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The Birthday That Should Have Been

Celebrating the birthday of a wise man

Three years ago on 16 June 2008, my father quietly marked his 67th birthday.

I ordered him a ‘blue’ (purple!) rose called Rhapsody in Blue, which didn’t turn up on time for his birthday, but luckily I found one of the same name in a garden centre. So when the original one turned up, I kept it for myself. It was comforting to have matching roses.

Dad didn’t get another birthday.

This month he should be celebrating his 70th birthday with his family. With his wife, three daughters and seven grandchildren – one of whom he never got to meet. Our older sister would definitely have made it home from Australia for this birthday.

His illness and treatment were thrown upon him and us in a whirlwind. One day he was on a walking holiday, the next he was burning up with a skin rash. A few weeks later he was told he had aggressive leukaemia, and started aggressive chemotherapy almost immediately.

In a photo I took on his final birthday, he looks desperately detached. He had started his treatment and we were still hopeful but he was already on a journey that he would be taking alone and it showed in his eyes.
Mum was at his side constantly – through every appointment, every phone call, and every course of treatment, every sleepless night, every bout of desperation. There were tests and tests and tests. And there was fear. So much fear. I saw them, or we spoke on the phone, every single day. I felt a need to touch base regularly and carried Dad’s pain with me all the time. But he was the only one with the illness.

I don’t tell people how awful it was. I protect them from the details. To tell people what he went though; what we went through, would be like making them see it through our eyes and I don’t want to do that to people. You hear of counsellors getting ‘burn out’ from having to listen to too much awfulness. You may have heard or read this quote by Czech writer, Milan Kundera:

‘For there is nothing heavier than compassion. Not even one’s own pain weighs so heavy as the pain one feels with someone, for someone, a pain intensified by the imagination and prolonged by a hundred echoes.’

I hope I never have to witness anyone suffer that much again. To say it was violent would not be an over-statement.

The other reason is that there were 66 years before that, that have been over-shadowed somewhat by his 9 final excruciating months of life. And that’s a shame.

You see he was something special, something you couldn’t pin down. You would be proved wrong if you tried to put him in any box or label him. He was extremely well-educated (and continued to educate himself throughout his life) and knowledgeable, yet he was humble and down-to-earth. He had good job prospects but refused to apply for promotion, had middle-class and working-class tastes, dressed like a gardener; liked expensive wine, but cheap biscuits, loved jazz and football and films with subtitles, but also watched Ugly Betty, Eastenders, and lots of crap TV. He loved cricket and would line up pots and tins in the kitchen until he found the right implements for tapping along to Booker T and the MG’s Test Match theme tune. He had a good ear and taught himself guitar and a little Gaelic when he went to Scotland. He believed in being able to form an educated opinion about things and not speculating or generalising. So he would watch and listen to what we watched and listened to as teenagers before he told us it was crap!

He worked his arse off as a teacher, always insisted on working in comprehensive schools, with ordinary people and didn’t want be a headteacher or deputy head because he didn’t like power, paperwork or school uniform rules. He wanted to teach, to help, to encourage. He worked late and he always brought lots of work home. (The teasing that teachers get about their long holidays didn’t apply to him)

People drove him mad but he still tried to see the good in everyone. He had Green and socialist values and mourned the demise of British industry. He had no desires for money, possessions or luxury, preferring to marvel (or tut) at the world around him. He had some imaginative (and shocking!) expressions for people with no sense of society or community.

I once said that if he and Mum could win the lottery, they would be able to go on holiday and have work done to their house and he could retire.
He said, ‘If I won the lottery, I’d give all the money to people who needed it. What do I want with a load of money?’
He was very cross at the greed and unfairness of humans.

He was a big and protective man to my 5’2” mother, yet he was a feminist who cleaned, cooked and went shopping (shopping in local stores wherever possible).
He had one of those ‘open’, constantly evolving brains. He had values and ideals but could never be accused of getting set in his ways, as he was responsive and receptive to the new and the different.
I don’t know if this is connected but he had a remarkably adaptable way of altering the way he delivered a conversation depending on whom he was talking to. He would look for a level, some common ground. He didn’t put people down or patronize or confuse – even if others’ ignorance or dogma meant that they misunderstood, insulted or even belittled him. He would be more likely to go home and swear about their ignorance later with a few choice expressions.

