‘Letters To My Dead’ is an experiment in writing a fictional blog of remembrance to paint a portrait of a man approaching the end of his life.
The story will be presented as blog posts written by Patrick Donovan in remembrance of his dead and posted each Saturday.
I’m feeling old today.
No, just because I’m seventy-two doesn’t mean that I feel old every day. Most of the time I just feel like me. The only kind thing about ageing is that it happens to us so slowly that we can ignore it on most days. Today is not one of those days.
I’m a solitary man but I’ve been alone too long. In the past week, the only person I’ve had a face to face conversation with was the Waitrose delivery driver. He apologised for the missing items and told me that they couldn’t do anything about it because I don’t allow substitutions. After he’d gone, I fell into mental muttering, rehashing the conversation in my head and writing myself an epitaph: Here Lies Patrick Donovan. No substitutions accepted.
This morning when I woke, only long-established habit got me out of bed. I couldn’t muster the energy for a shower and shave so I washed briefly at the sink, having what my mother called ‘a cat’s lick and a promise’. I dressed, had breakfast and then sat and stared at this screen, waiting for the inspiration to write to my dead.
I re-read the letter that I wrote to Bridget last week and I was filled with frustration. When I wrote it, it seemed fine. When I re-read it, I could see that I’d failed to capture Bridget’s vibrancy. I may even have made her look rather hard-edged.
I began to tell myself that I didn’t have what it takes to do this right.
The be-kind-to-yourself part of me suggested that now would be a good time to stop. To declare that I’ve run out of things to say and people to say them to. To declare victory and move on.
The pull-yourself-together-man part of me snorted and accused me of making excuses, including ‘I feel so old and I’m so lonely, pity me’ so that I can get out of saying what needs to be said.
I knew the pull-yourself-together-man part of me was right. So I’ve decided to screw my courage to the sticking place and write to my father.
Forgive me, my Reader, but I’m not going to give you a potted history of the life and times of Daniel Donovan. At the moment that would feel like a deflection. Biographical data is so much easier than emotional truth.
So, I’m going to write my Letter and leave you to fill in any factual gaps for yourself.
You know, this is the first letter I’ve ever written to you. You and I weren’t the write-to-one-another kind. We weren’t really the talk-to-one-another kind either. At least not about anything important. Yet both of us are talkers, tellers of tales, spinners of stories. I think that having that in common made it harder, not easier for us to drop our raconteur personae and just be ourselves.
So, I’m going to take advantage of the fact that you’re dead and I’m not, to tell you our story as I see it today.
This isn’t going to be a eulogy. I did one of those at your funeral already. Do you know that that was thirty years ago this month? How is that possible?
You had a good turnout at your funeral, by the way. The Knights of St. Columba were there in force, wearing their funeral suits and their sashes. Declan and I were the two lead coffin bearers. That was the first time we’d stood shoulder to shoulder in years. I delivered an excellent eulogy.
I know you probably expected that job to go to Declan. He’s the one who won the public speaking prizes that you were so proud of. I know Declan expected it to be him. But I’m your oldest son and it was my duty and my right to help people remember you on that day.
I’m not a performer, like Declan. All I could do was be me. I made them laugh and then I made them cry and I got almost all the way to the end before my words stumbled and my voice cracked as I finished with ‘I miss him.’
Then Declan came up to read the de Profundis in exactly the rich mournful tone you used to use when you read it in church and, without any extra words, he invoked your spirit and your presence more powerfully than I ever could. Mum was in pieces of course. Bridget was at her side, holding her up.
I’m seventy-two now. I’ve already lived three years longer than you did. I think that just proves that you weren’t given enough time. We weren’t given enough time.
I was there when you died although you were mostly unconscious so you probably don’t remember that. It’s just as well, It’s not a pleasant memory. Odd, isn’t it, that I could fly home from my always-so-important job in Germany to spend days in your hospital room when you were mostly already gone and yet could never make it home for much more than a weekend when you were up and about?
I look like you now, you know. At least that’s what they tell me. I was at Bridget’s funeral about seven years ago and one of her cousins, a man deep into his eighties who I hadn’t seen in decades said, ‘Is that young Patrick? Well, aren’t you the image of your father? It’s like seeing the man himself in the flesh.’ He was staring at me and I knew he really did think he was looking into the reincarnated face of a dead man. Perhaps that happens when you’re so old that people in their sixties look young. It had a strange effect on me, that recognition. Instead of being spooked by wearing your face, I felt connected, as if I’d finally caught up with you.
That’s what I want to do in this letter, really, to catch up with you. To make my peace with you adult to adult.
