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Fathers and sons

3 December, 2017 (13:01) | Uncategorized | By: Ian Burdon

Dad; Whitley Bay, late 1920s

My dad died 34 years ago today. He was 58 years and 4 months old. I had just turned 24. I am now 58 years and 2 months old.

He’d been ill for a long time; he had several major heart attacks, that brought me rushing back to East Kilbride from Edinburgh, as well as surgery, including an aortal graft. But this time I was home because my friends John and Gill had got married the day before.

Dad had been in bed for a while and liked to have a bottle of Irn Bru or similar by his bed. He’d been in a funny mood: our pet dog who used to lie on the bed with him had died the weekend previously, as had the father of one of my friends who, like Dad, had done time in the Navy in the Med. at the end of the war. Colin’s dad was on HMS Ajax and Dad on HMS Ocean during the creation of Israel, when Dad was nearly court-martialed for bringing the Navy into disrepute, though he never told me that.

He’d run out, so I said I’d go down to the supermarket to get him another bottle of Irn Bru, and he said he didn’t think I needed to. I did anyway, knowing what he meant but trying to ignore it. Not long after I got home he another heart attack and I called the doctor while Mum, who’d been a nursing assistant, gave him CPR. While the doctor was examining him Dad died. Mum and I were with him, and he looked at me, and I’ve never, ever, forgotten the look in his eyes just before he went.

A fine winter morning
The sky clear and blue.
Breakfast in bed and a laugh and a smile,
These memories stay true.
And Christmas was coming,
Time for last minute gifts.
It’s an eternity away from us now
On a night such as this

And I heard you were frightened,I saw you were scared.
All the nights that we thought were your last
But still you were there.
And all of the hopes and the fears and the warnings
We tried to dismiss
Are all lost to the chill of the wind
On a night such as this.

On a night such as this,
When starshine is dimmed,
And the empty heart fills up with clichés
And yearning begins
For just one more moment,
For the words that were missed:
Now scattered and lost in the heart
Of a night such as this.

I usually say at this time of year that I still think of him every day, and that’s true. It can be all sorts of memories and flashbacks, triggered by music or smells or something that’s close to déjà vu but isn’t–some combination of sense perceptions that find a resonant echo in memories I don’t know I have.

I have a handful of regrets in life—who doesn’t? These almost all revolve around times I treated someone badly when I was an adolescent. But no regrets are deeper or more present than not knowing Dad as an adult. He saw me graduate, but not married. He never knew his grandchildren, whom he would have loved.

And I have some photographs,
A lifetime defined:
The child then the boy then the youth then the man
Captured in time.
Did you do all you wanted?
Was your life all you wished?
Oh I wish I could talk to you now
On a night such as this.

And fathers and sons
Don’t take time to reminisce;
They just steam through the fog with their running lights on
And hope that they miss.
I was twenty four then
It’s been twenty four since
I still hope that you’re proud of me now
On a night such as this.

On a night such as this,
When starshine is dimmed,
And the empty heart fills up with clichés
And yearning begins
For just one more moment,
For the words that were missed:
Now scattered and lost in the heart
Of a night such as this.

I’ve never written about this before in any depth. The verses in this post are a song I wrote some years ago which are the closest I got to it. I like the verses but they elide some things, most notably the memory of the look Dad gave me as he died, even though I don’t know if he was conscious at that point or already gone.

I remember him being very moved after his first near-fatal heart attack, when he was in the ICU at Hairmyres Hospital (with hiccups that went on for two days and distressed him, when he could see the second hand on a clock ticking around), to learn how many people in how many churches had prayed for him. He had a near-death experience there: he told me afterwards that it was the classic sense of travelling up a tunnel towards a bright light only to reach the top and hear a voice saying not yet Stuart it’s not your time. It was an uncharacteristic thing for him to say, which is why it made an impression on me.

Dad, 1982

We had some difficulties for a while: he was High Anglican by inclination and disappointed I’d dropped my candidacy for the Episcopal priesthood. But after I graduated, before I got a job and moved back to Edinburgh, I was the main person in the house looking after him through the day, and cooking tea, as Mum was working, as was the eldest of my sisters. My youngest sister was at school. I never really discussed the reasons I dropped my candidacy, but essentially it was because I realised I didn’t believe the things I would be called upon to preach, that I wasn’t a Christian. And I did not, and still do not, believe in an afterlife.

The consequences of this didn’t become clear until 5 years later when I underwent training for the Children’s Panel in Lothian Region and was talking to a psychologist and it suddenly hit me hard. Not believing in an afterlife is fine as an intellectual position, but has powerful effects when someone close to you dies.

The two photos I’ve uploaded are sort of bookends to Dad’s life—in Whitley Bay in the late 1920s and East Kilbride in the early 1980s. I never asked him the kind of questions I’d ask as an adult about his life, about his regrets and joys. But I know the feelings I still have after all these years, about hoping he would be proud of me, are as good a legacy of his life as I can think of.

As we were leaving the crematorium in the funeral car I started to turn to look through the rear-view window but Mum stopped me: don’t look back, she said. And I didn’t. Nor have I ever been to the place his ashes are scattered: I don’t need to. He’s still with me before midnight, stewing the left-over tea in the old metal teapot on the gas hob, Navy-style, rolling up a tab, complaining about my hair and the music I listen to, edging towards the unspoken thing between fathers and sons, all the things he didn’t say to his own dad.

Comments

Comment from Stephen
Time December 10, 2017 at 8:39 pm

Well written, Ian. I’m glad you wrote it, and I’m glad to have read it.

Comment from Sheila
Time December 10, 2017 at 8:53 pm

Very moving. I’ve heard a similar account of parting from his father from the man sitting beside me. His Dad knew he was going, Stephen didn’t realise the moment. My Dad is 94 and it’s probably too late for those conversations; he never would have engaged in that way with me anyway. He’s too private.

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