My father died over the weekend, around 6am on Saturday 18 April. He was 89. It was 23 years to the day after my mother’s funeral, an event I have written about more than once in these pages, including this piece from 2018. May he rest in peace.
He died peacefully in the care home he had lived in for over a year. Unlike thousands of deaths in care homes and hospitals in recent weeks, this one had nothing to do with Coronavirus. He just faded away. He had given clear instructions last month, via video link with a doctor, that he did not want any intervention when the end was near. The home was already observing its own form of lockdown long before it was imposed on the UK population as a whole on 23 March. Even so, my sister and I were allowed in to see him last Friday afternoon, so we spent a few hours with him. I am grateful for that. He was drifting in and out of consciousness, a shadow of the man he used to be. My sister got the call before 6am on Saturday that he was probably on the way out. She called me as she left home. By the time she got to him he had stopped breathing, but his body was still warm. She called me back while I was still trying to work out if I was over the drink-drive limit after a couple of bottles of Guinness Export the night before. I would probably have risked driving if he was still alive, but the decision was made for me.
All of this means that my brother, sister and I are now, technically, orphans, although the word doesn’t have the same weight that it would have if we were still children. We are all parents, and are all some way past our 50th birthdays. We three are the last of our generation to lose both parents. All of my first cousins are also orphans, but the sequence only began in 2011, when my father’s brother died. The 11 remaining cousins on my mother’s side were all orphaned in the last 16 months. My three aunts on that side of the family have died since Christmas 2018. I wrote about one of their funerals here in January 2019, and wrote this piece while travelling to another in July 2019.
Two years ago, in this post, I wrote about the ages of my cousins and siblings, and the decades we were born in: we were born in the 40s, 50s and 60s, and at the time we were all in our 40s, 50s and 60s. Now we are all in our 50s, 60s and 70s. None of my cousins became an orphan before the age of 44. Every cousin who became a parent was able to introduce their children to at least one grandparent. These are the kind of family-related statistics I would have discussed with my father, and they might have prompted some new information about his own cousins.
In normal circumstances the BBC television schedules would be filled at this time of year with live snooker, from the World Championships at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield. As with every other live sporting event this year’s Championships have been postponed. Like so many families, we spent hundreds of hours in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s watching events unfold from the Crucible. My father and I often stayed up late, especially if Alex Higgins or Jimmy White were still in the competition. Over the last decade I have visited him when other major snooker tournaments have been playing (like the UK Masters towards the end of the year) and an hour spent watching Ronnie O’Sullivan recalled those years more vividly than anything else could. I guess if we’d sat and watched repeats of “Fawlty Towers” we would also have been transported back to the 1970s, but we never did.
Yesterday afternoon, in place of any live snooker, BBC1 showed highlights from the 1982 final between Alex Higgins and Ray Reardon. I watched for a few minutes and thought, “Oh, Dad will be watching this”. But of course he wasn’t. His body is in a funeral home, awaiting cremation. His instructions were very specific on that score, amounting to what is currently called a “direct cremation”: no service, no friends or family present, the ashes to be collected and scattered at a later date at a particular spot in Kilkenny, not far from where he was born. Over the weekend I read that David Bowie’s funeral arrangements were very similar; the only difference is that his ashes were scattered in Bali.
Sadly for them, many grieving families right now are unable to have anything like the ceremonies that their loved ones requested. The “direct cremation” requested by my father is far more in tune with these troubled times, and we can say, in all honesty, “It’s what he would have wanted”.
You will forgive me for not coming over all emotional in this piece, for writing about facts more than feelings. That’s the general way of this Blog. In the weeks ahead I will no doubt be prompted to post memory-based pieces about time spent with my father, but not right now.