then he said, “At services like this I am required to give a sermon. But Willie’s life is the sermon.”
What was it, that made my father have this effect? Shortly before he died, I wrote a post, Thankful for my Father, that became the basis of the tribute I read at his funeral. In that post, I wrote about how open my father had become, how he was an example of how growth as a human being never needs to end. While many people shut down as they age, my father did the opposite. He didn’t just go on learning all his life, he went on opening, listening. He let go of judgement and wanted to know others deeply, to understand. He was authentic.
This is what made him both ordinary and extraordinary. In a world that focuses so often on violence and that values competition and the individual, the quiet voices of those who love, who forgive and who support are often unheard. But what my father became in his later years, is what all of us truly crave. He touched people, because what he was stirred the same thing in them.