My father’s last days were spent in a hospital ward among men of his own generation who, like him, had been in the army during the second world war. My father sat in his bed, in his pyjamas, his moustache bright and white against the dull, biscuit coloured skin of his face and his eyes yellowed with jaundice. I put a packet of cigars on his bedside table.
“I hope you will enjoy these!”
He gave no thanks but pointed across the ward to a tall man who sat in bed opposite to us. He was sitting ramrod straight with a barrel of a chest and the sheets tightly and evenly drawn down on either side of him.
“He was a sergeant major in the Grenadiers!” my father said, through the side of his mouth.
My father then reached across to the bedside table to pick up the packet of cigars. In doing so he knocked over a cup of coffee cup causing the spoon in the saucer to fall on to the table and then rattling and tinkling on to the floor, as my father held up the packet for the sergeant major to see.
“A good smoke here for us!” he called, holding up the packet but the effect had been spoiled by his clumsiness. The sergeant major turned his face by one degree towards my father and gave a scarcely discernible nod of his head before turning back again to stare straight ahead through frowning eyes.
The next time I went I shaved my father with a wet razor, soaping his face, first with a brush and then, with great delicacy, following the ridge and furrow of his face, I took away the beard stubble of two days with the razor. The razor, held lightly between my thumb and the first two fingers of my right hand, swept over his skin like a swallow. It seemed to be something I could do well, perhaps because of years of painting watercolours with a sable brush. Throughout that visit my father’s eyes were closed. I felt the joy of giving to him, which I had never experienced before.
The next time I went was the last. My brother John was there. We sat on either side of the bed. We each held one of my father’s hands. I don’t know who took his hand first. Neither of us had done such a thing since our very earliest childhood. My father’s eyes remained closed.
I felt and still feel regret that we had never been close in our lives until that moment.
Wars can give create deep comradeship. My father seemed more concerned to impress the sergeant major than to focus on my visit.
In many English families there is a tradion of not showing or even making close emotional contact with members of your own family and friends. I don’t know if this is changing and it certainly does not apply to all English families.
I only experienced wishing for a closer relationship when it was too late. Something to regret…but you can’t turn to clock back…but you can try to avoid such a thing happening again.