My dad was never shy about giving advice – from the obviously useful stuff (“always magnetise your screwdrivers”, “never scrimp on a date”), to the esoteric, such as this gem, on the subject of flirting as a married man: “It doesn’t matter where you get your appetite, so long as you always eat at home”.
He also had his fair share of ridiculous/possibly brilliant philosophies too – the early bird may catch the worm, but the second mouse gets the cheese; “sorry” is not as hard a word as “goodbye”; and perhaps best of all: never play poker against someone with a missing finger, or wearing sunglasses, or named after a southern state of America.
But if I had to pinpoint the best bit of advice he ever gave me, it wouldn’t fall into any of these categories. It wasn’t very funny, it wasn’t obviously clever, and it certainly wasn’t at all practical. And yet I’ve tried to live by it every day since.
First, a bit of context. In 2007 my dad Don, always a fit, healthy, active man, started getting headaches. He shrugged them off initially, then as they became worse, took the occasional aspirin. And then one day in August, he fell over and blacked out in the bathroom. He woke in hospital, where he was told he may have suffered a stroke.
He hadn’t suffered a stroke. What he did have was a huge, aggressive, inoperable brain tumour. And short of making him comfortable and perhaps trying to delay things by a month or two, there was nothing the doctors could do.
When he left hospital again, just four months later, it was to come home to die. He was 69 years old.
I had just become a father for the first time myself. Eithne was born at about the time the headaches got bad; she was just 10 months old when he died.
Watching, helpless, as your father loses his fight against a brain tumour is not an easy thing to do – and doing so while your baby daughter bounces and crawls over his hospital bed still harder. If ever I was in need of advice about anything, that was the time. But of course there was none. What advice can you give in that situation? Nothing anyone can say could make something like that easier to deal with.
Until… one afternoon towards the end, when he was drifting in and out of sleep, my brother, who was reading the paper, expressed his disgust with the fact that a certain Premiership footballer was planning to run for Parliament. Like a footballer knows about the real world, he ranted. Like someone paid to kick a ball for a living has any qualifications for a political career!
My dad let him bluster on for a while, before opening his eyes and smiling.
“It doesn’t matter, you know,” he said. “All this stuff – footballers and politicians and celebrities. All this stuff people think is so important, that they get so worked up about…” and he looked at Eithne snoring softly in her car seat by his bed, “it doesn’t actually matter.”
We laughed it off at the time, but something about the way he said it stuck. And later, after he died, in those initial awful few months, when I struggled to understand why, I kept thinking about it. And about that odd smile he had as he said it.
Because the thing is – of all the advice he ever gave me, I firmly believe that final pearl of wisdom was the one that really hit the nail on the head. All this stuff people think is so important… it doesn’t actually matter.
We get so wrapped up in all the minor dramas of our lives – work stress, arguments at home, frustration with the kids; we find ourselves getting angry with the actions of venal politicians, greedy bankers, vain celebrities, moronic footballers; we worry so much about the trivial things (hair loss, an extra inch around the waist) that we forget what’s really important.
We forget, in fact, that none of those things matter. Not in the long run.
What does matter? Family. Home. Love. Life. The simple things. That’s the advice my dad was trying to give me. Not to get lost in all the nonsense and focus instead on the fundamentals. To try to remember, when the boss is being unreasonable and the papers are full of idiots and the mirror is unforgiving… that none of these things actually matter.
As philosophies go, I’ve yet to hear it bettered.
Dominic Utton is an author and journalist who lives in Oxford with his wife and two children. His novel Martin Harbottle’s Appreciation of Time is out now.