Alfred Downs, by Jackie.

Alfred Downs 1

Tuesday 13 February 1979

So, this is how it would have gone down. He’d have been sitting in his armchair, the one directly facing the telly. I’d have sat my ten-year-old self on his lap, or maybe on the pouffé (that’s what we called it in the 1970s) in front of him. He’d have given me a 10 pence piece from his pocket, and I’d have told him about my day. I didn’t talk to him for the money; I talked to him because we both loved having a chat between the end of teatime and my bedtime. But the money came in handy.

I can’t remember what we spoke about that night. Maybe we discussed the excitement of the next day – his and my mum’s 20th wedding anniversary. I know I was excited about it. I’d been saving those ten pen pieces and had used ten of them to buy a china bell from the local market. It was wrapped and hidden in my wardrobe and the next day he was going to see it.

Except he didn’t.

Because on his way home from work he suffered two heart attacks. The ambulance crew brought him round after the first one, but his heart wore out. The second heart attack killed him.

Wednesday 14 February 1979

I remember a lot about this evening from so very long ago. I remember us having our tea without him. I remember standing the china bell on the table with the anniversary card around it. I remember what I watched on TV while I waited for him to come home. I remember my mum going to the front door at regular intervals. I remember opening the door to the police officers. I remember saying to my mum ‘He never saw the present I bought him.’

That china bell.

Alfred Downs 2

Way back when

He was 59 when he died. I was ten. That’s quite an age gap. He was older than most of my friends’ dads, but there were reasons for that. We were his second family. He’d been through this before.

There are things about my dad that I never found out about until long after his death; things that made me think, quite simply: My poor dad.

This is how it went down….

When he was 13, he came home from school and found his mum, dead, in a pool of her own blood. My own mum told me this story when I was in my 30s. For obvious reasons it wasn’t something he ever spoke about to me. I was too young, and maybe even if he’d lived it wouldn’t have been something he wanted to dwell on. Somehow, somehow he managed to live with what happened, what he saw. He managed to go about his life, to form relationships.

One of those relationships was with the woman who became his first wife. They had a son. When their boy was a toddler she left, with my dad’s best friend. Somehow he managed to live with this, managed to go about his life, to form other relationships.

He met my mum, had another son, then me. And then he went to work one day and he never came back.

His life was one that was built around people not coming back. It could have made him closed and wary. But he found a way to make it not matter. Maybe those losses made him crave company and family. I’m glad they did, because it meant for ten years I had a dad who took me to the park, to the seaside, who built sandcastles with me, who watched me bounce and soar on trampolines embedded in south coast beaches, who read to me, who talked to me every night before I went to bed.

And so when I think about what he went through, how he suffered, what he lost, and what he was emotionally brave enough to look for again, I no longer think, ‘My poor dad.’ I think ‘My amazing, open, fantastic, optimistic dad.’

Jacqueline Downs lives in Crystal Palace where she is a writer of short stories, an editor of academics and a mixer of old-fashioneds.

Goodbye, by Lubi Barre

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The man staring at me through my iPhone screen is old. His hair is completely grey and close cropped. He’s lethargic, his eyes heavy, his voice slow. He used to know several languages but now can barely speak his native tongue. A tongue he had passed on to me but that I barely use in my new life.

I say “Father it’s your daughter, Lubna”.

He hardly responds, looking back with low lids at the iPad shoved in his face. My mother goads him to respond and like a good school boy he says a rehearsed “hello how are you doing.”

I say “Father, it’s Axado” and suddenly he bursts into a knowing smile, remembering the special nickname he gave me as a child: Sunday.

I say “Father, it’s Axado, look at my baby son, we say hello”. His smile widens, his soul remembering his love for babies even if his brain can’t comprehend that this one belongs to me.

I do not know this old man. The father I knew and left four years ago was old only in years. His voice was strong, leaving me pleading messages to return his calls as I erased them.

