I think I might have killed my father: Two short eulogies for my parents

Previously published on an old website, I wrote these two pieces about five years ago. I am publishing them here largely unchanged. I think they fit in well with the overall spirit of ACFN.


I AM ALWAYS TOUCHED BY HER PRESENCE
1978 - The Year of the Man. At the age of 13 I crowded into the junior study hall at Fort Augustus Abbey School where the TV had been wheeled in on its raised platform, so that all the highly-charged, excitable boys could get their weekly dose of rock’n'roll in the musical shape of Top of the Pops.

Debbie Harry materialised on screen like some sort of libertine angel, dancing her skip-step and miming badly to Denis, wearing nothing but a white t-shirt dress and her luscious sneer. I think it was at that point I came of age. The same year saw Kate Bush go straight in at Number 1 with the ethereal weirdness that was Wuthering Heights. Now, that was like nothing I had ever heard or felt before. Such was my serious initiation into music. With the addition of Siouxsie Sioux and Gaye Advert, a growing lad didn’t stand a chance.

Today, my collection of favourite female singer-songwriters is close to my heart. I have eventually admitted to the conclusion I arrived at a while back: I don’t think I really like music. I get fiercely attached to artists that play music, to the person. Today, Kristin Hersh does all my shouting; Annie Hayden does quirky; Thea Gilmore for “arch”; and Bj√∂rk does the kooking. And for soft and soothing, gentle motherliness, there is nobody else like Karen Peris. Various women have drifted in and out, Cerys and Natalie and Sonia, some have lingered longer than others, some overstayed their welcome - but long have I secretly known that they were really all serving the same purpose, filling the same gaping void.

I have been living my life in a constant state of missing my Mum.

I was only with her for the first eight years of my life, and memories of that time are sketchy, at best. Sticking my tongue out at her in the garden, and receiving a severe over-the-knee spanking, something which she vehemently denied; Mum having to free me when I snagged my dinkle trying to put my trousers on without any underpants; being rescued from nursery when I sprang up in a rash from eating strawberries. But, you know, beyond that there’s nothing much else.

At the age of eight, I found myself shipped off to boarding school on the cold shoulder of Scotland, at Carlekemp in North Berwick. It was literally the other side of the world from where we were living. My first teacher was Miss Gould, a stunning woman, and I’m sure I wanted her to be my replacement Mum - all the little boys must have felt the same way, cast away as they were from their tiny worlds into this turbulent ocean. She was probably a ploy by the Benedictine monks to break us in gently, when really it was like having your heart beaten with a cricket bat. For me, everything was unravelling, unfolding. The struts were being kicked out and the roof was falling in, and there was nothing I could do to keep it all together.

But how must it have been for my mother? She was sending her baby off, thousands of miles away. Maybe it hadn’t been so bad with my older brothers, one year after the other. She knew they would be together, and she still had me at home. Inevitably my turn would come around, four years down the line, but for those four years, essentially I was an only child. I recall some of it - The Lake Club swimming pool in Kuala Lumpur, family friends, and Mum’s ballet school. Dreamlike memories of life without my brothers, just me and my Mum. Dad was a monolith: Gone in the morning; strong, silent and scary in the evening; embarrassed, if not disapproving. And my brothers would come out for the holidays, the oldest like a reappearing god that I clung to with relief.

Four years my mother had with her baby - the one she hugged so hard she had to get reassurance from her doctor that it was not her affection that had afflicted her youngest with a prominent one-sided pigeon-chest. She had to let me go off to school - the first year with a brother she knew I didn’t get on especially well with. Four years difference was never going to work out triumphantly at boarding school. But from then on, her baby would be alone. How was she able to bear that?

1978 was not the Year of the Man. There was no coming of age. At best that would have to wait another twenty-five years. There was just confusion and loneliness, fumbled friendships and communal showers. Freezing cold games of rugby, barely average education and the occasional beating in the basement. And all the time, the constant pulsating ache, the overwhelming sorrow of a mother-not-there.

Finally, after 30 years of disarray, I could begin to come to terms with the massive loss I experienced and attempt to straighten out this buckled life of mine. I am so sorry to Katherine that I was not able to make this discovery earlier - but I thank God that I managed it before the arrival of Annabeth.

Jesse Watson-Lowe Bowman: Thirteen years ago you died, and you died too soon. I wish we could have had longer together. It is desperately sad that you did not meet the grand-daughter of your youngest. She is someone you could be enormously proud of.


I THINK I MIGHT HAVE KILLED MY FATHER
It was July of 2000 that I found myself driving solo up to the Borders of Scotland to visit my father in hospital. Things hadn’t been so great for a few weeks now, but it was still hard to believe that he would be dead within four.

