He’d been bedbound for the better part of a year, and he was unhappy about that, and he was suffering a great deal at times. At the age of 98, he’d had enough.
We had a few brief conversations about death. He was driven by fact and reason and was not a religious man — “when you die, that’s the end of it,” he would say. But even without the prospect of being greeted by heavenly cherubs or reunited with my dear old Mum or any kind of afterlife, he so wanted to go. He would wake from a doze and shake his head in disbelief that he was still alive. In a recent Christmas card — his home-made cards, marvels of eccentric design, were legendary — he wrote simply: “Still here. I know not why.”
My Dad’s early life was a combination of great privilege coupled with extraordinary privation. He was born into a world of colonial excess. From 1903 to 1938, his father — described by a colleague as “small, active, rubicund with a choleric eye” — managed a 1,700-acre tea plantation in Assam. The household included a domestic staff of 18 people, and life revolved around golf, tennis, polo, bridge and hunting parties. Pandit Nehru came by for tea. My dad remembers climbing trees to pick lychees and sweet red bananas, sailing on the mighty Brahmaputra, and once, being driven home after dark by his parents, seeing a huge tiger up close, eyes burning bright in the headlights.
But at 6, this princeling life came to an end when he was sent to boarding school in England, as was his sister, Ann, who was just 5. For the rest of their childhood, they didn’t see their parents very much. The hardships of English boarding schools between the wars and too many school holidays and Christmases spent in the company of strangers were never mentioned, though Dad did record in his self-published memoir: “I remember Fellowes who was a bully; I broke a window throwing a shoe at him.” Later, at Wellington College, Dad writes: “I once, in a spirit of rebellion, smoked a cigarette in full view of everyone and was duly beaten with a cane by one of the prefects, called Fraser, who seemed apologetic about the whole affair.”
A bath at Wellington was to take no more than 3 minutes, including filling and emptying. Occasionally a “double bath” would be permitted: 6 luxurious minutes!
In preparation for World War Two, the pupils were put to work digging trenches and air raid shelters. One October night in 1940, the headmaster was too slow to heed the air raid siren: he was killed by a bomb. Well into old age, the sound of a siren would still send a lurching spasm through Dad’s stomach.
Jungian analyst Joy Schavieren describes “boarding school syndrome” (2011) — the trauma of being sent away comes with the imperative to show no feelings, so these infants learn to cut off their reactions or bury them deep — a kind of emotional circumcision. They can grow into adults who remain wounded by their early broken attachments, divorced from themselves, capable only of superficial relationships. To an extent this is how all boys are raised.
“We create numb, inarticulate loners," I write in “The Humanity Test" (2022). “We idolise flinty, monosyllabic killers played by John Wayne, Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone.
“Men are taught to be tough; to win, not love. We don’t know how we feel. We certainly don’t know how others feel. We are raised to be expendable cogs in a loveless machine."
One day in the Prospect of Whitby pub in London’s east end, Dad’s and Mum’s eyes met for the first time across a crowded room; their hearts soon followed. In her he found someone who shared his experience of a childhood starved by parental absence. In 1940, my Mum, aged 10, was evacuated from rural Suffolk to America — Suffolk was the kind of place kids from London were evacuated to — and for the remaining five years of World War Two saw her mother not at all and her father only for one weekend in 1942, when his troop ship docked in New York.
These early experiences forged in both my parents a curious mixture of confidence and resilience — a kind of superiority even — yet coupled with an almost pathological humility.
They loved babies and dogs and they loved each other; outside of the family, however, any other actual adult humans on the whole were likely to be problematic, and best avoided. Dad believed in thrift, logic, hard work, self-reliance, independence. He was unfailingly polite and considerate. On holiday, whatever the time of day, we children learned to shuffle silently down hotel corridors — still do — because, Dad said, “people might be sleeping.” Once in his late 80s, he tripped over backwards in his yard and gashed the back of his head on a concrete ornament. Later, we asked him how long it took for an ambulance to arrive. “Oh I didn’t bother with that,” he said. “I’m sure there’s someone who would have needed it more.”
There was a time when sons would work alongside their fathers, in the fields, on the farm or in the family business, within a wider community with village elders, mentors, apprenticeship and ritual to help usher young men into adulthood. But the industrial revolution and the wheels of capitalism have spirited our fathers away from us; the village is long gone. The father is absent, or an exhausted ghost-like presence who will not speak and then disappears once more, like Hamlet’s murdered father.
I don't ever recall discussing a personal problem with my Dad, or getting advice. I never saw him cry. It's obvious he loved his children, but saying it out loud was unthinkable. A hug? No thank you. For much of my life, I never really understood what Dad did for a living. A lot of what I now know about him today comes from a presentation and slide show about his life that he gave to his fellow care home residents, five years ago, when he was 92.
