19 Jun 2011

My dad: 1939-2011

Earlier this year my dad died very suddenly. An extremely fit and active man who was working full time at the age of 71, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia and died just four days later. In memory of him, this is the text of the tribute I read out at his funeral.
I shall never forget the surreal day he died. Just a week before he had been enjoying the final week of his holiday merrily riding on a boat at Iguassu Falls in Brazil. I had put together a selection of his holiday photos for him to enjoy in his hospital bed. But when I arrived at the hospital with my mum and my sister we were told that he had passed away just five minutes beforehand. His loss has left a big hole in my life in many different ways. But his spirit of curiosity and adventure well and truly lives on.

Grief is challenging, sometimes impossible, to navigate. It is like climbing a steep mountain shrouded in mist. It is odd how a feeling so empty can weigh so heavy. However hard you try, you can never quite shake it off.
Not many people leave the world at the age of 71 without retiring from work or life. He did.
In some ways being retired and sedentary would never have suited him. Far worse still to be bed-ridden and incapacitated, suffering and struggling for many weeks or months….with greatly diminished capability.
So, amongst the shock and sudden grief, maybe there was some mercy somewhere.
All of us here never really had the chance to properly say goodbye. But there are plenty of warm memories which we have to share.
For me, every day I spent with my dad, sometimes every hour almost, there was an abundance of moments to make me smile.
We are not only here to mourn a death. But also to celebrate a life.
So let us irrigate our sadness and illuminate our grief with one or two cheerful recollections:

Early Life
Not many people finish their working days on the same land a stone’s throw from where they were born having devoted nearly 50 years to the same business. From an early age it was clear he liked being outside.
By the age of 12 he could be found looking after 2 pigs, a flock of flapping hens and driving a tractor.
I shudder to think what boy of 12 in this day and age would be allowed anywhere near such things without reams of risk assessment paperwork or child safety regulation compliance
My father was a remarkably active, tough and energetic man. Perhaps the most active and boyish 71 year old you knew of.
Incredibly dedicated to his business. When it came to the work-life balance there was none. They were the same thing.
Less than one year ago he was in this church for my sister’s wedding…one of the rare moments in his life when he was actually rendered speechless.
He greatly enjoyed playing and watching sport. First rugby - always a keen and knowledgeable watcher - and then later on cricket and football as an Arsenal supporter.
Last November I took him to watch Arsenal. They beat Aston Villa 4-2, painful for me but entertaining for him.
Barely 18 months ago I was stood proudly with him on the summit of Snowdon, no mean achievement for a septuagenarian.
In his working life…
He was always up a ladder or down a ditch or with his head submerged under the bonnet of a piece of old machinery
He had a knack for fixing and repairing things
I’d seen him bang his head or slice his hand open, which he would casually and cheerfully shrug off.
His hands would often be coated in mud but they belonged to the soil
He lived and breathed the outdoor life, ploughing the furrows of a full and active subsistence. Always enthusiastically absorbed and with purpose in whatever he was doing.

Being in his company was rarely anything other than entertaining.
With a furrowed brow he once asked me where his glasses were. Had I seen them? I replied that yes I had seen them. They were sitting on his forehead.
On another occasion - having stopped to take a photo of a French chateau on holiday - his glasses managed to smoothly pour themselves out of his shirt pocket and deposit themselves in a roadside ditch
And on a similar theme…He once came home and managed to drop his keys in the dustbin.
People’s names could be merrily mixed up or muddled around.
Foreign language forays were legendary. Unleashing his limited Italian vocabulary on the population of Spanish speaking Argentina was his most recent contribution.
Or ask my mother who watched him collect the wrong suitcase from the airport in Buenos Aires and drag it all the way up to the hotel room. Still, he always liked a challenge.
Modern technology presented its challenges. He had an email address but seldom managed to locate it. I remember once receiving 6 consecutive blank messages
Mobile phones were even worse. Once we had got beyond establishing what the green and red buttons did, I think we’d reached the ceiling of possibility.
My dad was the only man I knew who could answer a call by simultaneously terminating it!
Whether it was something he said or something he did, it usually left you with a smile on your face.
Aged 70, scaling Crib Goch ridge, Snowdonia

A few years ago we were descending a mountain in Snowdonia. I heard a noise behind me. When I turned round there was my dad sliding past me on his backside in a small stream. Somehow he managed to halt himself just in time. He picked himself up, shook himself dry then had a good laugh about it.
Laughter was often the best medicine for my dad.
The fates of the weather were central to his existence. He could often be heard to curse or marvel at the elements and often spent a great deal of his time and energy, at various hours of day and night, attempting to thwart or negate their effects.
In particular, the BBC weather forecast after the 10 o’clock news was a religious devotion. Sadly, more often than not it passed him by because he had surrendered himself into a deep noisy sleep in front of the fire, worn out by his exertions.

Nonetheless, my dad was a man of remarkable energy and action. Never one to sit still or hold back.
In his later years he found himself driving a tank and up in a hot air balloon to celebrate various birthdays. Itineraries for holidays left very little room for lounging or lazing on a beach
He was a man of adventurous spirit. It took him - and my mother - to many corners of the world. New Zealand, South Africa, India, driving independently around Cuba - again with no Spanish - and finally, and perhaps most dramatically, South America.
As recently as a few weeks ago he was bounding up mountains, marvelling at glaciers and enthusiastically driving a large truck across spectacular deserts in Argentina.
He often revelled in venturing into places he wasn’t supposed to go A trait which, for better or worse, I may have inherited.
The rougher the road the more rewarding the journey and the more absorbing the story.

Indeed of all the supposedly dangerous places I travelled to around the world he would nearly always express a keen interest in what they were like rather than concern for me being there.
Plunge in head first and give it a go. That was my dad’s approach.
He always encouraged other people to have a go too. Have a go at things. It is a wonderful attribute to carry with you in life.
And what of his own character?
Well there was plenty of it.
He was never afraid of hard work. In fact, he knew no other way.
“Crack on! Don’t hang around! Get stuck in!”
These were his mottos. No time to waste.
Take the hands on approach and leave the Health & Safety manual in its rightful place gathering dust.
Yet he always had time for people, to chat to them, to give advice, even to lend a hand or fix something.
He was more than capable of seeing the good in all sorts of people, even those who sought to take advantage of his good nature.
He was unceasingly good-humoured, easy going and his company lively, always good value for giving as good as he got.
He was always willing to engage in banter or make a joke with his loud distinctive voice which seemed to dominate a room.
Yet he was also unfailingly curious and genuinely interested in the wider world. Eager to broaden his understanding.
He was whole-hearted in most things he did. Never shy to speak up, offer an opinion or put the world to rights.
So although his hands belonged in the soil, his mind, perhaps well-furnished by a lifetime of listening to Radio 4 and regular news watching and reading, was well-informed, engaging and perceptive.
He had a priceless ability and willingness to relate to and engage with others. Particularly young people. For more than a few people - myself included - he was the first employer.
I shall certainly miss his opinions, his insights, his advice, his humour, his encouragement…even his disapproval
So when I hear the words, “Rest in Peace”, I do reflect on the irony that peaceful resting was something he didn’t do an awful lot of.
Always in a hurry, he hurried through his life and, you might say, he hurried through his death too.

Life is rich. Time is precious before it overtakes all of us.

The lesson of his life is don’t let life or time pass you by.
My dad and mum in Argentina, the country where she was born and finally returned to enjoy....just a couple of weeks before my dad died.