It's Father's Day here in the UK. I wrote the following for a competition ages ago.
An Ordinary Special Man
I wasn’t there when my dad died, but that doesn’t matter. I was there when he was alive: vibrant, busy, diligent, always with a project on the go; strong, loyal, full of integrity, a Christian but not a church-goer; opinionated, irritating, stubborn, occasionally sulky; but always loving.
Before he went into hospital for his operation, I’d kissed him and told him I loved him. I wish that had been the last time I’d seen him. But days later I sat by his bed as he lay there unmoving save for the work of the clunking ventilator.
And then he died. People were sympathetic, of course. But unless it’s you that’s grieving you don’t really know how it feels. They said they were sorry for my loss or that they were sad to hear my news, but then moved on with the business of their own lives. Why wouldn’t they? He was special to us, but not necessarily to them. Death is ordinary.
Many asked how he had died, as if some illnesses or circumstances are worthy of more sympathy than others. Dad was just shy of 75 and had developed ailments that could in part be attributed to lifestyle. It doesn’t matter what they were. It wasn’t a tragic accident or a young life cut short. It was just a regular, pensioner death. Unremarkable, just sad.
I was in the middle of a busy family Saturday when my brother rang with the news. A couple of hours later normality had been suspended, and I was sitting on a train travelling north. People around me were reading, chatting, planning. I wanted to tell them why I was making the journey.
At home, my mum was sitting with my brothers and their wives, looking calm but shaken. This was the moment when, at age 44, I suddenly felt like a grown-up. I wasn’t there to be comforted by her, as I had been so many times in the past – for dramas at primary school when I’d fallen out with my best friend, teenage tantrums over boys, issues over wedding plans, confrontations with in-laws. Roles were reversed and now it was my turn to look after her. I had lost my dad, but she had lost the man who had been by her side for over 40 years. She was predictably strong and practical, but also willing and able to lean and take the help that was offered.
We held a service at the crematorium for family. Nothing special, just dignified and functional. But afterwards I cried and clung on to my husband. Friends had advised me not to take my young sons with me and I was glad I had heeded their words. I wept uncontrollably. Mum went through the motions and kept herself in check.
Then it was on to church for a funeral service with friends and all-comers. Having sobbed so hard, I was now calm. My sons rejoined me. On the way out we stopped in the church doorway and turned back to look at the huge congregation. I told my boys that all these people had known and loved granddad and we should be glad for that.
In the pub afterwards – how he would have approved! – people I didn’t know revealed aspects of my dad’s life that were unfamiliar: friends from his childhood, colleagues, fellow golfers in their club blazers, relatives I hadn’t seen for years and didn’t recognise. Even at the time I knew that I was, bizarrely, enjoying the occasion.
I haven’t visited Dad’s grave. Why would I? He isn’t there. But there are traces of him everywhere else: in the house where his DIY efforts still hold things together; in the garden where he worked so hard to get the front lawn green and weed free, and never quite managed it; in the CD rack where his taste in jazz and swing music is still evident; in the eyes of his grandchildren; in our conversations and in our hearts.
My dad is dead. He hasn’t ‘passed over’ or ‘gone to a better place’, he has died. We thought we’d grieve forever. We don’t.
But we miss him.