Today is my 36th birthday. It is tempting to give you another one of those posts where I panic about being in my late thirties without much of a current plan to succeed at the Game of Life before I hit 40. Believe me – plenty to say about that. But instead, I decided a while ago to make this one about my father. He died 18 years ago today and the fact that my life now splits neatly into two halves of 18 years, with my father and without him, seemed like a good reason to remember him here.
My father was born in Amsterdam during the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands. In the winter of 1944/45, when famine killed over 20,000 people, my grandmother took him to relatives in the countryside, where food was easier to come by. One of his earliest memories was being on the back of her bike on the way there, with her so exhausted by hunger and cold that she fell. When my grandfather died of a heart attack in 1949, my grandmother was left a single parent to three young children. I suppose she must have been around the same age I am now – a sobering thought. My dad, the eldest at eight years old, was promptly told by relatives that he was now the man of the house.
As someone astutely pointed out on social media in response to my EU referendum post the other week, I draw like a child – so I was quite tempted to just scan a photo for this post. But I ended up with a pencil sketch of one of my favourite pictures of him, taken in Paris in 1996. I really like it (the photo, that is, not necessarily my attempt to recreate it): his suit and shirt and smart shoes, even on holiday; the way he hung his jacket off the toe of the statue; his expression; the way he stands, upright and arms folded; and the statue itself, which seems arrested in surprise.
Military service was still a thing when my father was growing up and he spent around three years in the Dutch army in the early 1960s. He made it to First Lieutenant and, among other useful things, learnt to fold clothes and make beds with, well, military precision. He always made all the beds in our house and I remember struggling on occasion to insert myself between the tightly arranged sheets.
As well as being slightly old-fashioned, my father could be very playful and creative, making up endless bedtime stories for me and my brother. His creations for our annual St Nicholas evening once included a miniature swimming pool for my brother complete with tiny stairs welded out of paperclips. I think he secretly enjoyed these types of things because he had missed out on so much as a child during the war. Of course I clashed with him, mainly over my teenage sartorial choices which were the cause of many a screaming row. I wish he were around today so I could tell him that I totally get why he shouted at 15-year-old me for wearing leopard-skin tights, hotpants and high heels whilst we were on holiday in a small village in Ireland.
I remember the day in May 1997 when I came home from school and he told me that the persistent pain around his shoulder was not a pulled muscle, but lung cancer. A detail I will never forget is that he was wearing the same shirt he would be buried in just over a year later. He was not upset, or at least he didn’t show it. He calmly ran through all the facts of his diagnosis and reassured me that there was a reasonable chance he would survive. That was before we knew that the cancer had spread to other parts of him. In the end, my father had to accept that his mind was not stronger than his body and that the disease would win. I think this was one of the most difficult things for him, being someone so keen to grasp and dissect and control things.
In the week leading up to the Saturday of my 18th birthday, he had started to suffer occasional delusions. The medical term is encephalopathy, in his case caused by gradual organ failure. By the Friday, he had developed aphasia. I sat with him and cried and he asked me, have you got a cold? We gathered round his bedside that evening – my mother, my brother and I – but I am not sure that he recognised us by that point.
I was so terrified that all the 18 years of memories of my strong, caring, protective, generous dad, the man standing by the statue on that bridge in Paris, would somehow be eclipsed by that image of the emaciated and confused person in the last days of his life, that I mostly avoided going into his bedroom the next day. None of us knew how long this last bit would go on for, so for want of knowing what to do with myself I did not cancel the small clutch of friends who were due to come over for tea and cake. I was downstairs with them when my mother told him that they had two beautiful children together, and he died. I do not mind, strangely, that I was not at his bedside at the time – perhaps it was not a bad thing that he could hear young people talking and laughing downstairs.
My father’s life had shrunk immeasurably during that last year, limited pretty much to our house and garden and dominated by hospital visits and medical equipment everywhere. Despite all that, he accepted the circumstances with dignity. One sunny afternoon, lying in the bed that we had wheeled out into the garden for him, he said that he would have been contented to have grown old that way.
As I said in my last entry, grief is not a linear process. Even after 18 years, it occasionally taps me on the shoulder. When I think of something I’d like to talk to him about – Brexit, for instance – or of the many things he will never see or hear or know about. Although I am glad he has not had to witness some of the cock-ups in my life, and the world in general, I would have liked to have shown him that despite everything, on the whole, I am doing ok at being an adult.
Gijs Rupert 1941 – 1998