By Nigel French
My father was good at fixing things. He could build walls, lay carpets, repair cars—nothing was beyond his competence. As a child, six maybe seven, I watched, humbled and expectant, listening to the sound of his breath, as he tut-tutted over my broken model fort, the one he'd made me for Christmas. Though he chastised me for my clumsiness, I knew with certainty that wrongs would be righted, mistakes erased. As a teenager, the fixes were more situational, yet even as a I grew exasperated at his indifference to the world's injustices—injustices that I personally had uncovered—I knew that when all else failed, my dad would somehow put things right. I knew he would be there to pick me up when I called, having missed the last train, too drunk to find my way home; I knew that if I asked nicely enough, or harangued persistently enough, he would lend me money with little or no expectation of getting paid back. And I knew on some deeper, unspoken level that he was there for me, a safety net breaking my fall as I tripped from one minor fuck-up to the next.
That was long ago, and between then and now everything changed. As my brother, Stephen put it, “One day he just got old.” In the years since I left, Stan—already forty by the time I was born—reached his three score and ten and found himself wondering what the world was coming to. To him, modern Britain was a land of promiscuous sex and drug addiction, a land where old ladies were mugged, children sexually abused, and where no one could be trusted. He longed for the decency and neighborliness of his youth, when men were strong and chivalrous, women modest and nurturing; when the young respected their elders, and when everyone respected authority. A time of faithful marriages, affordable prices, and hot summers. A time when young men gave up their seats to pregnant women, people greeted you in the street, and when people were proud to be British, because British was best.
I'd last seen my father the previous June when I brought Beth home for the first time.
“Get over into your right lane,” he said, as I was getting over into my right lane. “Brake,” he said, as I was braking. Maybe it was wanting to look like a grown up and not a harangued teenager in front of my girlfriend, or maybe it was the cumulative effect of years of micro management. In any event, I snapped.
“Shut the fuck up!”
It was a long-standing power struggle. For my eighteenth birthday he'd bought me an old Renault 4, that smelled of damp clothes and decaying rubber. Sundays, on the desolate roads around the factories, he gave me driving lessons. Stan was an excellent driver, he'd driven every kind of vehicle from motorcycles to heavy trucks, but his experience and confidence behind the wheel was matched by his discomfort and nervousness in the passenger seat. “Steady,” he would say, his wide, pale hand poised to grab the wheel, his foot working the phantom brake at so much as the sighting of another vehicle.
“You'll never bloody learn, will you?” he said when I told him I was going to take my driver's test, even though I wasn't prepared. I failed convincingly, narrowly missing a cyclist while making a three-point turn. Stan lost no opportunity to say, “I told you so.” The Renault sat parked in the driveway gathering rust.
Now I'm flying to England to see my father. I'm avoiding the obvious, unavoidable thought that this will be the last time. “My dad's sick,” I tell Beth. “I need to go back for a while.” She offers to come with me, but she has no money for the flight, and anyway we've just moved in together and she's still adjusting to that new reality.
At the hospital the ward is spotless, antiseptic. I peer through the window in the door, fourth room on the left as Debbie, my sister-in-law, described it. I see flowers, Get Well Soon cards, and familiar photographs: my parents' wedding picture, my father handsome in his Royal Marine uniform, my mother cautious in a pink suit, nothing too showy for a wartime wedding; there's another of Norman, Stephen, and me, my brothers already teenagers, Stephen shy and awkward, Norman in a practiced side-on pose he knows flatters him. I'm just a baby.
My father lies sleeping, open-mouthed, his sallow skin pulled taut over his hairless skull. Where his arm is outstretched his skin hangs from the bone in wrinkled clumps. Surrounding him is an array of tubes and ominous-looking medical technology.
This is my father, the life of the party, the one with the deep pockets, the funny stories and the risqué jokes that he would punctuate with that strange duck-like quacking noise. My father, who, when I was 10, got out his old boxing gloves. “Come on,” he'd say, offering his ample stomach as punching bag to me and my friends, “Hit me as hard as you can.” He'd dance on his toes in the garden like Mohammed Ali while we threw extravagant movie punches at him. He'd laugh them off as if they were no more than a tickle.
My father, the Royal Marine, who, as he liked to remind me, ran 10 miles before breakfast with a heavy pack on his back.
“Yeah, I know Dad—10 miles before breakfast,” I'd say, rolling my eyes, confessing to my lack of moral fiber due to missing out on such character-building experiences.
