Down to a sunless sea: memories of my dad

I’m going to be releasing a new piece every Thursday for at least 8 weeks. General content note: death, dementia, old age, mental health issues, suicidal ideation

Hearts Breaking

We were on holiday in Cornwall. We were staying with my dad’s ex-wife, sharing her guest bed. I woke up in the morning and my dad wasn’t there. I called for him, and a different voice, not one I recognised, told me that he was in the room next door.

I found him sitting up in her bed, smiling at me but looking weak. There were other adults around. I was told that my dad had had a heart attack in the night and that he was resting until the ambulance arrived. Later in life, he told me that he’d been sitting up with an old friend who had been a nurse, smoking and drinking and listening to Leonard Cohen, when he’d felt a pain in his chest. He carried on for a bit hoping it would go away. When it didn’t, he mentioned it to her, and she suggested it might be a heart attack and told him to ring the ambulance.

I don’t remember much more about the specifics of it than that. I’ve found out more when making an episode of my podcast about it, interviewing him and the rest of the family and piecing things together. I remember being super-shocked and worried when he hadn’t been where he was supposed to be, but weirdly, after I saw him in bed and knew what had happened, I didn’t really worry. I guess because he was able to talk and everyone kept telling me he was going to be alright. I was only six, so I hadn’t really thought much about death yet.

I think it was when I went to primary school that I first became aware that my dad was old. That’s when you start to see how other people’s families work. I quickly discovered there were quite a few unusual things about my family set-up. Other children were surprised I had a niece who was older than me. They were confused when I called my half-sisters sisters. They noticed that my dad was old. They pointed out that my dad was from the same generation as their grandparents.

Adults would notice that he was old too, although they would normally say things like, “I can’t believe how fit he is for his age.” When I was at university, I found adults began to change their statements to, “No! He can’t be in his 70s!” People don’t say things like that now. He is finally believably the age he is.

When I was 9 or 10 I woke up in the middle of the night, lying in bed in my dad’s flat in Coventry. I had a sudden realisation. If, as I was beginning to believe, there was no life after death, then when you die you basically cease to exist. The world may carry on, but you won’t know it. You won’t remember you. In some ways, you will never have existed at all. This terrified me, and I ran into my dad’s room and woke him up. He asked me what was wrong and I explained it all to him. He said, “If you don’t exist, you won’t know that you don’t exist. But we can’t know what happens when we die. We know we are alive now. And we’re safe.”

This was the first time I remember realising that death existed. And even though my dad’s words did comfort me in a way, I also realised that he would also die. I held him tightly and fell asleep.

The other thing that made me start to contemplate his age was him reading the Lord of the Rings to me. It’s a book filled with old men and I saw elements of my dad in many of them: Tom Bombadil, Bilbo, Denathor, Saruman and especially Gandelf, who begins as Gandelf the Grey and ends as Gandelf the White, just as I’ve watched my dad’s hair change during my lifetime. I think it may have even significantly changed during the time we were reading the book. My dad has particularly bushy eyebrows, and I remember lying against his chest and looking up at them as he did his Gandelf voice. The other old man in the book who particularly chimed with something inside my relationship with my dad was Theoden. I cried when he died, but my tears were as much for the future death of the father reading to me as they were for an old king killed in a last stand.

Out of doubt, out of dark, to the day’s rising
he rode singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
Hope he rekindled, and in hope ended;
over death, over dread, over doom lifted
out of loss, out of life, unto long glory.
But Merry stood at the foot of the green mound, and he wept, and when the song was ended he arose and cried:
‘Théoden King, Théoden King! Farewell! As a father you were to me, for a little while. Farewell!’
A clip of my dad reading The Lord of the Rings taken from a radio play I wrote at university, containing music composed by Alexander Cameron.

When I get depressed and anxious, I sometimes experience suicidal ideation. I didn’t realise for years that I was someone you could describe as suicidal because I didn’t think about dying — I thought about stopping existing. Sometimes I would consider ways to make myself stop existing. But I didn’t use the word ‘die’, not to myself and not to other people. And somehow that managed to trick me.

It’s interesting to think now that when I first imagined stopping existing, that idea horrified me. Now it frequently seems very appealing.

I’m still pretty terrified of my dad stopping existing. He has been such a part of my life that it feels like a world without him in it is impossible. But ever since I was a child, I have been imagining that world. I’ve played out his death so many times. I’ve written it into fiction and songs. I’ve spent hours in my mind going through how it will be. What I might think and do. How it will affect me. How it will affect my family. And I’ve always thought it would probably happen soon. But it never has.

When I was 15 years old, my dad, whose heart was playing up again, had a quadruple heart bypass. He was due for a triple heart bypass, but when they opened him up, they decided to give him an upgrade.

His heart condition also clashed with a family wedding, so most of the family were unable to be with him as much as they would have liked. I didn’t go to the wedding. I couldn’t.

When my dad talks about the bypass, he sometimes sees it in terms of World War Two. He had a very lucky war; in many ways you could say he actually had a great time. He was a radio operator and got to travel the world, never seeing any frontline action. Not all of his contemporaries were so lucky. As he was being put under, he thought of all the people of his generation who had put their lives on the line and he faced it without fear, seeing it as nothing compared to their experiences.

He faced death then on that operating table, but he survived.

At university, my friend and I used to joke about which one of our parents would die first — her mum, who had a terminal illness, or my dad, who had old age. Both our parents are still alive 15 years later. You can try and anticipate death, but it rarely runs to schedule.

Now when I think about my dad dying, it is more a hope. I hope that it will happen quickly, and soon. I still don’t know how I will feel in a world that doesn’t have him in it. But I also wonder if it does still have him in it. He is now both less himself and less inside the world.

A song I wrote about my dad and death, I’m not that happy with any of the versions I have of this song but this one is probably the best
So he rode to a green hillock and there set his banner, and the White Horse ran rippling in the wind.
Out of doubt, out of dark to the day’s rising
I came singing in the sun, sword unsheathing.
To hope’s end I rode and to heart’s breaking:
Now for wrath, now for ruin and a red nightfall!
These staves he spoke, yet he laughed as he said them. For once more lust of battle was on him; and he was still unscathed, and he was young, and he was king: the lord of a fell people. And lo! even as he laughed at despair he looked out again on the black ships, and he lifted up his sword to defy them.

This is part of a collection of essays that I will be releasing here on medium weekly over the next few months. Click here to read the introduction.

To read Part 8 click here:

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Thanks to J Adamthwaite who edited these pieces for punctuation/grammar and provided notes and support.