These days, you and I would be politely described as ‘complicated men’. It means we’re the sort of men who can drive the people who love us nuts and can be seen by others as a hero or a villain.
Our problem was that we were not complicated men together. We were father and son first and people second. We didn’t get the years when we could have seen each other just as adult humans.I think that most of the bad things that happened between us, the tension, the anger, the conflict, the weaponised silences, are down to that.
We started off well. You were my dad. You knew everything. You worked long hours and I didn’t get to talk to you about everything that happened in my day the way I did with mum but when you got home you always had stories for me. While mum was making your tea, you’d sit in your armchair with me at your feet on the floor and tell me about the world. Your stories could be anything from bits of history to preparing for the future.
History might be ‘Do you know what a famine is Patrick? Well, for the Tory Lords who ran the government in the last century, it was a weapon for killing a million Irish people.’
Or you’d do folklore ‘Do you know why there’s salt in the sea, Patrick? Well, a long time ago, there was a greedy magician who…’
Or advice on authority figures. ‘Always remember, Patrick, these priests in their pulpits and these teachers strutting at the front of the class, are all just men. Nothing more. Some good. Some bad. When you meet them, ask yourself why they’re in the pulpit or at the front of the class. Is it to help you or is it to make them feel big by making you feel small?’
Often it was a story about something that had happened that day, a joke played on one of the lads, an argument with a foreman or ‘some idiot playing silly beggars’ that you’d sorted out.
But your commonest topic was the future. You knew I was fascinated by robots and spacecraft and you’d tell me time and again, ‘The thing about the future, Patrick is that It’s not about going into space or about flying cars. It’s about knowing that everything changes and being ready for what comes next.’
I soaked it all up like a sponge and repeated it as if your wisdom was mine. I was a prodigy at Primary School because at eight years old I could draw an Archimedean Screw and knew what a Eureka moment was. I also got into trouble before my First Holy Communion for arguing that even though transubstantiation is a miracle, if we wanted to have the body and blood of Christ, we’d need to drink the wine as well as swallow the host.
I never gave a thought to how a man with only the most rudimentary education knew these things. I didn’t recognise the curiosity and discipline of mind and hard work that was implied. You were my dad and you were always right and I always listened.
Until I didn’t.
Until I hit fourteen and turned into a competitive, arrogant, jealous prick.
My posh Catholic Grammar school had convinced me of my superiority and blinded me to my privilege. I stopped seeing you as someone I learned from and saw you as someone I competed with for my mum’s attention and admiration. It didn’t stop there. I started to compete with Declan – five-year-old Declan – for your love. I was determined to win both competitions even though the two goals trashed one another.
My school had replaced you as the font of all knowledge and trained me in the fine arts of sarcasm and condescension. I would come home and flaunt my knowledge, trying to impress mum and diminish you. One terrible phrase of mine haunts me. I deliver some esoteric fact, establish that you were unfamiliar with it, and end with, ‘Really? I thought everybody knew that.’
I’m amazed you didn’t hit me. I expected you to.
By fourteen, I’d started to understand that you were a deeply angry man. I could feel your anger, like a dog chained to a spike in the yard, ready to bite anyone who got close enough. I also knew, without being told, that the presence of this dog in our family was never to be spoken of.
My teenage self took your anger as a challenge. I taunted the dog, testing the length of the chain and the strength of the links. The chain never snapped. Your dog never bit. Fool that I was, I took that as my victory, not yours.
It never once occurred to me to wonder why you were angry. It was Bridget, a year after your death, who laid it out for me.
She’d thrown mum a sixty-sixth birthday party and invited their brothers, Thomas, Joseph and Francis. They’d grown up to be called Tommy, Joey and Franky. I laughed at the sound of this and when Bridget raised an imperious eyebrow at me, I said, ‘That’s almost as bad as what Dad used to call them. He never liked them. He called them Huey, Dewey and Louie or ‘The Brothers Dim’. He was such an angry man when I was a teenager.’
Bridget gave me one of her Are you really that thick? glares, and said, ‘Your father rescued your mother from a life of unappreciated servitude to our three doltish brothers. They deserved his contempt. And he had a right to be angry. You behaved like a snotty, patronising hormonal monster in your teens. Your father lost his two older brothers in the War. He spent most of his thirties watching your mother cope with the pain of successive miscarriages. When you were a teenager, he was in his forties, a wage slave with nothing to his name and two sons to support. He felt that what he called ‘Attlee’s Children’ had squandered their inheritance and were selling their freedom by paying extortionate Hire Purchase rates to buy things they couldn’t afford and saddling themselves with mortgages they couldn’t get out of. He worried he’d end up like his father, who worked hard all his life and died with nothing. Hasn’t any of this occurred to you before, Patrick or have you been too busy nursing your daddy-was-an-angry-man stories to give it any thought?’