In the room, I greet my mother. She looks tired.
“Stan…Stan, it's Nigel,” she says, trying to sound upbeat. He stirs sluggishly. “He's just flown in…from San Francisco,” she reminds him of where I live.
“Oh, he made it,” he says. A look of recognition before dipping back below the surface. We wait in stretched silence until he comes around again. Mum has told me he complains that she never arranges his pillows the way he likes them, so I tease him about this and the corners of his mouth rise into a quiet smile. Or do I imagine that?
I hold his hand. It's white, cold; unlike the rest of him, it's still plump, not especially wrinkled. The hand of someone with years to live. I'm embarrassed, uncomfortable, annoyed with myself for being self-conscious. I want to hug him but he looks so frail.
“He got a cheap flight,” my mother says, although this is pure speculation, apparently so that Stan won't feel embarrassed that I've put myself out. As if visiting my dying father without the justification of a cheap flight would be an unwarranted luxury, at odds with the wartime frugality that my parents hold dear. Don't worry, I feel like saying, no trouble—I was just passing. Lucky coincidence that I'm here, right now, just as you're on your deathbed.
When Norman arrives that evening, together we sit around Stan's bed. Norman holds Dad's right hand; I hold his left. Stephen, who's always lived nearby, grumpy but unfailing, is silent, lets the distant sons do their handholding.
Norman, the eldest, takes charge. “Do you want less morphine Dad?” he asks, speaking loudly and enunciating clearly, as if addressing a novice English speaker. Stan responds with a squeeze and Norman informs the nurse. She apologizes that she can't cut back the dosage. Silence.
“I love you, Dad,” Norman says.
Shit, why didn't I think to say that? It occurs to me that I've never said it to him. Not in my whole life. I've hinted at it, talked around it, but I've never actually looked him in the eye and said, I love you.
I lean over and kiss his forehead: “I love you, too, Dad.” I don't know if he hears me.
We leave; I don't know why except that we've run out of things to say, run out of looks to give. We'll be back first thing in the morning. It seems both obvious and unimaginable that Stan will die tonight. The nurse informs us that my father is “very poorly.” Her classic British understatement makes it sound like he has a bad cold.
Walking to the car through a maze of corridors, my mother is limping. She's had a bad knee for over a year and can barely walk, but has delayed the necessary operation in order to care for Stan. I put an arm around her. “You know, Dad's lucky to have you,” I say. My mother is at my father's beck and call. I want to stop her right there and hug her and tell her how much I love her, how much I appreciate everything she and Stan have done for me, how I can't bear the thought of ever losing her. It comes out sounding trite, like I'm honoring her with some “Patience of a Saint” award. “You've been a tower of strength through all this Mum,” I continue. A cleaner shuffles pasts with a circular buffer, oblivious to our presence. Somehow a sterile hospital corridor doesn't seem the right place to be getting into this, but I'm on a roll: “You're always there for him, in sickness and in health, richer or poorer.”
She shrugs off my melodrama. Her role is to be stoic: “I just hope you have someone who will do the same for you,” she says. It's late; I'm on San Francisco time, wobbly with tiredness. “I have,” I say. At least, I think I have.
We drive to Stephen's. Same chair, same TV show. Any other time I might feel impatient, but now it's comforting to lose myself in the dramas of EastEnders.
When the phone rings two hours later we know to expect the worst. I make a mental note of the date: January 24, 1996. My mother takes the phone from Debbie and stands in the kitchen, her eyes looking through the wall to some far distant point. “Yes. Yes. Hmm. Hmm. I see.” She thanks the nurse for conveying the information, and then hands back the phone. Her three sons surround her, our arms thrown over each other's shoulders, an instinctive team huddle.
“I'll make a cup of tea,” says Debbie.
“He waited for us,” my mother says sobbing gently. “He waited for us all to be here before he went.”
We want to believe it, so we do.
The next day I call Beth. “My dad died,” I say. I hate euphemisms like “passed on” or “is no longer with us.” He's dead.
“He's dead? Oh, I'm so sorry.”
I'm annoyed that she sounds surprised. Wasn't it a foregone conclusion? Does she think I'm making it up? There's nothing she can say. I'll find fault with anything, but somehow her commiserations sound hollow.