He had been complaining about some aching in his legs which had reached a point where he felt it was necessary to cancel a trip to America. “Complain” is far too strong a word for my father. He didn’t complain. He mentioned things in passing. He vaguely alluded to various health problems and then brushed them away as insignificant when you pursued them. The ache in his legs was “nothing to worry about.” The gradual loss of feeling in his arm was of “no concern.” Us three boys were slightly alarmed, but if Dad said don’t worry, well, that was that. Patrick Joseph was the last of the patriarchs in the Sullivan line. His three sons by default attempt an awkward and at times damaging reproduction of it, but they are working from a flawed template.

I have no real memory of my father before about the age of six or seven, and any I have since then are not always happy ones. Dad was strong, silent, and imposing. I only really remember a man who was palpably disapproving, if not outright angry. His anger was not explosive, but heavy and fear-inspiring.

I remember the time I was about six, and I worked my way in front of the car when my Dad was getting in. As he started it up, it lurched forward and gashed my knee. He offered no consolation, just reproof for my stupidity. At the age of seven, I recall being rather an embarrassment to him when I gave up midway through a paper-chase run with the Hash House Harriers. Seven years later I was giving up at exams, and was subsequently held back a year at boarding school. Four years further on, and I was giving up at college, dropping out after only a year. Gradually increasing degrees of disappointment until the inevitable big one when at the same time as flunking out of college I was giving up the Catholic Church for a different religion. It was too much for my stoic father. It was the one time my brothers witnessed him in tears.

As time went by and the family went their separate ways I saw Dad two or three times in a year and our relationship was cordial but improving. Marrying Katherine was a family healing coup. Dad loved her. Annabeth would have closed the gap completely.

***

I found my father in the hospital in Edinburgh. He was impressive but fading. His legs were weak and he showed no reservation whatsoever in having me help him to the bathroom to go to the toilet. His conversation was intelligible but occasionally disconnected.

By the time I went back up a week later he had rapidly declined. He had been back home, but soon the ambulance had to be called and the neighbours observed an upright but incoherent man being helped into the van. In the hospital he had recognition in his eyes but his speech was rapidly becoming rambling and confused. At least to us. He seemed to know what he was talking about as he spoke variously about taking trips and “tying up the loose ends,” and that everything was “squared away.” On reflection, this was father all over. He was a provider. He looked after his family, making sure they were secure and free from problems. He was generous and giving whenever it was needed. Of course he wanted his sons to reflect the same concerns. It must have been both frustrating and frightening for him to see his sons, in descending order, appearing to eschew such values in greater measure.

In later years he expressed regret that certain things had meant so much to him: Appearance in front of others; any embarrassment he felt he showed when called upon to relate his sons’ life choices. These were attitudes he was not proud of and wished were different.

In the hospital in Edinburgh, Dad’s most lucid moment came when we met with the doctors to talk about what to do next. Without any hesitation, Dad said that everything was taken care of, all the loose ends were tied up, and he thought a move to a more local hospice was the way to go. A move to a more local hospice was basically a move to his final bed, where the hospice staff would make his last days as comfortable as possible. He would be linked up to the morphine drip, which would be administered in gradually increased doses to ease the pain.

Once he was moved there it was only a matter of time. He was generally comatose when he wasn’t confused. He became pale, gaunt and drawn, gray and sunken. His breathing became laboured to the point that every intake was a struggle, every exhale followed by a long and expectant pause.

On the day that he died I was at the hospice with my oldest brother. As the morning progressed it seemed that there was going to be no change, so my brother decided to head back to my father’s house. In the early afternoon I used the remote to switch on the television, and nothing happened. I got up to try the controls and it suddenly sprang in to life, blaring out a cricket commentary at full volume. I was gripped with panic and fumbled with the remote in a bid to turn the volume down. I looked across at my father and he was caught in mid-breath, his eyes and mouth wide open - it gave him a gaping, startled look. He took two more laboured breaths until finally the length of time before another breath was too long, and I rang for a nurse. That was it. He was pronounced dead.

***

In my father’s bedroom, back at the house, my mother’s belongings had been left undisturbed. We opened cupboard doors to discover rows of dresses and shoes. Handbags had been left with the contents as they were seven years previously, with money still in the purse. In the bedside table was a book left open at the page she had reached the night before she had her fatal stroke. It was heartbreaking but appropriate that such an awakening of memories be thrust upon us. It was an opportunity to say goodbye to the both of them. Three brothers, three orphans, left to sift through the memories and feelings, photographs, ornaments, music cassettes and books, stretching back like a thread across forty years and more.

He was a monolith, my father. Strong and silent and stern. Generous and caring, protective and private; flawed, selfless, and loyal to the end.