Song For My Father Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers in "The Good Life" (1975) tv series.

Song For My Father

August 6, 202012–15 minutes read

Written by:

Garth Cartwright

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The pandemic disrupted everything–on this I think we can all agree. And, as things return to “normal”, it's likely most of us understand that some things will never be the same. Possibly more debatable is as to where the greatest damage has been felt: commerce or arts? Tourism or sport? Politics or dating?

Right now, for me (at least), the hurt is more personal: what will haunt me most from 2020 is being unable to be with my parents. Yes, with smartphones and zoom/skype we can connect with one another even when isolating. But the distance between gesturing at a blurry image on a phone and actually being with someone in a shared physical space is huge. And when one person lives in Europe and another in the South Pacific then the sense of distance is beyond mere time zones and more akin to being world’s apart. I’m speaking personally here as I live in London and my parents live in Auckland, New Zealand.
The Horace Silver Quintet ‎– Song For My Father (Cantiga Para Meu Pai) (Blue Note) (1964)
The Horace Silver Quintet ‎– Song For My Father (Cantiga Para Meu Pai) (Blue Note) (1964)
My parents are elderly – or ‘were’, I should add to ensure this story retains its sad accuracy – and, aware of the encroaching pandemic, my calls took on the role reversal of child-giving-parents-orders: “do this/don’t do that” et al. Being 85 and 93 neither mum nor dad had ever felt the need to jump online for news so their information largely came from the New Zealand Herald, a daily paper of no great repute. Elderly they may have been but attentive to the basic rules of isolating indoors. Also: they live in a retirement community and the managers of said community, aware of how the virus was wreaking carnage amongst the elderly in Italy and Spain, employed an extra degree of lockdown with the banning of visitors. This must have been very hard for some residents suddenly unable to see family but for my parents, with myself in London and my brother in Brisbane, it made for no great difference. They had each other. Or, more accurately, dad had mum: his health had been in decline for the past two years and, while he could still speak-read-watch TV-shower-dress himself, he was losing his mobility and energy.

Even before lockdown dad was sleeping most of the day and forsaking social activities. My regular phone calls found him sounding, at best, weary (“I’m bloody old” he said one day and “your mother keeps me alive” on another: both true). Other times he was barely coherent. Once he fell asleep on the phone. He suffered from arthritis, back pain and a heart condition: he was too old to qualify for surgery and accepted this without complaint. Across his long life he had enjoyed remarkable good health, outliving his younger brother and almost all his friends. His late father, who survived fighting in the trenches in World War 1, had been felled by a heart attack on the way to work in a jam factory. So he counted his blessings. As my mother had been a nurse he also had live-in-care. But, I could tell, dad was fading.

Fading but cognisant: he recognised me when I rang. And I desperately hoped he would hang in there until I returned to give him a hug and have a chat. No, there weren’t things we needed to “discuss”. I just wanted the opportunity to sit with my father again. I’d last visited my parents in January 2019 and thought a late-2020 visit could work. By then I hoped things might have calmed down regarding international travel. Because to get to New Zealand from the UK right now is far more difficult than usual. And thus, extremely expensive. Flying from Europe to New Zealand is never going to be cheap: it’s as far as a traveller can go and involves changing planes in a US or Asian hub. Often the airlines add a stop at an Australian airport (so to offload then pick up more passengers). Which means when you finally land at Auckland Airport you might have been travelling for considerably longer than thirty hours. I’m an insomniac when it comes to travel so often experience something akin to hallucinations when I finally get to Auckland’s Arrivals terminal. While I love returning to the nation I continue to call “home” the journey there can be taxing.

First world problems, I know. But I mention such in case you wonder why I didn’t immediately rush back to New Zealand as soon as it became evident in March that lockdown was looming. Add to this the quarantine factor: as of writing (early July 2020) the law states that only NZ passport holders are allowed entry. Well, I’m one of those so I could have coughed up several thousand pounds and got on one of the infrequent flights repatriating Kiwis from the misery of Boris Johnson’s wretched UK. Thing is, upon arrival I would not have had the opportunity to embrace my parents and tell them the journey was worth it just to see them. No, I would have had to deal with being put on a bus and driven to a hotel where I would be quarantined for two weeks (beyond meals, this involves self-isolating in your room).
Photo: Garth Cartwright
Photo: Garth Cartwright
A handful of returnees abused what appears to have been a rather lax system – people requested “compassionate leave” to visit seriously ill family members or attend funerals and, essentially, scarpered (or met with friends, behaving like they were on holiday) – so ensuring the quarantine is now policed. Two weeks in a hotel room? Well, I could catch up on my reading. And try and work on writing novels that exist as promissory notes. Still, I held off, continuing to wait until word was given that I’d no longer need endure solitary confinement. That never came and, with so many returning home (so overfilling quarantine hotels), the government started limiting returning flights. For someone who normally travels extensively I felt stuck for the first time in decades.

