David Bowie, Prince… and now dad

Two weeks and three days ago my dad died. It was unexpected. At about seven in the morning, he jumped out of bed and collapsed on the bedroom floor. Mum called the ambulance but they couldn’t revive him.

He’d had a massive heart attack. He was 67.

When I say it was unexpected – it was as unexpected as it could be for a man who had five heart bypasses when he was 47 and had spent more time than most on the cardiac ward of Frimley Park hospital.

But after lots of false alarms our guard had gone down. Over the last few years he seemed healthier than he ever had been. He’d been to the doctor just a few days before and been given the all clear.

So it was a shock, but then at the same time, not really.

The last two weeks have felt like five years. In Ireland the funeral is straight away – well, a couple of days after you die. In England it’s normal to wait two or three weeks – it’s a strange limbo.

After the crying, the phone calls and the death related admin it’s hard to know what to do.

Mum spent her time cleaning everything in sight. One day she was scrubbing the inside of the kitchen cupboard and couldn’t figure out why the stain wouldn’t budge. It turned out she was trying to clean a shadow. She laughed. Then cried.

My sister had a funeral spreadsheet.

I did what I always do when I’m upset – I got sick and slept in front of the television.

When there was nothing more to clean and nothing left to organise, everyone joined me on the sofa, watching crap, eating the food that people so kindly brought over.

It felt like Christmas – with a coffin.

Then last Thursday we had the funeral.

A couple of days after he died, Mum and my sisters asked if I wanted to get up and say a few words and I said I did – but then I got nervous. How to say the right thing. To be generous without whitewashing a man who could quite honestly drive a saint to distraction. A man whose life was one of extremes – extreme highs, and in latter years, extreme lows. 

I got uptight the night before, worrying that it wouldn’t be good enough, wouldn’t be right… Then my sister intervened and gave me a helpful reminder: the funeral was not about me.

Fair point.

So in the end I just shared a few memories of what he was like when we were growing up.

I thought I’d share what I said here too, if that’s OK –  a tribute to a man who, in one or another, probably had a lot to do with this blog. A man who drove me crazy but who made me think about the world.

My dad.

***

When dad met mum he told her he couldn’t promise her much but he could promise her this: their time together would not be boring. 

A couple of years later, when we came along, dad made his three daughters another promise – that nobody would annoy us, frustrate us and wind us up as much as he could. 

He delivered on both promises. Dad could be the most infuriating man on the planet. 

When we were growing up he was of the opinion that once he was awake everyone else should be too. He would come into our rooms at the crack of dawn, fling open the curtains and start singing ‘Oh what a beautiful morning’ at the top of his voice. He’d throw our duvets back and once we started screaming and shouting, he’d smile. His work was done. ‘There you go, that’s got you going for the day,’ he’d say before causing havoc in the next room. 

But he was never boring.  

I remember coming home from my friend Lucy’s house only to find him ripping up the carpet and moving furniture. He and my uncle had shovels. Dad had decided to dig a swimming pool in our front room. 

Another time we came home from school to find a camper van outside the house. He had bought it on a whim, with plans to take to the open road. It never left our driveway. 

His unconventional parenting style meant that normal rules did not apply. 

Take the time he let my sister practice driving in front of the house. I was doing my homework in the kitchen when I heard an almighty bang. Mum shrieked. We ran to see what it was, only to find dad’s car parked in our hallway. Sheila had driven through the front door. She was 13 and the car she was driving was a Jaguar. Dad looked at the hole in the house, then at the relatively unscathed Jag and said: ‘Great cars, aren’t they?’ 

He always got a kick out of getting us to do inappropriate things. 

When we were on holiday in Florida he sent my sister Sheila to the pool bar to get a Scotch on the rocks. She was three and wearing armbands. My other sister Helen was sent to the local garage to buy cigars from the age of eight. 

So, between the booze and the fags, we can blame him for all our vices. 

But we learnt a lot of good things from him too. 

Dad was never judgemental and was generous to a fault.

He was very funny – an independent thinker who brought us up to believe that anything was possible if you worked hard enough and put your mind to it. He did not care what we did as long as we enjoyed it.

His career advice to us was simple: ‘You can always get a job in Tesco’s’ – a mantra that he repeated about once a week. This was not a threat – it was actually meant to be a comfort. After growing up poor and hungry in 1950s Ireland he thought it was near miraculous to be in a country where, no matter how bad things got, there was always social welfare, and, well, Tesco’s. 

He was proud that his daughters went to university. Dad might have left school at sixteen but he believed in education. He was always absorbing information. He watched the news constantly and spent a good chunk of his life worrying about the economy. ‘Can’t spell it but I do worry about it…’ was one of his slogans. 

And there were many slogans. ‘It’ll be better before you’re married,’ said when we fell over as children. ‘Little pickers wear bigger knickers’, said every time we ate cake…

Then, as we grew up, the most used phrase was this: ‘A bit fond of the old drink, aren’t you?’ which was said every time we went near a glass of wine…

***

After that I kind of tailed off.

I didn’t know how to finish it and so I just stopped.

A bit like dad.

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