He wasn’t perfect. He had a terrible temper, would ignore people if he was tired, and despite being really musical, he really did dance like a dad! But I’m struggling to find anything else significantly amiss. People that don’t judge others are near perfect.

So while I am devastated I am also proud and happy. Proud to have had such a good, genuine, brainy man as my father. Proud of his values and – so importantly – that he lived by them. Proud of his natural ‘feel’ for life, music, language, the arts, politics, people and nature and downright ordinary gutsy British culture.
What he thought, he thought because he’d thought about it!

He should be here now. He should be seeing that I’ve matured, I’ve inherited some of his ideals and I do my absolute level best not to judge people. I’ve shaken off the silly frivolous obsession with appearances that I used to have and am ‘wising up’. Goodness, kindness and making the most of the jot of time we have on this planet – with consideration – are now my priorities. I am happier with who I am now even if I look like a lumpy scarecrow most days! He should witness this. It’s not fair. We could be putting the world to rights together.
Every time I hear or read anyone spouting angry, judgemental, narrow-minded clap-trap I pity them and their lack of human wisdom, and wish Dad was still here to think up one of his rude names for them.

Do you believe in ‘meant to be’? Fate? Providence? Things happening for a reason?
I don’t.
I do not believe my father was ‘meant’ to die yet, ‘meant’ to suffer so atrociously. I believe he should be here with his remaining family of all females who are staring at the big black hole he left.

He was meant to be here on 16 June, celebrating his 70th birthday, blowing out 70 candles (Mum would have counted and made sure of it), chasing his grandchildren around with a camera, making daft puns, dozing off in front of the TV and then waking up and demanding a cup of tea. He was a big-hearted – at times moody git, who would have made a very fine grumpy-old man.
He is missed at my kitchen table and I will never stop grieving. But I celebrate his life and his legacy and the bit of him that I carry in my heart.

Happy 70th Birthday Dad

Rhapsody in Blue
My ‘Dad’ rose

In his memory

The Chris Wood Sponsorship:
(A grant set up by Mum for language students at Dad’s old college)

Chris Wood
(16 June 1941 – 11 January 2009)

A comment from Jo (Carey) Belchamber, one of his ex-pupils:

Oddly enough, I was talking to a student about your Dad about an hour before I read this. You forgot to mention his sense of the ridiculous, his gurning, his passionate teaching (although you did talk about… his passionate temper!) and his awful ties! He really was an amazing teacher Rachel, and I think one of the reasons that I have been thinking about him recently is that you remind me so much of him now.

Joe’s Garden

Spring brought longer days and stronger weeds but Joe grew tired before his seedlings were all planted and his roses fed.
‘Not yet,’ he pleaded, his face wet even before he turned it up to the April rain. ‘One more summer… Just one more.’

He couldn’t raise his arms above his head to get undressed that night and slept on the sofa, downstairs in his clothes.

His son visited at the weekend and helped him move his bed downstairs – close to the garden door. He mowed Joe’s lawn but he didn’t know about plants or flowers.

Mrs. White from next door brought food and washed his dishes. She lent Joe Mr. White’s old walking stick and Joe shuffled to the flowerbeds.

‘Oh, the weeds.’

Each day Mrs. White thought of something new: extra pillows, binoculars, a cordless telephone, a radio… And she opened his doors so that he might hear and feel the breeze and watch his flowers grow.

‘Oh the weeds, oh the slugs.’

In late May the district nurse started to visit every day to help Joe wash and dress. She brought him a wheelchair so that he might sit in the sun on warm days and watch the roses grow and the tiny apples form on the trees.

‘Oh the weeds, oh the slugs, oh the aphids.’

Joe’s son couldn’t visit in June and the lawn grew long. Wild grass grew upright in the flowerbeds between dandelions, cornflowers, and poppies.

‘Oh the weeds, oh the slugs, oh the aphids, oh the grass.’

Mrs. White wheeled him to the roses and he peered at the holes on the leaves and sighed. He would have sprayed them by now. But the flowers still came and as Joe bowed forwards to breathe their scent he saw ladybirds, moneyspiders and ants hard at work, eating bugs, building webs, carrying off the aphids.