And now, I find myself picking up my son like a prop and presenting him to his grandfather on a phone screen. They both look at each other, like strangers, unaware they share twenty-five percent genetically.

I am not sure if they will get the chance to meet. I know for sure that my father can no longer give me advice, does not have the strength to hold his grandson, to make the connections needed. I know that he will not be able to change my son’s diaper when his own needs changing.

I wish it did not take me this long to become responsible, to understand how fixable everything is. I wish I knew the fragility of life before the feel of my son’s new skin.

I say “Goodbye father” and wave my son’s hands for him while his own lays limp. My mother prompts him to answer and he says, like an old man, “Goodbye, have a nice day.”

 Lubi Barre is a writer living in Hamburg, Germany with her husband and two children, trying to perfect her German before they are old enough to hold a conversation.

Roy Rogers, by Jude

Dad and Jude

I’ve had enough of writing about my dad’s death. It’s time to write about his life.

Dad was Roy, born to Vera and Theo on 17 February, 1950. He had a much older brother, Donald, although his parents weren’t married when he came along; Donald was brought up by his grandmother, and his surname was Sweeney. Dad lived in Craigcefnparc, and Gorseinon, but beyond that I don’t know very much. The details of that side of the family are sketchy. Time makes them sketchier.

Mam has a black-and-white picture of Dad as a toddler, though, wearing a cowboy costume. It’s not clear if Dad was named after Trigger’s owner, or if the family were just having fun. Dad has chubby cheeks, and dark eyes with a glint in them.

Dad loved Craigcefnparc. I know this from a secondary school friend of his, Myron. I found Myron online, or rather a poem Myron had written dedicated to Dad; it talked about “time’s torrents” and how casually they dealt with things. I e-mailed Myron a few years ago, and went round his house, where we talked about Dad over milky tea and thick rounds of sandwiches. Myron’s memory was patchy. He remembered Dad crashing his bike into a wall as a teenager, and going into hospital for treatment. Dad was good at science too, he said, but I knew that; he’d taught at the comprehensive school I’d go to years later. I was in the intermediate class and awful at physics. Sorry, Dad.

Dad was handsome as well. He had heavy, blue-black hair, as thick as strong wool, and proper Welsh melancholy swimming underneath his heavy brows. My mother first saw them, and him, at a bus stop in Fforestfach, as she set off for her first day at Swansea’s teacher training college with a friend. This boy got on the same bus. He got off at the same stop. He climbed the same hill as them, and turned off when they did. She told me this recently, her eyes still alive at the memory. He wore a red V-neck. They got talking in the common room, she said, just because everybody did.

The first time he came home to Borough Road, Grandma’s friend, Merle, went, bloody hell, he’s a bit of alright. Mam and Dad married four years later, on a hot July afternoon. I arrived five years later in 1978, seconds after Swansea got promoted to the third division under their new manager, John Toshack. My brother Jonathan arrived on Guy Fawkes’ Day four-and-half years after that, and fireworks were let off at the roundabout at the end of our cul-de-sac.

Dad nearly got roughed up once, at a Swansea-Cardiff derby with Uncle Huw (Uncle Huw’s not my real uncle, but he was my dad’s best friend, so he is). They were in the gents’, at the urinals, Huw told me, as deadpan as ever, on a Facebook thread out of the blue a few years ago. Dad had my mother’s school scarf on – I’ve always loved him even more for that. They were down Swansea’s end, Dad and Huw, and two Cardiff fans appeared out of nowhere, rough and ready for a fight. My mother’s school scarf was in Cardiff colours, so Dad fibbed about his allegiances. A clever bugger, my father. Just don’t tell John Toshack.

