When I began to think about this I felt it was a shame that it would incorporate his death, so I considered not including it. Then I remembered that a friend once said to me, when I reported the death of a mutual friend to her: “Well, that was his life then”. So, it’s an unavoidable end to a complete story.
In the last year of his life, my dad’s health was on the wane; he found it difficult to eat and was uncomfortable around food. He obliquely referred to himself as depressed and self-diagnosed to his GP who treated him accordingly, with anti-depressants. Actually he had diverticular disease and died after his stomach perforated, causing septicaemia. He died four days after collapsing. In the week before his death I visited him and was shocked that his stomach was so bloated; I took him to the doctor who referred him for a scan and gave him some tablets to aid digestion but it was too late. During that visit, as I sat talking to my dad, the TV was on: an afternoon repeat of The Good Life. So incongruous that such a dynamic and proud man should be contextualised thus, in what was to be the last time I saw him conscious; he would NEVER have allowed this to happen had he been well!
As a child, my dad seemed to me a combination of extreme good looks and exceptional humility. He had ink-black hair and an olive complexion; I think he must have been breathtakingly handsome to the women in his orbit. He was a brave man who had tried to join the navy (as a boy, really) before reaching the legal age to do so but had answered wrongly: when they asked him how old he was he blurted out “1922!” – the year he knew he would have to have been born in order to sign up – rather than giving the fake age he had remembered. He was three years too young, anyway! He later made it to sea in the Merchant Navy and took part in the D-Day landings, an event about which, like so many men of his class, and others, everyday heroes, he never spoke.
About a month before he died, Auntie Lily, his cousin, came to stay with him and my mum. One of my sisters was also staying with them and one evening Auntie Lily confided in her that dad had been adopted but that she didn’t know whether he knew this. My sister was upset and panicked about it but I remember not being especially surprised. One day, whilst chatting with him and observing his almost Mediterranean good looks I had said to him, laughingly “Dad, are you Jewish? How come you look so different from Uncle Bill? Where do you COME from?”. “I don’t know, Jimmy” he replied, smiling, and we left it there. He wasn’t too big on in-depths: once, on a rare visit to the pub with him, I was holding my cigarette at face height, elbow crooked, as we talked, when he looked at me and said, rather sweetly: “Less of the Noel Cowards”.
He and mum had met when she worked as a nurse at the Brompton Hospital in the 50s and he was an inpatient having been operated on for TB. Mum talked, when pressed, about her experience of leaving rural Ireland and living first in Birmingham during the Blitz, training, and finally ending up at the Brompton; she enjoyed those London days when people would give the nurses free theatre tickets and there were always parties on her rare days off. It seemed so glamorous to us. I especially liked the name of dad’s surgeon: Miss Waterfall! Set against the great smog of the 50s, she sounded like a beacon of natural purity.
So, my sister and I asked mum about dad’s adoption and she confirmed that yes, he had been adopted, and that he had taken her to Kensington Gardens to tell her so, in order to make sure that it was OK with her before proposing to her. She said that once, years later, after all of us had been born, Auntie Bea came round with a woman who she didn’t introduce but whom mum said had the same incredible eyes as my dad and my youngest sister. She was sure that this woman was dad’s mother, but they left before he returned. We’ve learnt a little more about him since his death, because we wondered if it was an in-family adoption, which wouldn’t have been so unusual in the 20s. His parents certainly didn’t have money and they also had other children. It all remains a mystery though, and I don’t really mind that.
My dad never knew that we knew; he had never mentioned it to us. His brother, Uncle Bill, had been a prisoner-of-war in Japan – I never knew until his final months that he had suffered night terrors throughout his life – yet was the most gentle of men; whenever he visited with Auntie June he and dad would embrace, kiss and hold each other tightly, both of them looked slightly tearful afterwards and we understood that their bond was strong, that they were grateful to still have each other.
I’m glad that we never talked about his adoption, I think he would have felt it was a betrayal to the brother and family he loved; I don’t think you always have to talk about everything.
Once, when I was in hospital having a broken ankle set, aged about 30, a friend was visiting me when my dad turned up; as always, we embraced and my dad kissed me and held me to him. Later, my friend said that she had never seen a father so physically comfortable and affectionate with his son. I felt a bit guilty that I was used to it, and didn’t really think about it, though of course I do now. My mum was different: like a cat, she would let you embrace her but then start pawing at you to get out of your clutches. My sisters and I would sometimes ‘torture’ her with over-affectionate demonstrations, holding her a bit too long then laughing as she made her escape.
I remember: burying my face in his pale-blue-and-white striped towelling t-shirt when I had toothache; being given the t-shirt by him years later and wearing it until it fell apart; his chasing my sister and me upstairs with his slipper in his hand when we wouldn’t go to bed and all of us breaking down with laughter when we got to the top (he never, ever, hit any of us and we knew he wouldn’t this time); him telling me to take a pride in myself (i.e. hang my clothes up and polish my shoes); the thrill of his laughter when we said something funny and the pure generosity with which it was delivered (he was a fantastic audience); his protection of mum and the way we knew, instinctively, that he loved her more than he loved us, and we were glad that he did; the fact that he never drove, nor had any interest in doing so; the fact that he had sailed around the world but had no desire to revisit any of it.
I know that we anchored my adopted dad and my immigrant mum and I am grateful that we could, inadvertently, do that, and that their sense of belonging gave us the same feeling about them and about each other.
The last time we spoke, on the phone, before he collapsed and was taken to hospital, we talked hopefully and hopelessly about the medication he had been given and the upcoming scan. “Thank you, son” he said. I always felt a little bit strange on the rare occasions when he called me “son”; it sounded as though someone were speaking from another era, and of course in many ways he WAS from another era. There is no escaping the sentimentality of memory: it is unbidden yet implicit. I’m happy that this memoir of my dad is a sentimental one because he was a sentimental man. Isn’t ‘sentimental’ rather a lovely word? Doesn’t it just mean ‘feeling’ in its most elemental translation? So, my dad belonged to a generation of working-class men who had the opportunity and the pleasure and the hardship of providing for their families. Whose lives had been forever changed by their experience of war, of helping to deliver the world from Nazism. Who had taken the chance to change our world. Of course it is sentimental.
In that telephone conversation were the last words my dad ever spoke to his son.
“I love you”.
Jim Owen lives in London, is a member of an amateur choir but is always ready for a bit of a sing-song. Writes speculatively and slowly