Fathers’ Instants

First Father’s Day without a father. My daughter is planning to take me to/go with me to the cinema. I am, as ever where the cinema is concerned, highly excited, and deeply touched that she thought of it, but, as I wait for her, I’m thinking about my dad.

You don’t imagine an arbitrary, commercialised occasion would matter, in that same slightly ruthless way I assumed in the immediate aftermath of his death that other people’s set statements of consolation wouldn’t really console me. I was wrong: the formulaic is never completely emptied of meaning because we are so desperate for any meaning, all the time, otherwise we wouldn’t buy into commercialism or indeed suspend our disbelief at the cinema, but especially at these moments of extreme vulnerability.

So their statements were comforting, because I looked people in the eyes and saw that they meant it – these were just the words they had to use. And so too his absence today carries extra emotional resonance even though we would speak of it as something of more interest to the other members of our family than ourselves, the two fathers supposedly at the centre of the occasion. Perhaps it matters because we spoke of it that way, and had our secret anti-Father’s Day pact, which was a way of sharing something more momentary, a fathers’ instant, and now that pact is broken.

As with so many of the reasons I mourn him, there is that little selfish element (you continually castigate yourself for feeling sorry for yourself, for not mourning the dead ‘purely’ in and of themselves) – he was the one who knew what I meant, and I the one who knew what he meant. This was a small self-importance we gave each other, and today, three months to the day after his death, even though I know it is the same kind of knowing which led my daughter to think of us going to the cinema together, I feel its lack.

I was reminded forcibly of his death by Marion Coutts’ piece in The Observer about the illness and death of her husband, the critic Tom Lubbock. Two moments resonated for me: that instant in which you witness how the world remains unaltered by this event that changes you utterly; and the strange calm recognition of something entirely natural in the instant of the death itself, as well as how absolutely momentary it is.

Of the first, she writes:

‘Perhaps the one cruelty of this story is that after this, when I look onto the garden, it will look the same. There will be no outward sign. At death the world does not alter: no shift of earth or change of colour, no noise, no shimmer of light, no falling or collapsing of physical objects. The tree standing there will still stand.’

For me it was returning in the dawn after my father’s death and hearing the birds starting up. I started writing a series of brief notes to myself when I got in the house, as though if I could find any phrase at all I might be able to sleep. One was:

‘Returned from the hospital at 6am, the sky frowning into dawn, the birds busy singing. How many choruses must he have listened to here, a man who couldn’t sleep, and now the first he can’t hear.’

Last weekend, my mother and I were about to drive from the house in Monifieth into Broughty Ferry. It was evening, still light, and there was a bird on a neighbour’s roof, I think a blackbird (I’m terrible with birds, and it was just a silhouette against the sky). It was producing an absolute torrent of song which seemed to combine every element of trilling and chirping and imitative sound going. It barely repeated any unit more than twice before going off on another idea and another. I had been going to get in the car, but just stood there astonished.

It was like being in the presence of a sort of genius, and yet it was a perfectly ordinary evening. I remembered how I’d felt obscurely angry with the dawn chorus for pointing out to me that things were simply going to continue – and something flipped: the bird was demonstrating, though without any intention of doing so, how this was an ordinarily perfect evening. All I had to do was pay attention.

Of the death itself, Marion Coutts wrote:

‘On Tuesday, Tom goes to sleep. His breathing is natural and ordered. His face relaxed. When watched closely like this, watched out as if your own life depended on it, death is normal. It is a series of stages more or less known. Here is a person asleep who will not wake…’

Then she says:

‘He glided so delicately out, his absence so continuous with his presence, with us and without us, that I didn’t catch the moment and immediately it happened it had already gone and was behind me. So. Just me.’

My father died in his sleep. He had sleep apnea for years, and it was a combination of this with the lung condition he had developed and a heart weakened, perhaps by these symptoms, perhaps by age, perhaps congenitally weak, that led to his death. His carbon monoxide levels had suddenly soared, despite intrusive ventilation by mask, and his system could not cope.

He was only breathing at intervals, sudden gasps that no longer disturbed him. The terrible cough that had made his last year an increasing misery had abated. We were holding his hands but he no longer seemed to feel us. I was watching the pulse in his neck and, when I looked away to clean my glasses and wipe my eyes, it must have stopped. There was a moment in which I realised this, and another in which I realised I had to tell my mother.

At such moments we all recognise something we share as the living, as the surviving element of whatever relationship we’re losing the mutuality of. It too feels normal and extraordinary at the same time, something we knew in theory or in glimmers or in long lucky patches of falling in love or of spiritual exaltation.

But it feels most particularly that this is something the death is granting you in a way you can barely process and that the grief is part of. As though this is the first time you’ve really understood, for all those years of meditating upon it, all those flashes of what you hoped were or what indeed felt like insights into it, what the present is.

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About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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2 Responses to Fathers’ Instants

  1. joanhewittpoet says:

    Your honesty is powerful.

  2. richardgwyn says:

    Deeply appreciated this, Bill, and shared it with a student of mine who has herself recently lost her father.

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