Dad kept getting mistaken for people who weren’t as Welsh as him, too. Once, for some reason, George Best at another Swans’ match, with my mother. Another time, in Sidoli’s ice cream parlour in town, someone Italian. Swansea was full of Italians, so that wasn’t unusual. Senor Sidoli himself came up to Dad, rabbiting away in full lingua madre; Dad shook his head softly and answered in lilting Swansea English. I still remember Dad’s voice, because I have a tape with him on it from 1983; he’s encouraging my baby brother and I to talk into the microphone on it. His voice sounds deep, rich, soupy, like so many voices I know, but stiller somehow, and stronger. It remains as familiar to me as water.

My own memories of Dad are captured in round-cornered photographs in faded browns, oranges and greens. It’s hard to know if I invented memories to fit those frames, or if those recollections lingered properly in my mind. Him reading to me – I’m not sure if that’s from my own head. Him teaching me how to write programs on his Spectrum 48K computer – that has to be. I remember being a bit older, 8 or 9, making a tune on the rubber keys in that way on my own, then writing a one-armed bandit game from one of Dad’s ZX magazines. God knows what he’d make of the world now. 10 PRINT “JUDE”. 20 GO TO 10. RUN.

I also remember going to Dad’s last school, a primary, just before he stopped teaching, and meeting his infant class, who were around the same age as me. Dad told me to get his keys from the staff room from a white box, so I did, and there was a chocolate bar next to his keys with my name on it. The sweetness, the fun, in that gesture, is what breaks my heart, really. But it shouldn’t break it, should it? It should make it swoop and sing.

Six months ago, I gave birth to my first child, a son. He arrived in an operating theatre, the same environment as the one where Dad died. After I numbly felt the doctor’s tug, pull and wrench, there were a few minutes when mine and Dan’s baby didn’t cry. They were the longest minutes of my life. And then Evan did.

My son has chubby cheeks, and dark eyes with a glint in them. He also carries the surname of his mother, and her father. When things get hard, I must remember that I was given life, and that I have given life. Life passes on through us. It has to. It always will.

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Jude Rogers is a writer and broadcaster for The Guardian, The Observer, Q, Marie Claire, In-Style and Radio 4.

Stuart Wilson, by Leah

Stuart Wilson

I used to think the first memory I had of my Dad was when he took me and my brother to the park and told us that he and my mother were going to live apart, that they were getting divorced. We were sat on a bench in Debdale Park in Manchester, right next to the enclosure where they kept all the rabbits and the birds, my favourite place. For most of my life I thought that was the first time I remembered my Dad. But it wasn’t.

There’s fleeting images of him returning home from a work trip laden with gifts – American Airlines teddies, gumballs, t-shirts with wolves on them, carved Elephants from India. There’s the memory of gleefully trying to help him fix his rally car, wearing my red overalls (they matched his,) him rubbing swarfiga on my tiny hands. His moustache. The trips to the woods, standing by the muddy track to watch him race. The blurred glimpse of his car flying past. They’re barely there memories, almost like I heard someone recount them one day, imagined them in my head and think they belong to me. Because most of my memories of my Dad are from the Wednesday evenings or the weekends that he was allowed to look after us.

Growing up, I lived between two homes. I had two bedrooms. Two wardrobes. Two Christmases and two summer holidays. Two Dads and two mums – but only one Dad I loved. These two lives barely touched. My Dad would pull up outside my mother’s house, beep the horn. Or he’d call ahead while he was two streets away so I’d be at the door by the time he arrived. On my 8th birthday he knocked on my mother’s door and handed me my birthday present: my first Manchester City football shirt. I remember being disappointed because I’d wanted the full kit. I asked him to come inside to the party but he kissed me on the cheek and he left.

Without fail he would be outside her house every Wednesday at 6pm, and every Saturday at 6pm. Without fail he would always turn up, always want to see his kids.

