Three years ago my father died and I wrote this. Today it was possible to read it again.
At 1.30 in the morning my brilliant, inspirational father passed away.
When I got to the house the doctor had pronounced him dead and as I sat by his body little gasps of air continued to come out of his lungs as his body cooled. Life leaving the body is very different to what you imagine, and much more hazy. He had such incredible willpower, dying on the first and only day of his life that he'd said he wanted to, having fought the cancer(s) for an almost unimaginable 8 years.
There are so many things that are amazing about my dad. He was born on a council estate, with parents who offered mainly criticism, yet he became a genetics professor and worked on cancer his whole life. He supervised over 60 PhD students, each one with such pastoral care and long-term commitment that I have no idea where he got the energy. My godfather Pete, one of his first students, said that the thing about Jim was he made you think that you were special, deserving of all this attention, but what you didn’t realise was that he genuinely though everyone was special. Mum showed me his email box yesterday, there were over 1000 unread emails in it: incredible outpourings of grief and love from all the people whose lives he changed. He was never afraid of a fight that made him unpopular, controversial or threatened his chances of promotion. For the people who ‘got’ him they were devoted for life; for those who misconstrued his commitment as grumpiness they had their own loss.
He was a lifelong Liberal (a hangover from the '60s when the Liberals were genuinely radical), & after he retired he returned to his student politics and stood for council – amid chemotherapy – in a totally unwinnable seat, just for the bloody-mindedness of making the Tories fight the seat. And at the general election, when the cancer must have been ravaging his body, he was still out canvassing every street in the village each night. He adored my mother like I’ve never seen a man adore a woman, and they spent their 45 years together an invincible unit, working, living and socialising together. One without the other was totally unimaginable, they were each other’s better halves. He said to me once that he’d never looked forward to anything as much as becoming a grandparent, and he was totally committed to being the sort of grandparent we never had, moving countries to be close to his grandchildren, growing flowers and vegetables together, making plans to build a den together in the garden, endlessly questioning. He was a huge planner, constantly thinking of ways of making other people’s lives easier, and while it drove you crazy at times, I’m going to be a bit lost without knowing that someone is constantly looking out for me. And he was incredibly generous, not just with money although that too, but with his time and most of all with his thoughts.
One of those very, very rare people who thought of others before himself. He loved cheesy romantic comedies, taking hundreds of technically-terrible but very memorable pictures, and war memorabilia (I was classically named after the Jane ammunition manuals). And of course gardening; when we were children he was in the garden for hours every evening, Radio 4 blaring out, and chain-smoking the cigarettes that would eventually kill him. He was a big gentle giant, and often had terribly camp taste, which only he could carry off – he had a huge collection of cravats & hats (particularly panamas), walking sticks and watches. He was regularly mistaken for Peter Cooke as a young man. He would have loved to, but never had the patience to learn electric guitar. He had an encyclopaedic knowledge of history and politics, and could easily have pursued a career in politics and always wanted me to, not seeing that I was totally unsuited. He was infinitely tactile and warm, and hugged me more than anyone else has ever hugged me. He was very brave, and I only later realised put himself in all kinds of social situations which he hated in order to get things done. He never once complained to me about dying and the rotten hand he’d been dealt. He left us at least 30 years before he should have and has left the most unfillable hole.
As I walked back down the hill back to my house afterwards at about 3.30 in the morning, the baby furiously kicking in my tummy, I saw a shooting star for the first time in my life. It was a really beautiful night, I’d thought that before I went to bed earlier in the evening. Only a total cynic could have failed to feel a little comforted, although I can hear Dad now telling me to get a grip, pointing out that the odds were quite plausible. But as Dad knew only too well, I didn’t always listen to his rationalisations. We had sat with his body afterwards, my mother, brother and I, talking about how much we loved him and what he meant to us. When I came back to the house in the morning for a final goodbye his mouth - which had been open - was closed in a half smile, as if he’d been listening and was content to leave us. His skin was once again clear and soft, and although he was ridiculously thin, the pain or discomfort that had become ingrained in his body had dissolved. Now he’d gone.
*****************************************************About five years ago, knowing how much I love wisteria, Dad planted some on a trellis in my front garden. But it hasn’t thrived, and I’ve found the symbolism of this quite disturbing. But this year, spring came late and it finally blossomed – a wisteria like no other I’ve ever seen before. Of course being a lifelong gardener himself, Dad probably knew this and planned it to come at exactly the right time. He was after all, the world's greatest planner.