Jeremy Clarke watches his father die in a poorhouse among strangersby Jeremy Clarke / November 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Published in November 1996 issue of Prospect Magazine
Dad died in March. I lost my temper a couple of times; otherwise I seemed to get over it quite quickly. My sister still cries every day. Last week she rang up the crematorium to find out whether they still had his ashes. They did, and she picked them up that same afternoon on the way back from shopping. The funeral director came out of his office and unceremoniously handed over a Tesco bag. She put it among her other carrier bags full of groceries in the footwell and drove home. Dad declined and died in a week, and I went to the hospital several times to watch. The first time I went, I had not seen him for about 18 months as we had sort of fallen out. When I found him in the side room of a men’s ward on the eighth floor, he looked so meagre sitting there in his bedside chair with a pair of voluminous pale blue pyjamas draped about his skeleton. I laughed at him. “Hello Jeremy” he said without a trace of reproach or self pity. “Hello Dad” I replied. We went through our usual repertoire of safe subjects: the weather; West Ham United; the ugliness of the shelf-stackers in the local branch of Gateway’s. So cadaverous had he become that when he spoke the upper set of his false teeth kept slipping down and protruding between his lips like a grotesque form of punctuation. He seemed profoundly sad, yet peaceful. In health, Dad was a restless, anxious man who inhabited the future. Here he seemed in a transcendental state of acceptance. It was so unlike him I suspected he was suffering from a type of senile dementia, or had been drinking. When I went again two days later, he was propped up in bed staring rheumy-eyed into space, his hands resting palms down on the beige counterpane. They had taken away his teeth. I sat in his chair and tried to get a conversation going, but he was so weak he could hardly whisper, so I sat and read the Daily Mirror; exchanging the occasional moue or rolling eyes with him to keep the thing going. The staff nurse who popped in and out was jolly and businesslike, and the tattooed orderly who manhandled him on and off the commode when he indicated he wanted to do a “poo” was kindness itself. But they spoilt it by calling him John when throughout his life he had been known as Jack. Although he might be ending his relatively short life on the dying ward of an understaffed hospital during a cold, dismal week in March, they could at least get his name right, I thought. They weren’t to know though. I held his tiny wrist and wrote JACK in thick, black emphatic letters on his plastic identification bracelet. A tea lady and a huge trolley appeared in the doorway. “Cup of tea, my lover?” she bawled at him as if he were a deaf imbecile. He nodded and, impeccably polite to the last, whispered, “yes please.” “How many sugars, sweetheart?” she yelled, a spoonful poised impatiently over the hospital blue china. Dad feebly lifted two fingers and let them fall again. “Who’s a right little devil today then?” she leered, banging down half a cup of unbelievably weak tea on his bed table where it remained until she came and snatched it away five minutes later. They had no idea what was the matter with him. The day he died a doctor came to see him. “All right?” he enquired. “Yes thank you,” whispered Dad. “Good,” said the doctor in a steady-as-she-goes kind of tone. We kept saying to each other that “they mean well”-wanting to justify leaving my father to die in a poorhouse among strangers. The following morning the night sister rang to say that she had gone into his room to turn him on his side to relieve the pressure on his bedsore, and he had vomited a little blood and died. My sister had been expecting to pick up a small silver, lightly ornamented urn, containing a handful of flakey white ashes. She was a little surprised to find she had been given what looked like a large, brown plastic sweet jar, with a screw lid, containing about six pounds of compacted dung coloured ash. Nevertheless she has made a shrine in her bedroom by standing it on a small table and surrounding it with photographs and mementoes and an Ordnance Survey map of his favourite part of the Scottish Highlands. (Dad venerated anything to do with Scotland.) Having his ashes in her bedroom-assuming they are his ashes, of course-has made her feel much better because although he has died and been incinerated, she still senses his presence in the residue. She swears she can make out parts of his tooth enamel among the ash, and now and then she unscrews the lid and inhales deeply. They say it takes a lot of dead Chinese to make the front page. Before Dad died, when I saw items on the television news or read articles in the newspapers about people dying in other parts of the world, often by the thousand-by the million in Africa-I used to catch myself thinking: “Oh well, they’re used to it-they’ll get over it.” One of the more unwelcome thoughts that has crowded in in the wake of his death is: supposing having less, they feel the loss of their parents and children more. All that grief hardly bears thinking about.