My dad is a workaholic. I guess that’s where I get it from. Along with the rallying, his job in aerospace engineering really took off. He travelled for work a lot, and I regularly spent a few hours at weekends in his office, playing with his staplers and drawing unicorns and drinking hot chocolate from the vending machine while he wrapped up some urgent work. I spent summers abroad with him while he worked in America, me and my brother and my step-mum would live in the hotel while he worked, we’d watch Lamb Chop’s Play-Along in our pyjamas and swim the pool until he came back. I remember staying with work friends of his, eating cookies and watching Indiana Jones. I used to get sent Christmas presents from them and the staff in the hotel.

Teenage years. Uncommunicative. I left home at 17. We didn’t speak very often after that. I wanted to forget I had a family. Too much unspoken emotion. Pain. Depression. Anger. He came to visit me once, when I was 17, living in Newcastle with a bunch of 25 year old BMXers. He came to visit me and he gave me money. He bought me lunch and let me make my own mistakes, even though at the time he didn’t know why I was making them. Even though every bone in his body was telling him to throw me in the car and drive me home. He didn’t. Maybe he should have.

For years, my Dad had a teddy doberman in his car. It was from my beanie baby collection. He took a shine to it. I asked him why he kept it in his car. “For protection,” he said.

November 2009. 7am. Morning. Bright, cold. Today’s the day. Out of bed. Cold floor. Mum’s spare room in the house you grew up in. Formal clothes. Downstairs, and your brother and your mother are sitting and looking at you. You look at them and you realise you can’t do this without your Dad there. You only told him yesterday. You didn’t even want to tell him because he would beat himself up about it. It would hurt him immeasurably, knowing that he had failed to protect his daughter. But you can’t do this alone, without his help. The strongest man you’ve ever known, the one you judge all other men against, and they are always found wanting. That morning, stood in the kitchen, feeling powerless and pathetic again, you call your Dad. You call him and you tell him you need him. For the first time since you could remember him, you absolutely need him there beside you. You need to see him, hold his hand, you need his steady eyes and his hugs that makes all insecurities disappear for a split second. He asks which court. You tell him Crown. He says I’ll meet you at the doors in an hour.

I wear my Dad’s watch every day. My Dad’s 1990’s Gucci watch, the first expensive watch he ever bought. He gave it to me – had it repaired, the strap shortened.

I wear my Dad’s sunglasses every day. They’re Ray Ban aviators. Proper Top Gun style sunnies. Top Gun is the reason he bought them. I remember them from holidays with him in Portugal, Spain, America with him on his work trips. Those glasses, and that moustache.

On the wall in the bathroom of my apartment is a photo of a rally car. The car is mid-air, flying over some dirt track. It’s not my Dad driving. It’s his hero Herni Toivonen. When you look closely, the picture has a crease down the middle. It’s been pulled out of a magazine. Years ago, he used to have it on the wall of his office. We found it in his shed last weekend. He wondered what to do with it. I told him I’d have it on my wall at home.

Leah Wilson: music publicist, DxH CEO and international big dog.

Tony Kay, by Jez

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I’ve never written anything about someone I love longer than a Tweet or Status Update. Certainly not a blog.

But when I think that it might, just might, help those who are trying to understand or come to terms with something, either regarding themselves or those around them, I give it a little extra thought. And in this case I’m driven to write about something I do happen to have some direct experience of. The subject of mental illness.

My Dad used to call them quacks: doctors in general, but in particular psychiatrists. I don’t think he had a particularly high regard of them. His science was a particularly exacting one. I remember him saying that, in all his time as an electronics engineer, he’d never actually got anything wrong. That’s presumably because he made damned sure he always got it right.

Then again, he wasn’t quite so confident when it came to matters not quite so definite or definitive. Like ambition. Or the prospect of managing others. Or his own mind.

He believed in meritocracy. He was on the side who believed that those that know probably should be in charge of those that don’t.

The trouble was, his was the losing side. Because usually the ignorant egoists were put in charge of him. And he hated that. And it drove him mad.

That’s “mad” in old speak of course. Now we say “mentally ill”, don’t we.

