We laughed and talked about old times: about the wardrobes he had built me when I was small, about the huge table for my train set that slotted together without nails or screws and could be collapsed to zero and stashed away in the attic, about the chests of drawers. It's odd having furniture built for you by your father.
The memory of all that wood contrasted heavily with his surroundings now: the wipable plastic surfaces and chrome bed-rails of his hygienic geriatric ward. And it was hard to laugh, looking at that husk of a face, his spirit retreating ever inward for the final journey; retrenching like a fading tulip back into its bulb. The eyes ever deeper, the mouth hoarse, skin so grey it seemed barely alive. Cool to the kiss.
I have this theory that death in old age is not sudden, it comes gradually. Old people become invisible, unnoticeable, crawling along the pavement, then no longer on the street at all, and finally fading away upon their beds, losing substance, rocky headlands in a foggy twilight by the sea.
Father's twilight had lasted nine years, since a tobacco-induced stroke had cost him half his body. Sitting in his wheelchair, and nursed by my mother, he'd held out for his three score and ten, not wanting to be short changed, and faded out and in, and in a strange way enjoyed himself more than he had for a decade before. Being given the life-enhancing edge of raw mortality.
I hadn't known whether this was a regular fade out or the final credits until I'd walked in to the hospital room and seen his face, the grey tulip, and then I'd known. So it was hard to laugh, but we managed.
We talked about the karts he'd built me, with coffee table seats, coach-bolt steering pivots and big rear pram wheels, the envy of the neighbourhood. About him driving me to the town centre every school morning, on his way to work in his carpenter's van, him pipping the horn downstairs and me still in the flat gulping down my breakfast, only having got out of bed when I'd heard him close the front door.
And I told him that I loved him and heard he loved me. It wasn't easy but it was true.
I hadn't been intending to talk about my childhood either, but it seemed the right thing to do, to talk about our time of great connection. Though we'd never been to football matches together or been especially affectionate. He was always such a taciturn man. Built like an ape, a gorilla, quite literally. In his youth he'd nearly killed a man with a single blow. Childhood games of my-father-will-have-your-father repeated themselves ruttedly without me ever being invited to join in. When I was fourteen he could still lift me off the floor with one arm. And now here he was, frail as a spring icicle, his mottled scalp all visible beneath a veil of filigree white hair.
Our worlds diverged later in my teens. I had no problems with exams. Father had barely a piece of paper to his name. He couldn't help me with knowledge for school or university, and he'd already taught me how to saw properly and in which direction to use a plane. Now he could only watch from the carpentry shop of Pluto as I moved to the intellectual foothills of Mars.
Even his glorious tales of foreign lands, of Burma and India and the war against Japan, all told over the kitchen sink as we cleaned dishes together after one of mother's delicious meals, began to pale as I made my own journeys to even stranger lands. I even went to some of the places he'd mentioned, but saw them in a different sunlight, couldn't make the connection. Parallel worlds.
There was nothing wrong with his universe, it was just that I didn't share it, it wasn't mine. There was so little common in the way we saw thngs. I had to agree, one drunken evening, with a friend of mine who said that although it was nice to have humble origins and make your way in the world, it lost your parents their aged wisdom. They finished up with no gifts from the handbook of life to bestow. No gifts.
Things improved, in a way, after father's stroke. Along with his left hand side, all his emotional barriers were thrombosised away. He laughed and cried through the soaps on TV, dribbled, slept, and so very rarely raged against incapacity, against the injustice of it all. How he fought to enjoy this second innings in life; making jokes that half a mouth struggled to publish; tumbling through needs and emotions like a child. I looked after him from time to time; taking him for a roll, as we used to say; wiping his nose, his chin, his shitty bottom. How much closer to a human being can you get than wiping their effluent away?
I made a move, too fast, in the hospital room. Maybe too active - to cover my own emotions - too difficult to interpret. "My God," he said, as I settled down again. "For a moment there I thought you were leaving." Though I wasn't. But he said it so genially, as a private joke between us, summing up so much of what had gone before, that I would never want to erase it.
Yet of course I did have to leave some time. I had to say goodbye. Goodbye, goodbye. Final scenes can't go on forever. The curtains have to be drawn. And my world of Mars was taking me to California in a few days. Unstoppable business, Martian statesmen. And so generously he knew that he and I had finished our business, sealed with blood, a handshake, a kiss, his runny nose wiped; my eyes lagoons and it was all right for me to go.
The lagoons leaked, of course, when I left him. Rib-aching sobs, quelled only by a walk in a childhood haunt, the familiar crows, the marsh grass, wet black-cotton soil, willows dropping catkins so to grow. Only then did I too know it had been all right for me to leave.
I went to California. My father died, still untempted by dreams of an afterlife. Half the world and I turned out for the funeral, so sad to see one good man less. And then I really knew.
To leave no trace of ill-feeling behind in a soul, no deathbed jibes, no might-have-beens, no wish-I'd-saids; all loose ends tied by you dear father, by you, with humour and good grace and such... nobility. To know all this is possible, can be done so well.
My God, what a gift.
Back to Short
Andrew Starling 2000 www.foxglove.co.uk