The hip young vicar (with hair longer than my father would've approved of) refers to my father as Stanley, when everyone knew him as Stan. We sing Abide with Me, my mother's choice. I haven't sung a hymn since primary school, and back then I never really sang them, just mumbled the words. I belt this one out—a horrible noise, but I don't care.
I read a poem I'd written for my father 10 years before. Clearing my throat, I fix my gaze on the abstract shapes in the stained glass window above the door. With my first words I'm struck by how good the acoustics are. I make it most of the way without a hitch, but nearing the end I'm aware of the silence pressing in on me. The voice in my mouth is unfamiliar; I can't control it, can't stop it from wavering. Sentences become strings of unconnected words; words become jumbles of strange sounding syllables. I blink back tears, trip through the last lines, and hurry back to my seat.
At the reception there's tea in dainty cups—cups I've never seen before—polite conversation, and capsule summaries of missed years. Having done the weddings, it seems a grim inevitability that from now on I'll only ever see my family at funerals.
I see my cousin, Karen. Back when we were kids she practiced her French kissing on me, lying on top of me on parents' black vinyl sofa one afternoon during the never-ending school summer holiday. She was 14 and I was 11.
She talks to me with breezy chattiness, like we've just bumped into each other in the supermarket checkout line.
“How long have you been over in America, then?”
“Nearly ten years.” I say.
“Ten years. Well I never. How time flies.” She takes a bite of her sandwich, and I think that it's a waste to cut the crusts off. “Do you think you'll ever come back?”
“I don't know. Maybe.”
For a moment I'm no longer making forced pleasantries at my father's funeral; I'm just hanging out with my cousin, catching up.
“You like it over there, then?”
“Sure. For the most part. I mean…” I can feel myself waffling, “there's a lot I don't like about America, but I love San Francisco.” Karen seems unconvinced, so I become eager to impress her with just how much I like it.
“I became an American citizen last year…”
“Oh yes?” she raises her eyebrows suspiciously.
“I have an American passport now.” I consider showing it to her, but check myself. “I've still got my British passport, though,” I add hastily.
“Good,” she says, “you're English and don't you forget it.” It's her School Ma'am voice. She's only half joking. Part of me did forget it. But here, surrounded by my past, my uncles and aunts with their collective stiff-upper lip, unquestioning work ethic, and no-nonsense approach, I feel foolish for trying to escape the life that was waiting for me. When success is measured by family life and material comfort, living like an unmarried, childless slacker in California seems irresponsible.
After the guests have left and the dishes have been washed and put away, the family watches the videotape of my parents' 50th wedding anniversary party. It was Stan's last big day. He knew it and summoned every reserve of his declining strength for the occasion. Norman and Stephen were there; all the close friends and family came.
“Wish I could be there, Dad,” I'd told him over the phone.
“Not to worry,” he said. I could tell he was disappointed.
It's unsettling to watch a moving, talking image of someone who no longer exists. Stan looks like his old self: casual, but not without his starched shirt and necktie. He's animated, laughing. His speech—he'd obviously spent a long time on it—is funny, self-deprecating, touching.
I should have been there, I keep thinking. I'm overwhelmed with the feeling that I'm blundering through life, missing all my cues.
“Marrying Joan is the best thing I ever did,” Stan says, and I wish I could feel the same certainty he must have felt. About something. Anything.
Back in San Francisco, people say the appropriate things. Beth forgives me my crankiness; clients treat me with kid gloves, happy to extend their deadlines. Some people are uncomfortable; others see it as an opportunity to relate their own stories of loss and grieving, as if welcoming me to a club of which I'm now a member.
After the events have coalesced into something like memory, I wonder how am I to deal with my father's death. Maybe there's a finite number of responses to such circumstances and I'm living out a role that has been played by countless generations before me. Anyway, it seems that my reaction is typical: an urge to procreate, to give life after being so close to death. I'd always thought that I want kids, but fatherhood was an abstract concept, something I'd get around to sometime. Now it is urgent. And while the sappiness of the sentiment isn't lost on me, I want a son and I want to call him Stanley in honor of my father. I want my father to live on through my son, and for my son to know about his grandfather, and how, when he was a Marine, he ran 10 miles before breakfast with a heavy pack on his back.
A nice idea, but it isn't long before it is buried under the piles of everyday life. “I'm not ready,” says Beth when I broach the idea. And she never will be, at least not with me. Life goes back to normal, everything the same, the pieces gathered up and put back together. Mended perhaps, but look closely and you can see the cracks.