Dad – The day it happened

For once, politicians’ fathers have been in the news lately. There was the appalling attack by the Daily Mail (a paper Dad read) on Ralph Miliband, the father of the leader of the opposition, and a slightly surprising convivial defence by David Cameron, who said he would certainly defend his father, “whom I miss every day”, against any attack. Good for him; he went up in my estimation over that.

It is odd to read that Ed Miliband was so badly affected by the death of his father that he needed counselling. It is as though one’s Father’s death is unremarkable, and should not cause profound sadness, dislocation, depression, even (in that 1950s catch-all phrase, a “nervous breakdown”). There is nothing unusual about Ed Miliband’s reaction, and since he has had the courage to admit this, I don’t mind stressing that my Dad’s loss had a massive impact. I didn’t know what counselling was in 1986, but it would have been helpful and comforting, to say the least, to have talked about my feelings to someone sympathetic, who would at least (I hope) acknowledge that significant grief is understandable, is legitimate, and hard to bear. Whether one labels that as mental illness or ill-health, and whether that would lead one to the latest trendy catch-all cure of CBT (enough said about that) is another matter. I’m not sure whether one always seeks a solution to bereavement; it’s a learning experience which is entirely unwanted, and has to be lived with and through. Unfortunately.

Anyway, this is about Dad, not me, and what proved to be his last day. He, Mum and friends were going to spend a weekend in Llandudno, a favourite place of theirs (and indeed mine). Mum attended an Innerwheel meeting in Wales, and Dad was meant to pick her up on the way. He was packing the car for the weekend, lifted cases…and that was it. He was found later in the car, looking quite peaceful, or so it was said. The front door of the house was open, the faithful dog standing guard in the doorway, and the man next door, a friend, came to look for him, and found him. Curtain on that.

Mum waited and waited, in Wales, wondering why he did not arrive. Hours later, she managed to ring and heard that he had gone hours before. Two very kind people, who had attended the meeting from mid-Wales, and would have gone directly South to go home, kindly ran her back to Wallasey. The phone calls then began.

It was now early evening, and I was about to end a two-day break in mid-Wales. The man next door, a kind man who wanted to do things by the book, said that I should be telephoned. “A son should know when his father had gone”, he insisted. But others said no, and I’m grateful to them. He meant well, but he was wrong about me, at least.

I learned early morning, when my sister, from Middlesex, phoned. The hotel reception people had to come to the room and tell me there was a call from her, which seemed odd. I recall the details – “It’s Dad. We think we had a heart attack, and…..” She went on to tell me, but if the phone had been cut off somehow, I already knew; she was using the past tense. I went upstairs, collapsed onto the bed, and yelled out to my first wife what had happened (she had thought it was something routine). She rapidly finished packing and we drove off through mid-Wales. The world had, it seemed, ended, it was somehow lying on its side. I recall the valley beyond Corris, and saying, in amongst the tears, that Wales could still be a beautiful place – this seemed so incongruous. She told others afterwards – I never regained a memory of it – that I had both talked (no surprise, for those who know me!) and wept all the 90 miles back. I knew all the clichés, and they were all true – an era had ended, nothing would ever be, or feel, (quite) the same again. All that has changed in 27 years is that the “quite” has been inserted.

And yet, when I got back, expecting Mum to be in a state of daze, perhaps lying down in bed, she was simply there in the kitchen, saying hello. I too would be incredibly calm when my first wife died (although this was an expected event); then, I just went home and started getting dinner ready.

The rest of the family were there, and in a morass of uncertainty and seeming disbelief. My wife seemed, on the surface, more upset than anyone else. She was upset for herself, but upset for me too, and aware, having lost her own father 10 years before, of what it would mean for me. But for her, it was a major personal loss, because Dad was like a father to her.

The aftermath would be long and complicated, with many and multiple reverberations. One may think that someone’s passing is the end of their life, but it isn’t the end of our life with them. I had no idea how strongly I would feel about my Father so many years later. The memories, and the love that underlies them, live on and on. And so they should, now the pain of familiarity has subsided.

Mr Miliband honours his father, openly, almost 20 years after his death. My Dad held very very different views from Ralph Miliband (as do his sons), but having talked to people who knew Ralph M, it is clear that these men shared a common decency. That’s a word marred now by so much clichéd use, but a fundamental nevertheless.

An emotional business, this writing!

Written Oct 11-12 2013

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