Friday, 22 April 2011

The big sleep

My father died a few weeks ago. Apologies for those of you who have tuned into the blog and found it deserted, but whereas writing about my mini stroke seemed to help deal with it, my father's death seemed to leave me oddly wordless.

My father died not long after his decision to have any unnecessary meds halted. The lack of drugs obviously played a part, but it was probably as much the final acceptance that he was not going home. His last years had seen his visits to hospital become more frequent and long-lasting. The grim outpost of the NHS he spent his last few months in would not have been anyone's choice of last resting place, but increasingly this is what awaits us: a dull, municipal end. We can extend life, but we cannot extend the enjoyment of life it seems.

I went to see The Big Sleep at the cinema with my wife and son just before he died. It was great to actually see it on a big(gish) screen. My dad had a soft spot for Humphrey Bogart - or Humpty Go-cart as he used to say when I was a kid - and we would always watch To Have and Have Not or The Maltese Falcon or The Big Sleep if it was on TV. Watching old movies was something we both enjoyed and was a rare meeting point for us.

My father had been a cinema projectionist for a short spell when he was younger, in the 1930s, and particularly liked the gangster movies of that era. Cagney was a favourite, as was George Raft. My father's sense of style - a moustache and centre-parted slicked down hair was straight from the 30s and 40s and remained that way for decades.

Although he he left school at fourteen to work in the local steelworks in Middlesbrough, he took the familiar escape route of applying to join the army at sixteen. WWII broke out when he was eighteen and at nineteen he was at Dunkirk. Though he left the Royal Artillery in his late forties, he remained a soldier in his own mind and in ours. It was as though it was in his DNA.

He was a difficult man and the only emotion he ever seemed to be able to express unreservedly was anger. Whole days would be ruined by his black moods and his frequent explosions of temper could be terrifying. I spent a lot of my time in that house resenting him, angry with him, fearful of him.

When I left home to go to art school, it always seemed to be my mother who drew me back. I don't think it was until my mother died that I made any effort to understand my father as a person. It is one of the qualities of growing old - or should be - that we do not see things in quite the same black and white way as we did when we were seventeen.

My father was inevitably the punitive part of the good cop/bad cop routine so many parents played at that time. My mother was a warm and affectionate person, but she was allowed to be. She rarely had to raise her voice or punish me. 'I'll tell dad,' was always enough to stop me in my tracks. I'm not saying he was forced into this role against his will, but it can't have been a very satisfying or enjoyable.

I had a strange relationship with my father. I think we baffled each other most of the time. Often he would look at me as though I had landed from outer space.

The last big row we had was when my mother died. I was determined that my mother's funeral would not be some bland, formulaic affair, with some vicar mouthing platitudes about a person he or she had never met. My brother's funeral had been like that and it only served to sharpen the pain of his dying.

My dad had yelled at me as he used to in days gone by, but we were all a bit older. I wrote him a long letter explaining that I thought we could do better for my mother and he, with time to reflect, agreed. I found the letter among his things when we cleared his house. I was genuinely surprised he'd kept it.

I was determined to do right by my dad too, when he died. I wanted to speak about his life as I had spoken about my mother. I arranged for a bugler from the Royal Artillery to come and play the last post, although sadly he was ill on the day and could not make it. But for all the vicar's effort to the contrary, the funeral was at least about my father - Tom Priestley, the man. Or at least the fragment of himself he allowed us to see.


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