My father was an articulate and erudite man with a passion for music and electronic engineering. So it was appropriate some of his career was centred within the 60s and 70s music industry. He was a man with a rigid perfectionist streak. He was also a forceful mentor at the beginning of my
academic life—to the extent migraines sometimes plagued my eleven year old brain. At the time I guess he just wanted to me succeed where he had failed but never realised that I could never be as adept he. Yet, neither us would have predicted he would ‘shuffle off’, as he liked to put it, at the start of the second semester of my first year at University.
When he died from Terminal Liver Disease I had no time for grief, the focus was given over to completing my degree. And now that my graduation photograph sits alongside his urn in the living room I find myself at that stage where a combination of guilt and anger wells to the surface; if I let it. Guilt because my time was consumed with looking after a new-born granddaughter after he was diagnosed. Anger because his disease, as he said, was ‘Well earned’; the result of many years of alcohol abuse.
Dying is a process which impacts on us all in one way or another. My brother took up the task of carer as the disease progressed and my father struggled to make sense of his limited mortality. I knew he struggled because those evening or mid-afternoon telephone conversations with him often began with enquiries about my progress and drifted towards him philosophising about his life.
Always they ended with ‘I love you.’ Words I rarely heard as a child. Alcohol does that, it robs a person of the ability to express these profound emotions via word and deed.
It took three years for Dad to die during which time, out of necessity, he remained sober—he had been warned by The Hepatologist that just one drink would have sent him straight back to hospital and very probably to his grave. For much of this time he was lucid and articulate and I never heard him complain about the liver pain or my periods of absence.
Towards the end of his last year his thought processes and vocabulary became as jumbled as a pile of old socks waiting to be sorted into pairs. He asked if I had been back to Africa, a journey I made in 2008.
‘Don’t you remember me phoning you as I travelled to Agadir airport in a jeep?’ I asked. He didn’t answer but I sensed his confusion. For both of us I think it was like trying to grasp the ends of fine string in the wind. There were also incidences of him asking me to visit and then telling me ‘The event hadn’t happened yet,’ when I telephoned to confirm travel arrangements with him.
I understood what he meant by The Event. We had often talked about how he wanted his funeral to proceed; a simple affair and a celebration of his life. Yet, I couldn’t understand why he cancelled many time in those last months.
And here is the awful thing about it.
Despite him not wanting me at to visit him at the undertakers—he knew only too well from his R.A.F days how embalming distorts a corpse’s appearance—it was not until I saw his yellowed body did I realise just what the liver disease had done to him. Jaundice is so toxic it impacts on the cognitive to the extent the sufferer exhibits symptoms similar to being drunk. Suddenly I was aware of why he had again tried to distance himself from me. He had wanted to spare me from the ‘shit and piss’ involved in the dying process. And all the while he had held on to the hope that the tiny amount of liver regeneration, The Hepatologist spoke of during one of the early consultations, would prolong his life. Of course it didn’t. His liver was so scarred from cirrhosis that it couldn’t utilise the new tissue.
Today, three years after his death, the prospect of the man he could have been and the man that he actually was occupy my thoughts. This was a man who introduced me to Roger Meadows who was sat in a chair in a 60’s recording studio with Freddie Mercury standing beside him. At the naïve age of eleven how could I have understood the implications my father’s enthusiastic tone for Mercury and Meadows while travelling home on the Underground. It is memory as elusive as one of those ends of string wafting in the wind. Yet, somehow Queen’s These Are the Days of Our Lives still seem a fitting tribute for my father; just as it did at his funeral.
Stephen Allen Hardy: 1938-2011