On days when Joe was strong enough to eat outside, the robins, blackbirds and sparrows sat in the trees and waited for crumbs while the bluetits cleared the caterpillars and greenfly from the fruit trees.
Mrs. White pointed to the swifts flying in and out of the hole in the garage wall that Joe had been meaning to fix.

Joe’s son returned in July, cut the lawn and offered to weed the flower beds. But the long grass and ragwort, were flowering with the salvia and the achillea, and the tops of the flowers waved in the wind as equals. Equally attractive to the bees and the butterflies and the shrews that ran in and out.

The blackbirds turned over the leaves that Joe could no longer clear. They picked up slugs and snails, announced the dawn, danced on his lawn and sang out the day when he was no longer sure what the time was.

On a hot day in August, the doctor was talking but all Joe could hear was the swifts calling to each other as the flying ants left their nest.

In September the swifts left, the first leaves began to skitter, and the rose petals feel. The apples blushed in the golden evening sun and Joe closed his eyes as he listened to busy birds, the swish of the trees and breathed in that last earthy smell of summer leaving the ground as the evenings cooled. He let go of his breath, let go of his garden and left nature to do its work.

It’s not MY fault!

I’m sensing a rise in this kind of attitude over the last few years:
‘I should be able to do whatever I like, whenever I like, and if anything goes wrong I should be able to blame someone else.’

Seven and a half years ago, I broke my wrist. I slipped on a wet floor. It was the village hall, someone had spilt beer and I was wearing the kind of shoes that slip. As I slipped, I instinctively put my hand out to save myself, and all my weight fell onto one hand. ‘Snap!’
It was a bad and very painful break. It had to be pinned back together with 2 metal rods (which were eventually removed). It was my right hand and I am right-handed.
I was three things at the time: a piano teacher, a bookkeeper for our business and a housewife with 2 young children. I couldn’t do much for weeks. My husband had to work less and pay other people more. It cost us money in all sorts of ways and my wrist still gives me trouble on occasion now.

So … whose fault was it? Who should I sue?

The shoes were clearly dangerous, the person drinking on the dance floor was clearly irresponsible, the village hall floor was clearly too well-polished, I clearly shouldn’t have been served so many drinks that I couldn’t even walk safely. It was my sister’s 30th birthday and I was tidying up for her.

‘Someone must be to blame when things go wrong, when things don’t turn out the way I want them to, when life throws up unexpected things that cost us money, ‘ I wail…

Well, of course, it was my own stupid bloody clumsy fault combined with a bit of bad luck.

When I was staying in hospital after the operation on my wrist, there was an old woman in my bay who was confused and uncommunicative. She had a lot of trouble moving and had to be helped with everything. She was at one end of the room, with no one to talk to. I think she was called Ivy.
In the night, Ivy tried to get out of bed to go to the toilet and peed on the floor. I feared for her slipping in her puddle and buzzed for help.
The next day tea was brought to us all and Ivy’s was left on her table, too far away from her for her to reach. She sat, looking down, seemingly unaware. The other women and I decided that Ivy might be less confused if she drank more, so, although I’d had a general anaesthetic, I got up and went to push her table closer to her and encourage her to drink.
Suddenly a voice shouted from the corridor, ‘Stop! You’re not supposed to do that! If you slip, you’re not insured!’

? ? ? ! ! !

Let’s not be like this. Let’s take responsibility for our own actions while we’re able.
And let’s continue to help other people – even if there are small risks attached.

The sooner we stop acting as if there are forces turning a big crank handle and dishing out lives, luck and compensation money the better. We put genuine cases of need and unfairness into disrepute with this culture of blame.

(And, by the way, I did put Ivy’s tea closer to her and nagged her to drink it but it still went cold.)

Only An OU Student Knows The Feeling…

… of finishing an assignment, that finishes a course, that finishes a diploma (please let me pass it), in a chaotic household – with a glass of wine waiting on the cluttered desk, by the computer full of unanswered emails – with an empty tummy and an aching back, that brings a sense of achievement, a sense of self, a sense that maybe it was all worth it after all, that takes the wife back to the husband (thank you), the mother back to the child’s bedtime story (I’m here for the teenagers too, should they ask…), that brings a moment’s excitement, a moment’s high-flying-speedy-whooshy-whirly joyful whizzing-down-a-very-fast-slope-at-200-miles-an-hour screaming, ‘Yes! I bloody well did it!’