I’ve read quite a few articles by those who seem to know what they’re talking about in the last few days. Each attempts to give a cast-iron explanation for why people become depressed or unhinged, excessively moody or morose.

I used to have a very clear view myself, when Dad was ill. I used to think he’d be driven to it. Years of various forms of mistreatment, misunderstanding, lack of communication. Years of intense frustration, pain, disappointment.

Not only was Dad extremely intelligent. He was also charming and extremely funny, the kind of man who could quite frequently make people hurt with laughter. He was a magical mimic and could create a caricature of just about anyone, from Mum’s relatives – “Ey-oop, here’s Ann and Arthur!” – to pompous schoolmasters who’d taught him at Oundle. Germans and the French were particular favourites of his.

He was very kind too. He’d always be on call to pick up a stray teenage daughter or son from parties miles away or be there with a comforting wise word, most usually with reference to the difference between Northerners (good) and Southerners (bad). He was, naturally, a blue-blooded Southerner.

He’d sometimes lose it – that was a bit of a sign I suppose. I remember him kicking me when we were on a beach in France. I’m sure I was being annoying but I’m also sure he was, even then, quite a troubled man.

Troubled became out of control. Again, my clear, young mind thought it was all work-related. A succession of depressing workplaces, with even more wearisome bosses, had eaten away at him to such an extent that he started to take it out on himself, then Mum. When it all became too difficult for anyone to handle he checked himself into a clinic in Northampton, funded as it was by our Uncle Peter, Dad’s cousin. Another ounce of shame for Dad to endure.

Dad had Electric Shock Treatment more than once. It used to frighten me. He’d make friends with the psychiatric nurses – they seemed particularly caring if not particularly effective. The consultants, though, all seemed either useless, rarely available or both.

He went to another hospital – this one seemed no more than a way to keep him out of the house or at the very least to keep him relatively safe from himself.

He stabilised in the last couple of years of his life. But then, as far as I remember, he began to suffer from the early stages of Parkinson’s. In any case, he’d completely lost the vigour, charm and beautiful humour that he’d once had, barely a decade before. In 10 years he’d degenerated steadily but nonetheless shockingly.

He died of an aerobic embolism at the age of 67. He almost certainly wouldn’t have made it past his mid seventies with the heart he had but it’s still my view that his depression and severe anxiety (I think they called it schizophrenia back then – this was the mid-eighties) cut his life short by nearly a decade.

Familiar, eh? A man bordering genius, extremely funny, extremely troubled. Oh – and he could improvise Bach too. So, I remember Dad’s illness well. Something like that is difficult to forget. But I’m no clearer as to what might have been done to help the situation.

When Dad was ill I got to speak to him more than I’d ever spoken to him in my life. I was able to be the grown-up now, chivvying him on and giving him a bit of advice, most of which probably seemed no more than cold comfort. I’m pretty sure it brought me closer. It certainly coincided with a stable and happy time in my own life, so I think there’s just a chance it helped him, on the whole. It seems to me now that just talking and listening were the best things I could have done, no matter how powerless I felt or how pointless I remember it being.

The fact is, the more I think about it now, depressed people need love. They need selfless, unstinting love. It’s a love that makes the tea, that tidies up, that listens and doesn’t talk too much. It’s a love that sympathises and empathises, as appropriate. It’s a love that believes that it’s all going to get better, even if it doesn’t.

I wish I could have got on with Dad more, could have helped him more. Maybe he could have saved himself a little. Maybe he could have opened up more. Whatever.

What I do know now is that it’s a better thing for you to do what’s best when people are around – that’s share the love – than diagnose, pass judgement, feel bad, guilty or proselytise when they’re gone. Because all that stuff, whether it’s regarding a celebrity or a relative, all that stuff is truly pointless.

Jez Kay is a videographer and sound designer who lives in Greenwich, South East London with his wife and daughter. 

