My father died yesterday. A peaceful end to a long and eventful journey. I am overwhelmingly sad, tempered by a gratitude for what he gave us, and how we were able to be together at the end. Writing about it is the only way i know to make sense of the story: sometimes you just have to write, no matter how hard it is.
Of course, i feel a certain pressure to write something good: i can sense the look he would give me if i resorted to sloppy eulogy or, worse, poor grammar.
To know my father is probably to know me: i have been fortunate to inherit some of his better qualities, and a fair few of his worse or more annoying ones.
When i say ‘better’ qualities, i mean those things he did as I was growing up that drove me to distraction: questioning, probing, and generally embarrassing me in front of my friends by demanding clarity and detail. In other words, the questions i ask myself now, the questions that make my own work occasionally strong, are the questions he instilled into me.
Not, i should say, through any formal teaching: i am for the life of me at a loss to think of a single time when my father taught me how to do anything well. His approach to parenting appears to have been to give me enough space to learn, and enough safety to trip up as I did so. Whichever direction we turned, our parents just gave us an open door (and often a taxi service to get us through it).
Of course, in the other column (and possibly an explanation for why they gave so much space) is that i am as stubborn as my father was. And as annoyingly opinionated at times. Although doubtless we would both claim that by ‘opinionated’, what you really mean is that we stick carefully to a well thought out position.
My father was a man of strong faith, as well as an accomplished academic, and i remember once having a lengthy conversation about the Anglican church’s view of homosexuality. The next time i visited, i saw that he had been reading a book about it. That’s another habit i have picked up from him: to be curious and i hope rigorous, and open to change. I feel sure you can find plenty of times when both of us were wrong, but few times when we were unwilling to change position if the argument was good.
Growing up, all of our shopping lists were written out on strange little rectangular cards: i did not know it at the time, but these things (boxes of which remained with us for decades, and still occasionally turn up as the bookmark in an old book) were punch cards for the giant mainframe computer in the basement of City Hall, that he had learned to programme and used for statistical analysis of his PhD, and then later to support other research.
I’m still unclear how father surfed his way into sitting at the heart of IT in his academic institution, but i suspect by seeing the mountain of the future and then climbing it. Because his first and, i suspect, enduring, love was of the outdoors.
Our standard family joke when growing up was to go on a long drive somewhere, only to hear father proclaim “i’ve canoed there!”
Before he was a father, and before he was an academic, he was an Outward Bound instructor, and his tales of camping, hiking, sailing, and kayaking, were doubtless what inspired me to find my own love of the outdoors. I only told him recently, but on all of my biggest adventures and expeditions, i carried the compass that he gave me.
When i hiked coast to coast at age 30, a fairly epic adventure that saw my friend Paul and i covering twenty five miles a day for two weeks solid, we got to the distant shore, waded in to the sea, then made for the nearest payphone. Back in the days when you had to carry coins, i had several five pence pieces ready for occasion, and i remember clearly when, over the crackling line, he told me that he was proud of me.
I grew up thinking that my father was an ‘old father’, as he had been slightly older than the parents of some of my classmates. So it was with considerable surprise that i realise i was a full twelve years older than he had been when i became a father myself. And more surprising still when i realised how totally unprepared i was. Not in the practical details, but in terms of the responsibility to create those open spaces, to instil those values, and to be the person who says that they are proud, not just of the big things, but the little things too.
As i try to find my own role, i will try to carry forward those things he taught me, not by teaching, but by being.
I suspect that my father was sometimes surprised by how different we were, but if he looked closely, i am sure would see what i guess i will see in my own son: that we are born in the shadow of our parents, but find our own light, that we are an accumulation of the things we are given by our parents, and the space we have to grow beyond them. We are all different, and yet recognisably the same.
As our own son reaches four months old, i feel acutely the responsibility to stand over him, to protect him. At this age, it is visceral: i ache when i am not with him, or able to comfort him. But the lesson i hope i can carry forward is that this responsibility changes and evolves over time. Perhaps at first we have to hold our children safely, but then later we just have to stand aside and let them find their own path. But what would i know: i am at the start of this journey.
I will be forever grateful that my father was able to meet, to hold, and to smile with, my son: whilst i feel loss, and great sadness, i also feel that this is the journey that we make.
And perhaps also something more: i think that i had always looked at the end of life with a fear of it’s finality. Certainly, i had rehearsed the first words of this piece in my head, time after time, as we felt the end draw near, with sadness. But i realise, with some surprise, that this is the last gift that my father has given me. The knowledge that a long life, lived humbly, and lived well, a life dedicated to family, to community, and to the search for knowledge and meaning, is a life well lived. And that, if we live that life, there is little to be afraid of at the end.
For now, i just want to focus my time on our family, to be together. But as we move forward, i still have my compass. Not that one that sits in my desk drawer, but the one who lives on in my heart and my head.