There may not be many words in the space between fathers and sons, but it is far from empty. Much is communicated; family culture is handed down. Words are the least of it.
There’s a lot of research and theory on the effects of intergenerational trauma and what unparented parents bring to their own children (eg. Julia Samuel, 2022). The day before Dad died, I watched excellent presentations online from Dr Oonagh Walsh and Dr Michael O’Loughlin on the long shadow cast by the Irish potato famine and its effect still today on loss, grief and healing in the Irish diaspora. We inherit a lot of the pain of our ancestors. My Dad had a mother who lost two brothers and a fiancé to World War One, and a third brother to the Russian Civil War in 1921. She carried them with her into old age — she died in 1963, 8 days after I was born.
None of these stories, or my parents’ childhood separations, were discussed at home or for a long time even known to my siblings and I. It's hard to talk with a stiff upper lip. My Dad was mystified by the idea of therapy. I tried to explain it to him — and why I, his youngest child, followed a meandering career path that wound up with me choosing to become a therapist. “Hmmm," he said one time, “Most peculiar.”
Finding the father within
According to another Jungian, James Hollis, each man “carries a deep longing for his father and for his tribal fathers.” He concludes that healing only comes when men “activate within what they did not receive from without.” We each must be a father to ourselves. Jung said he learned more from his father in death than he ever did in life. Whoever our real father was — or wasn't — the world offers up to all kinds of other father figures, in all kinds of guises.
I was lucky to have Dad for so long. And if it’s true that we inherit our ancestors’ pain, we must surely inherit their joy, too. Perhaps by way of compensation for all the suffering, or perhaps because the two things go hand in hand, Dad also had a great sense of fun, enjoyment and absurdity. He was really a bon viveur — he loved, food, wine, cars. He loved stuff — Dad was the first person I knew to own a pocket calculator, a videocamera, an email address. He loved to travel, roaming all over Europe by car with friends as a young man — including completing the 1954 Monte Carlo Rally in a Ford Zephyr — and all over the world by plane as a family and in his work as an engineer. On a flight to Tunisia in 1969, the pilot announced that humans had landed on the moon. We looked out of the window of the plane and there it was: A dazzling beautiful full pearl-white moon. A couple of years in the Navy on the Adriatic had given Dad a great, lifelong love of Italy (which I share). His enthusiasm, commitment and belief in his ability to speak Italian never once dimmed for a moment despite his glaring inability to speak Italian. Another thing we both loved but were bad at was golf, and I consider myself so fortunate to have spent so much of my youth with Dad, roaming the finest fairways at home and away, engaging in titanic Oedipal battles, then laughing at ourselves over drinks in the bar afterwards. We disagreed on practically everything — politics, colonialism, Brexit, climate change — but it never seemed to matter. We never really debated these things or allowed them to intrude on our relationship.
I last saw Dad a few days before he died, in his care home in Canterbury. He had a clean shirt on, there were hits from his youth playing on Alexa, and he seemed reasonably content. He wasn’t fully conscious and it wasn’t clear if he knew I was there. When “Walk like a man” came on, I asked him if he remembered it. He started singing — albeit a different song.
I asked him if he could imagine sitting beside a pool with a glass of chianti on a warm day in the Italian lakes and — almost imperceptibly or perhaps not at all — he nodded and smiled.
I thanked him for everything he has given us and told him how glad and lucky and grateful I feel that he is my father.
I don’t know if he heard any of it. But it was nothing he didn't already know.
I wrote in our group family email: “It really feels like he is ready.”
People often call a death like this “a blessing.”
When we were little, Dad used to take us on epic road trips — to see family in Scotland, or sometimes to France and beyond. He'd always want to set off freakishly early; 4am was his preferred starting time. And so it was that at 4am one chilly Friday morning in January, Dad departed this life, alone and without fanfare or fuss, finally freed from his tired, worn-out body. I imagine he was thinking: “About bloody time!” If there were cherubs, the first thing they would have heard from Dad was a strongly-worded complaint.
Still, the news hit hard.
A punch in the face.
Even after all these years, it’s just so shocking how people that you love leave this earth.
Love you Dad.
Barton, J. (2022). The humanity test: Disability, therapy, society. PCCS
Hollis, J. (1994). Under Saturn’s shadow: The wounding and healing of men. Inner City Books
Samuel, J. (2022). Every family has a story: How we inherit love and loss. Penguin Life
Schaverien, J. (2011). Boarding school syndrome: Broken attachments a hidden trauma. British Journal of Psychotherapy, 27(2), 138-155.k here to edit.