(Oh, how I wish my legs looked like that though…)

‘SUBMISSION RECEIVED Your submission was received by the university at 19.18.33 (UK time) on 12 May 2011’

Now… Where’s that wine glass…?

The Brits’ Guide to Eating Fruit


1. After school, sneak into the old-neighbours-down-the-road’s overgrown garden and scrump for apples. Scoff the imperfect, yet sweet and crispy, pesticide-free booty quickly and guiltily as you walk home, then chuck the cores into mad Barry, the night security guard’s back yard just to wind his dog up and hopefully disturb the grumpy b*****d. Run off with your mates, giggling.

2. Steal some pieces of strawberry from Auntie Sheila’s Pimms when she comes round to watch Wimbledon with Mum on a hot June afternoon. Suck all the alcohol out and drop the pieces back into her glass. (Spit any pieces of mint out onto the patio. The vile, pointless bits of shrubbery)

3. Eat the cold custard and tinned fruit that great granny gives you for pudding after your fish fingers when you go to visit. But make sure to take out anything suspicious-looking (beware bright colours) and give to Frankie the sausage dog. (Don’t tell anyone what you did when Frankie has squits later)

4. Never leave a jam doughnut unfinished. If you’re getting full up at teatime and you know there’s a jam doughnut for afters, leave your broccoli to save room. Jam is one of your 5-a-day. There’s a lot of raspberry in it. And we all know raspberries are full of something good for you.

5. If you’re oop tuh Narth, gert big lashings of tomato ketchup on yer pie ull see you right when yer allotment gets sold by tuh council to make way for a mini supermarket. Luckily tuh new shop will also sell mooshy peas.

6. If you live in the West Country (arr) get a job in a cream tea parlour and steal all the strawberry jam, me lovelies. Them grockels doan have a clue how they’m sposed to eat a cream tea any road. Fruit for life, I tell ee, fruit for life. Proper job.

I didn’t know whether to write this as a British or English guide. So my apologies to any grumpy Scots out there who have never heard of a strawberry and might be insulted by being included.
Cornish people: You are British and you are English. Stop pretending you’re anything else. But apologies to any posh people on the Isles of Scilly who may have managed to grow Kiwis against their south-facing walls and don’t need any advice. You do know Kiwis are in fact the hairy boll**ks of dead wizards though, of course? (Scilly people believe all that mythical stuff….and love being called posh.)

The Magic Number

Too cold to feel cold, and too numb to pick the pieces of glass from her pockets, Tabitha hunkered in a patch of windowed winter sun with Major the tomcat, slid her fingers into his marmalade fur, and waited.
The brutal easterly wind fought to follow her into the cabin, screaming down the chimney, pounding against the door, and hissing away all warm air that the small open fireplace was trying to breathe into their squalid dwelling.
Away from the full force of the freezing coastal blasts, her ears and face began to defrost first; stinging, while her fingers still felt nothing but the passage of vibrations from a contented cat. She patiently pictured the glass in her pockets: mostly green, but today one more piece of blue, smoothed by tide and time ‘til it gleamed from its dull pebble bed, whispering, ‘Pick me, pick me. You see me, don’t you?’
And now, gradually, the pain. In soft, warm cat fur, throbbing fingers thawed and burned, while Tabitha thought of sharp, smooth beach booty in the pockets of the worn, woollen coat that was made for a child of her mother’s generation and told of poverty and hand-me-downs.
How many pieces now? Her fingers flexed. When she reached the magic number, Mother would return to help her care for poor Father. Slowly, stiffly she removed the coat and emptied the pockets.
Coughing, Father said not to raise her hopes so, but Tabitha knew collecting the blue and green pieces would break the sea’s curse. The colours of a mermaids tail – messages from the sea that her mother was sending home. Tabitha understood, even if Father didn’t. She’d counted the scales on the picture of The Little Mermaid: two hundred. Mother was fighting the curse, shedding her tail. The sea would soon return her.
Major one-eyed the traitorous door that had permitted the icy winds to whistle through, then, with confident paws, quietly assumed his right to the woollen coat.

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