The last time I wrote anything at length about my dad, I was 21. He had died just 48 hours previously, and my local paper The Pontypool Free Press was running a story on his death. As a popular local councilor and community figure they had a tribute planned. I had written a column for the same paper for a few years, and they asked me if I would write something in his memory instead of my usual column. I didn’t stop to think. It flowed out of me like water, a river of memories seeping onto a blank page. It was easy.
Only a few hours before he had been in our living room. He had wanted to die at home, with all of us around him. It felt like he was still there. His presence, always a towering one, certainly was. Writing in the past tense was impossible, so I wrote in the present tense because it felt kinder. I still didn’t accept he was gone of course.
Today, at 32, I’m all too acutely aware that he isn’t here. He is missed – and has missed – so much. If he were here today, he would be a proud grandfather to five beautiful boys and one girl. He would be in his element.
He loved children. Christmas was always his favourite time of year, and it now seems anemic without his singing, childlike excitement, and strict observance of traditions. Always with the ham and pickles on Christmas eve! Always with the letting us open a present a night early! The smell of fresh new pyjamas always takes me back to his eager Christmas Eve face, a face I wish so much I could still see. I see it of course, in photographs, but the contours have faded in my memory. What I wouldn’t give to see him smile, or frown, or furrow his brow in concentration.
What wouldn’t I give?
What wouldn’t we all give?
There’s a Luther Vandross song called Dance With My Father, that documents the pain his mother went through when his father died. Oh, my mother, who he adored with all his heart. It’s been my life’s ambition to have a man look at me the way he used to look at her, and somehow I don’t think I’ll ever achieve it. It’s bar set way high.
They met in a disco in the early 80s. My mum – a striking blonde and fashion rebel for whom most rules are there to be broken – was wearing army camouflage trousers at a time when puffball skirts ruled, ok?
He spotted her through the dry ice, to the strains of ‘Don’t You Want Me’ by the Human League, strode over and asked her out. My gran had warned her about him months earlier when they spotted him from my Auntie’s kitchen window. She was from a ‘good’ family and he was wrong side of the tracks material. “And that’s exactly the sort of young man you DON’T want to be bothering with” my nan had declared. And then the disco…And so it began…
My mother was 41 when he died. At 32, I realise just how young that is. They spent twenty years together, raising four children, struggling financially. With three of us out of the nest, and both of them in secure jobs after she put herself through university as a mature student, they planned to start enjoying life. They had big plans; tours around Ireland – where his family came from – and holidays they could never afford in the years where they worked so hard to give us everything we needed.
How cruel, to take him away before they got the chance?
I hate that he was taken away just as I had emerged from the rebellious fog of my teenage years and we were becoming good friends again. What wouldn’t I give to share an hour with him while he ekes out a glass of red wine and explains a story in the Guardian (never any other newspaper, of course) that I can’t quite get my head around? What I wouldn’t give to be out with him, running the trails that take us through the old mining village where he grew up, watching him kindly hang back in encouragement. He used to tell me I was a natural athlete. It’s what dads SAY isn’t it? Sometimes when I’m running now, I can see him ahead of me, smiling, sweating, all six foot something and muscular. My hero.
And he certainly ran a long way. Only now can I see how far his journey took him. He was from a poor Catholic family, with an alcoholic father. He had a childhood that I can’t begin to imagine, the few episodes of paternal cruelty I’ve heard about (from my mother of course, never him) just too much to bear when I think about my own little boy and how loved and wanted he is. He had a fiery temper that had been cruelly gifted on him by his own father, and only in retrospect can I see that he couldn’t have turned out any other way. How could he have?
He went straight down the mines from school, in the way most boys in the Valleys did back then. But there must always have been more. He burned with a sense of wanting better for his own family, never forgetting those around him and the experiences he had gone through. He was an instinctive socialist, and cared about the world and others in an all-consuming way I’ve only encountered once in a person since.
Injustice, inequality, the sheer scale of the decimation of the valleys after the Miners’ strike, these were all things that created almost a kinetic energy in him that compelled him to move to change things. And how much he wanted to change things. So he began by changing himself. Cripplingly shy, thanks to a speech impediment, my mum helped coach him to overcome it. When the local paper covered his death they called him “a fiery orator in the great tradition of Valleys speakers”. That’s the bit that makes me most proud, because I know what he had to do to get there. My mother, who believed in him unstintingly, was exactly what he needed to help him achieve his potential. She says she always knew there was more about him, that he was special. And together, they worked on it.
When he became a councilor sometimes I would go to full council meetings just to see him in action. I was so proud. The man I usually saw in overalls and jogging bottoms was always the most sartorially elegant in the chamber in his three-piece suit and ties. And when he stood up to speak…it was something else.
He afforded the formalities of local government with a respect that could only come from a man who never believed he would end up there. He literally clawed his way there, fueled only by a desire to help others. He never claimed his expenses. That’s all you need to know to get a measure of the man.
A man, a trade unionist, a miner, a steelworker, a public servant, a father.
A father. Who never got the chance to be a grandfather. I still can’t say or write that sentence without choking up. Maybe I never will.
There was so much more he could have been. But I’m grateful that he was on the way there when he was taken away. He was awarded his Open University degree at home, on his deathbed, the day before he died. He was so far gone by then, but I’m convinced he knew. At 44, he’d achieved what he should have had the chance to achieve at 21, but by accident of birth it was never on the cards for him. He did it. It should have been just the beginning for him.
There was so much more he could have taught me. But he gave me enough to make me the person I am today. The rest, I had to go and discover for myself. But he’s been with me every second of the way. Religiously reading the books I watched him read has been a little like having him here with me, for all of these years. And he’s with me still.
Yet, he isn’t.
What I wouldn’t give for him to scoop my son, my nephews and niece, up into a huge bear hug?
We were lucky to have him for so long. My sorrow now is for the little boys and girl who will never know him, aside from the stories their mams and dads will tell them.
Yesterday, he would have been 56. I wonder where he would be now in his life, what he might have achieved. But most of all, I wonder what it would feel like to hear his voice, and to pick up the telephone to him. To kiss him goodbye, the way I kissed him goodbye that night.
There’s a Jeff Buckley lyric I love: “A tear that hangs inside my soul forever”.
That’s what my dad is, to me. But somewhere in that water, there’s a rainbow….and how grateful I am for it.