There are precious few photographs of you and me, and the snapshots in my mind are faded and curled, but one thing I still remember clearly from my childhood is how your hand – firm, calloused, massive – felt around mine.
Living on a farm in one of the bleakest corners of the West Country, I was lucky that even when you were hard at work you were always nearby. And yet you were far away. Your sense of humour was present and correct, but you didn’t exactly wear your heart on your sleeve. Any great show of feelings left you embarrassed and irritable. Were you alive to read this, you would find it beyond the pale.
You were a product of your generation and your upbringing. The son of a Lieutenant General in the Royal Marines, you had learned that fathers were to be respected and feared.
From your father you also inherited charisma and stoicism. The latter would turn out to be useful. When you got cancer of the lower oesophagus in the early Seventies, a surgeon did an operation that everyone was certain would kill you. It nearly did. He cut out most of your stomach and left you with a huge scar that I only glimpsed a couple of times.
After this, going out for the evening was an effort and food, eaten in child’s portions, was rarely a pleasure. You suffered from chronic indigestion and you could never lie down or fluid would flood your lungs. On the rare occasions that you slid down in your chair while napping, a tremendous gurgling sound would erupt from you and wake you with a start. But I never heard you complain.
You weren’t, when all was said and done, especially keen on children, whom you expected to be miniature adults, just as your generation had been. As for women, well, we were tolerated, with our funny hormones and unseemly emotions.
You had firm beliefs regarding how I should behave and who I should be, and I realise now quite how alien I must have appeared to you. You sent me to a convent school to learn about good manners and discipline. Instead I learned about how to keep the real me under wraps and how there was more truth to be found in books than in the proclamations of embittered nuns.
I told you I wanted to go to university but you said I’d be better off learning to type. I suggested that you should learn how to use a washing machine or a broom and you told me there were some things women were better at. Looking back I see that it was you who made me a feminist. I think you’d find that quite funny.
What else did I learn from you? To haggle fearlessly, to drink gin, to drive a tractor, be respectful of others, swear like a navvy and – curious this – to bake cakes. You didn’t know how to do it either but no one else was going to show me and, as I got better at it, you reaped the rewards. These are the moments that I cherish.
But when I recall that I rarely, if ever, saw you read a book, or listen to music, or look at a painting, I wonder how we could have been related. You had your beliefs and passions, all revolving around rural life, but they were not mine and later on this would baffle you. You’ll have to believe me when I say this wasn’t an act of rebellion since I hoped to one day make you proud. Not sharing the values of the rest of your family, feeling like a cuckoo in your own nest, can be lonely.
Your cancer came back twice, and the second time was beyond treatment. Those final months, in hospital and then in the hospice, with its pink bedding and jolly wallpaper, were horrifying. How you suffered and how cowardly I was in the face of it. Every nerve in my body shrank from what was happening. I wanted not to see or remember.
But I do remember, of course, not just because of the horror of your ending but also because, ever so briefly, I saw a side to you that I had never seen. I saw my father engaged in reflection and facing uncomfortable truths. There was, for the shortest while, an understanding between us, a deeper connection.
Oh Dad. How I wish we had talked sooner.
Fiona Sturges is a journalist and committed city-dweller who also knows how to milk a cow.