Apart from the crassly obvious fact that the various branches of my family have evidently seen October as a particularly conducive month for shagging, it’s hard to know what to read into the fact that for me June is littered with significant birthdays. At the beginning of the month, my mum was 91. At the end of it, my son was 20. And in the middle my dad would have been 96. He isn’t, of course, as death has intervened. I should also note that this October shagging malarkey has jumped a generation, since my own parents clearly preferred a get-it-over-with-earlier-in-the-year approach to procreation given that my and my brothers’ birthdays occur long before the first cuckoo has troubled the readers of the Daily Telegraph.
But all this birthday-ing in June always leaves me scattered to the four winds emotionally speaking. Of course, birthdays are generally a matter for celebration, and for raised spirits. But they are also times for nostalgia, perhaps even sadness. Sadness that my mum potters along in a haze of confusion that I am powerless to dispel. Sadness too that my relationship with my son is more complex and more distant than I would wish. Sadness, of course, that my dad’s birthdays are now virtual rather than real.
My brother – the one who writes these and who engaged me in Alzheimer’s discourse – retrieved a recording of my dad singing an aria from Haydn’s Stabat Mater and I listened to it on my dad’s birthday last month. To be honest, between dad’s lack of preparation and the limitations of an old reel-to-reel tape recorder, with non-directional microphone, Haydn was probably twirling in his own grave. Not so much a rendition as a massacre, which is why I’ve spared you the 1967 home version and linked to a proper performance. But although my dad was no professional singer he had a sweet-toned tenor voice, and the key thing in that home recording is that it is his voice. It took me back, and set me thinking.
My dad died in 1994 after a three-week spell in hospital suffering from congestive heart failure. As ways to die go, I suspect this isn’t the worst; a relatively gentle downhill slope, mercifully alert and not doped to the eyeballs with morphine as might be the case with a death from cancer. As a family we’re about as demonstrative as so many blocks of wood, with all emotional transactions laced with so much irony and camouflaging humour that they are almost undetectable. Thus it surprised me in a way that I was so anxious to be with my dad when he finally died. I was on my way back to London from my last visit when I had the overwhelming desire to return to the hospital, and had my partner drop me off in Newark so that I could get the train north again.
I slept in the ward, and awoke early to go back to my dad’s bedside. He was weak, but alert. For the first time in 30 years I took his hand in mine. He turned to look me straight in the eye. A quizzical look, surprised at the sudden touch, and an equally sudden realisation that this could only mean that the game was up. The words “Love you , dad” came unbidden to my stumbling lips, but they never emerged. They were swept aside by the calls of “Nurse!”, driven by my urgent need to know if, for the first time in my life, I was holding a dead man’s hand.
So my dad never heard me tell him that I loved him. And I don’t think he ever told me explicitly that he loved me. History may sadly be going to repeat itself. But at least there’s this, this blogging business, this public stage for private exchanges. Perhaps, when I too go to my grave not having said the things I should have said, and possibly not having heard the things I want so badly to hear, my son will read this stuff and know what his 20-year old self maybe doesn’t know. That I love him more than he can ever imagine, and so much more than I’ve ever been able to express. And who knows I might, even now, pluck up the courage to tell him to his face. I hope so.