On Tuesday my sister called to tell me our father died that morning. He was 94, and his death has been expected. It seems he died peacefully, in the nursing home to which he’d only recently been moved when it became impossible for my step-mother, also 94, to continue to care for him. When I last saw him in hospital in Holyhead, near his Anglesey home, he told me that he was fully ready to die, and wasn’t afraid. He had become tired, the business of going on living was just too much. He was a man who made modest demands on life, and even in his dying wanted to be no trouble.
So now both my parents are dead. My father was always a distant presence in my life, but I knew him to be a kind, gentle man of absolute moral integrity; a man unable to hurt another creature; a man who always put the needs of others before any desires of his own; and yet, through the tragedy of an unhappy marriage, a man who lived with the knowledge that he had destroyed the happiness of his first wife, my mother. For forty years, in which he was able to build a strong and loving relationship with his second wife, my mother never recovered from the catastrophe of his departure. I saw, as a young man, how entirely unsuited they where to each other, and how miserable they made each other. I supported him in his decision to leave. But it’s just one of those bitter truths about life that sometimes one person’s survival is another person’s destruction. He lived with that knowledge. He didn’t deserve the grief it must have given him.
In the battlefield that becomes of a bad marriage, the children inevitably take sides, and I sided with my mother. This was not because I saw her as the injured party, but because she was the one hurting the most. But all the time I felt my father’s presence in my life, even if I rarely saw him. When we met we were awkward with each other, not quite strangers, but there was a clumsy kind of love between us. I remember as a child his scratchy cheek when he kissed me, and the game he played of Sleeping Lions on the sofa, and the bicycle he so laboriously painted for me, and the fort he laid out with two armies of toy soldiers for my Christmas present; and then he fades into a misty presence as he played less and less part in our lives. He never struck me, or reprimanded me, and yet I dreaded his disapproval. I felt, I think, that it would hurt him more than me. His quietness when he was there, and his absences later, made me grow up sooner than I wanted to. I was never a rebel, I was too busy filling the gap he left in the family: I became hard-working, high-achieving, ever responsible, refusing to allow myself to admit hurt. Not a bad heritage if you want to get things done, but there’s a price to pay, and I’m still paying it.
And now he’s gone: the father who formed my idea of what it is to be a father, the man who formed my idea of what it is to be a man. We were so different, and yet he’s inside me still. So much of me has been built up in a kind of opposition to him, out of a determination not to be him, and yet so much of me is him after all. He knew I never blamed him for the shipwreck of our family, but I don’t think he knew how much I loved and valued him. I wrote a play about my parents’ marriage, and he saw it performed, but he never was able to tell me what he felt about it. The shyness between us never abated. But when I last saw him in hospital he looked at me with such love – I can still hear his delighted cry, his hands clutching his bald head, ‘Oh, Bill! Oh, Bill!’ – as if it was me who had returned from near death, not him – and I felt so strongly that I was important to him, and knew that he was important to me. I’ve been a neglectful son, God knows, but I’m truly happy that he found peace and love with a second family. His step-daughter Hilary was with him through his last night, by his side as he died. I’m deeply grateful to her, and to Joan, his second wife, for all they gave him. Now Joan is widowed, and will feel his loss far more intensely than I will.
Rest in peace, Pa. You’ve earned it.