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