That was so Bridget.
Anyway, I just want you to know that I can see it now: why you were angry and why I was such a pain. Of Course, we were also both like that because we’re both stubborn and we both feed our anger and hold it close.
I think the only thing that saved us was that, at eighteen, I left home to go to Manchester snd start my brilliant career and the competition for dominance ended.
Things might have gotten better then, except I became jealous of Declan.
I’d always known that Declan was the child of my mother’s heart and that was OK because I knew she loved me too, but when I saw how you and Declan got on I became envious, although I’d never have admitted it.
When Declan hit his teens, you and he didn’t fight for dominance. You became a team. He had a talent for words and for performance that lit something inside you. My talent had always been with numbers, a flair I got from my mother and which you approved of but never shared.
Declan became your joy. You travelled to all his public speaking competitions. When he and his team from his shiny Catholic Comprehensive won the Knights of Saint Columba National Competition, beating out my Grammar School along the way, you were ecstatic. When he won the ‘Most Promising Newcomer’ at the Liverpool Festival, you talked about it for weeks.
And I, a grown man with a successful career, ranted to my wife about how unfair it was. And how easily everything came to Declan and how you, my father, couldn’t see how unstable he was.
When Declan dropped out of college after only a year to do his street performing thing, you smiled and said that it was good to see him following his dream. I wanted to scream that that was unfair. I told my wife that, if I’d dropped out, you would have lectured me on wasting my opportunities and lacking discipline. She told me to let it go. I held on to my indignation and I stopped talking to you and to Declan.
I never let myself see that you’d mellowed. That you really did think that pursuing a dream was better than setting a ladder against a wall and climbing it for years only to have some Tory push you off when you reached the top.
It also never occurred to me that you thought Declan didn’t have the discipline for the kind of corporate life I was living.
I was just hurt that you’d never come to see me in Manchester and you asked no questions about what I did. That what I did was so esoteric that few of my colleagues understood it and that I’d never put much energy into inviting you were inconvenient truths that I edited out of my poor-me narrative.
Then at twenty-five, Declan got married and within two years, you had two granddaughters, Emma and then Claire. I hadn’t married until I was twenty-eight and seven years later, we hadn’t had any children.
I suppose that might have made my silence permanent if I’d allowed my envy full sway. It didn’t go that way because I married a woman who was a better human being than me. Not hard really. It just meant that she started off wanting to like people until they’d proven they didn’t deserve it and I did the opposite.
She and I had built a life together that I loved and in which I felt loved. Unlike me, she didn’t dig a moat around the lives we’d built and challenge people to find a drawbridge. She insisted that we spend as much time as possible with my new nieces. She babysat regularly, took the pressure off Gail and won herself Most-Loved Aunt status.
I was mostly a bystander but that put me in the perfect position to see you being a grandfather. You were really good at it. I have a very clear memory of you with Claire’s tiny little hand grasping your thumb. The love in your eyes was wonderful to see and I knew I wanted to spend more time with a man capable of that love.
Of course, it didn’t work out that way. We made a good start, you and I, on building our peace and I’m very grateful for that. You’d just retired. You owned your own house by then, free and clear because ‘Out of debt is out of danger’. You’d found a little part-time job ‘to get out from under your mother’s feet’ as you put it and you were doing more with the Knights Of Saint Columba. You told anyone who would listen that you wanted to ‘spend my remaining few years’ with your family.
I was glad that you were content. I dismissed the ‘remaining few years’ thing as a storytelling embellishment. Even when you showed me where all your household files were, ‘in case anything happens to me’ and told me that ‘Look after your mother. She and Declan will need you.’ I dismissed it as part of you adjusting to retirement. You were only sixty-five. We had plenty of time.
A year later I was offered the job in Germany that I couldn’t refuse and we left, coming back to the UK only a few times a year. Three years after that, you and I were in a hospital room, unable to say anything to each other because you were dying and I was too late.
You were right about the future. Everything changed. You were gone. Then mum was gone. And I wasn’t ready for any of it.
You should have had another ten years, at least. We should have seen the new millennium in together. We should have had the time for me to sit beside you, anger-free and be sure you knew I loved you.
But we didn’t. You died and thirty years later, here I am, one complicated man trying to make peace with another. I hope I’ve succeeded.
Rest in peace, Dad.