When I was 17 I watched my Dad save someone’s life. We were on holiday in Paris on the Metro when I looked on as he leapt up and grabbed hold of a young guy as he tried to throw himself from the window of the moving train. Dad held on to him for dear life. There was no way he was going to let this one go…
This wasn’t the first time he had saved a life but it was the first I’d witnessed. The first time I truly understood what he did on all those night shifts. What made him who he was.
As a paramedic, my Dad saved hundreds of lives and delivered many more into the world. This was a man who went back into buildings after bombs had exploded. Who went to the aid of someone horribly mangled under a tube train on his first day at work as a trainee ambulance technician. Whose head must have been full of indelible images of such everyday violence and horror that most of us can only imagine, but who still loved to howl with laughter at the TV. Who loved to put on silly accents he couldn’t do. This was a man who stopped at roadside accidents and pulled people through smashed windscreens while I stood in the lay-by, quietly proud. Who drove the wrong way up Oxford Street on the pavement in an ambulance to get to someone who needed help. Who delivered my sister on the lounge floor after Mum managed to sleep through her labour. The children they were told they would never have. Who re-wired each flat I moved into at university so we wouldn’t get electrocuted. Who knew the ending to each episode of Casualty before it had happened.
Here was a man who would go out of his way to help you if he could. But who would still insist that no, my leg was definitely not broken and let me toddle around on a spiral fracture for a week, before my mum finally insisted on taking me to A&E. He was a man whose idea of an American accent was closer to Indian or Cornish, whose idea of a night off was helping someone else out, who once drove me on a 4-hour round trip to pick up an antique harmonium that I’d won for twenty quid on eBay and didn’t complain once when it didn’t fit in the car and he had to saw the legs off there and then….
Even off duty, he never stopped being a paramedic. I remember driving home from university one holiday and Dad pulling over as he’d seen a car leave the road ahead of us. He lifted the woman from the car and stayed until the ambulance came. That was just the kind of person he was.
I see him in myself sometimes. Not only did I inherit his cheekbones but I also recognise him in my penchant for the lost cause and my tendency to befriend those in trouble… “Lost dog” syndrome, as my Mum loves to call it.
A few years ago he managed to dislocate his shoulder after he stopped to help at an accident on an icy day. He was off work for months and had to endure surgery to put right what had been put wrong in the course of helping others. His impulse to help people was so strong that he didn’t care if it put him in harm’s way. It made him who he was. It saw him battle meningitis twice. It made me a nervous child that was perhaps too aware, too young, of the precariousness of life. Perhaps he was preparing me all along for him leaving us so young.
When he was in hospital in early 2013, awaiting a brain biopsy on the tumour that had aggressively taken root, he insisted on blasting a CD of my music through the whole ward and proudly proclaiming to anyone and everyone in the vicinity that it was his daughter’s songs. This was the man who volunteered to lug my unfeasibly heavy stage piano to countless gigs and festivals in the preceding years as I made my first tentative steps into music. Who pretended to not notice how stoned we were on the return journey from Bestival (this was the same year we’d taken ballroom lessons together before I played my afternoon set. My Dad was a great dancer). Who came to see me play for the last time at Cadogan Hall as I choked on every word, trying not to lose it onstage.
It began innocently enough at the Greenwich Maritime museum in January 2013 when he couldn’t remember the word for “coffee” in the queue to the cafe. For months I’d make the 4 hour journey to the hospital from my flat in South London, silently sobbing to myself, headphones welded to my ears, desperately trying to not listen to so many albums I loved for fear of never being able to hear them again. Because music was at the centre of my Dad’s world, and it was one he pulled me into as a kid. There wasn’t much TV allowed, just records on their turntable they’d had since getting married, and compulsory sing-a-longs to deeply uncool records in the car…
When Dad got sick I went from being a workaholic tied to the studio desk, abandoned my half-made album and moved back home to help maintain the regimented timetable of medication and journeys to and from the hopeless radiotherapy for the inoperable tumour he had growing deep in his brain stem, that was slowly shifting his personality and making him lose words and worlds.
Less than six months later he died, at the precise moment I was recording a song I subsequently had to take off the album because I can never bring myself to finish it. How thankful I was to be with my dear friend Ed Harcourt that day. Who let me howl and sob into his tattooed chest at the cruelty and shock of it all. Who bought me rum while I waited for my boyfriend to come and chaperone me home, numb and half drunk.
We’d been told he would have another six months and I’ve always wondered what might had been different had he not waved me off to “work” the day before. I’d told him to “behave himself and not get into any trouble” while I was gone. The last words that passed between us.
I was so angry with him for leaving sooner than we’d agreed.
Catherine Anne Davies makes music as The Anchoress. Her debut album ‘Confessions Of A Romance Novelist’ is out now.