Norman Sydney Owen, by Jim

Norman Owen pic

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

Andrew Charles Edwards, by Lisa Edwards

Lisa and dad

My father died when I was 21. He had been in a psychiatric hospital for some time due to what was diagnosed as early dementia in addition to Parkinsons. In fact it was probably Lewy Body Dementia. I only realised when it was too late that the antipsychotic drugs he was given shortened his life and insufficient physical care led to pressure sores and septicemia. I have tried to access his medical notes to be told they were destroyed by fire at the old asylum-type place he was in. I feel angry. They let him down. I let him down.

It is important to me to tell his story. He has no memorial, his ashes were scattered by the lake on Hampstead Heath where he used to swim as a young man. My parents divorced when my brother and I were young and our mother’s ill feeling towards him coloured my sense of him despite him being a good father to me. Although I was the only one to visit him in hospital I hadn’t realised at the time how wronged he had been, how tough his life was and how desperately sad but proud I would be once I was emotionally mature enough to see things beyond my mother’s narcissistic lens on the world.

My father was born to an unmarried servant girl, Annie Alexandra who worked at Hadleigh Rectory, Barnet, North London. I am aware from his paperwork that he had tried to trace her towards the end of his life but to no avail. I know little of his life apart from fragments. He was put in a home for waifs and strays when he was a small boy and went on to do an apprenticeship at De Havilland Aircraft as a draughtsman. I have his admission contract for this and sadly the section mentioning his time in care has been scrubbed out as though he found it painful to recall.

I’m lucky enough to have his meticulously written engineering books and drawings, mostly marked with A grades, he was a perfectionist and very intelligent. I have memories of him trying to help me with my maths homework, his love of the subject evident but I do recall my frustration at the time as I just wanted help with the answer and not the related aspects.

I know my father spent time in the Army, Royal Electrical Mechanical Engineers, and references were made by him to my brother and me of mental illness and surgery for it. He told us he had a brain operation involving his skull being drilled. I can only conclude it was a lobotomy on the frontal lobe – experimental surgery conducted widely at the time, often without consent. It is possible he was suffering from anxiety or depression. My mother’s knowledge of this time in his life is either patchy or disinterested. It would have been before she met him, though ironically her later training as a psychiatric nurse did not spark her interest or her compassion. For her, he was cold and unaffectionate, presumably this was his character when she met him and I have since read that the type of psychosurgery he probably had caused marked character change and dampening of emotions.

The father I remember did not hug us or say lovely things, but I remember more and more the caring things he did like brushing my hair or trying to diffuse my mother’s anger if I’d spilt something at the breakfast table. He did seem to notice us and be present for us in a way I don’t recall from my mother. He bought me a new bike when mine was stolen. It was my father who took time off work to take me to frequent orthodontic appointments and I’m not sure if this was a factor in his subsequest redundancy, but he experienced this on several occasions in his working life and in the years leading up to his illness he was unemployed despite trying hard to find work. He never missed maintenance payments, kept up with mortgage payments while my mother who then remarried, and I, now at college, lived at the house. My father lived in a bedsit up until he was admitted to hospital.

I wish my father could have had the love and care he deserved and needed. Despite his own difficulties he was a good father to me and worked hard all his life for us. I wish I knew his story.

In these more enlightened times mental illness is seen differently by health professionals and employers, but there’s still a long way to go.

I have experienced debilitating depression in my twenties and thirties, unaware that it had a name or that there was treatment. To my mother it was laziness. I was being a miserable cow, I was a bad person. Her own early experiences robbed her of the capacity to feel the necessary sensitivity towards those closest to her. I am now a Counsellor and psychological therapist but am filled with gnawing sadness at these lives. Despite now understanding it, nothing removes it from my core.

Thank you for the opportunity to do this, with love to us all.

Lisa Edwards works for Re-Gain, a mental health project in Cornwall and is a Counsellor in private practice.