And then dad had a fall. How often do you hear that a “fall” contributed to an elderly relative’s decline and subsequent death? Plenty. Thus, when I got the message from mum – dad’s recent decline has forced her to master email – that he’d fallen over his walker so breaking several ribs, I felt a curious mix of trepidation tempered with relief: any fall and breakage is bad news when it happens to a 93-year old but, as far as broken bones go, ribs are far less serious than hip or leg. He was in hospital but seemed to be OK. Fluid in his lung had been detected – a common problem for those with heart problems – and would be drained. I guessed he would be home in less than a week.

It wasn’t to be. The doctors informed mum that dad was now needing full-time care. She found a care home near to where they lived, noting that it was much quieter than the hospital so he should sleep better. Which sounds good. But things weren’t: he would reply to the doctor’s questions but, otherwise, remained silent. And then he began refusing any food proffered. His appetite had declined across this year, preferring glasses of milk and to nibble on a muffin. Now he rejected even these. When mum asked him, in his care home bed, if he would like a sip of water he replied “no”, and then never spoke again.

Inevitably, he entered into a coma. I understood he was not long for this world but how short stunned me: I’d spoken with mum on Tuesday July 2nd around 9pm and she reported him having a strong pulse, not being in pain, breathing well. It was then Wednesday morning in Auckland and she was heading to the care home to sit with him. I said something like “well, tell dad that I love him”, knowing he would never regain consciousness to hear such. But, at this distance, it was about the only gesture I could offer. Did I hope he might, somehow, miraculously come out of the coma and declare himself hungry? I wished so while knowing it wasn’t to be. If he had decided life was no longer worth the struggle, then so be it. I’ve since learnt that this happens often amongst the elderly, specifically amongst those who suffer an injury. In some cultures it once was a given that elderly members would shuffle off into the wilderness so leaving without a fuss and ensuring the tribe’s sparse food supplies would go to the younger and more able. Like them, my father was going gently into the good night.

Not that I was thinking of this when, a couple of hours later, came a tearful phone call. Its a strange experience, losing your father while being so far from the mother you wish to comfort. I gave thanks that dad’s death was peaceful yet, at the same time, felt a sudden stop: the most important male in my life was gone. He raised me, shaped me, fought with me. And no longer was there. How to react? By now it was midnight Tuesday so I engaged in predictably male behaviour: opened a bottle of red wine, listened to music, thought about him. I wished I had cigarettes or weed (or both) but not so much that I was willing to venture out into the night to try and find them. Eventually, I passed out on the sofa. The next morning I determined to ring my 90-year old aunt (who lives outside London) so to tell her the news. When she answered she had the radio on and was having trouble hearing me. Thus breaking the news took on a tragicomic dimension: I was crying, my voice breaking up, trying to say “dad died last night” and she kept replying “what’s that? Speak up!” Finally she got the gist of my call and said something like, “well, you were expecting this, weren’t you?” How very British.

I then took a photo with my phone of my parents’ wedding picture and posted it on Facebook with RIP Ron Cartwright (1926 -2020). In parts of the Balkans they photocopy a photo of the deceased (alongside their name, birth and death dates) and tape this up outside the family home (and on bus stops and such – a very public way of mourning). I guess posting on social media is something similar, sharing news and letting the world know you are mourning. Comments poured in. More comments on a single post than I’ve ever experienced before. All of them kind. Some offered memories of having met my father. Others offered condolences and support. Some shared memories of losing their fathers. If anything about dad’s death was life affirming it was this commentary. Eventually, I copied the messages from people who had known dad and emailed them to mum. In her grief she loved knowing he was remembered fondly beyond their own immediate circle.
I didn’t make any more phone calls to share the news. Partly because I’d found the experience of telling my aunt unsettling. I rarely cry and to cry on the phone… I guess it undermines my sense of self-control. I did consider calling a girl I’d been seeing who lives in France. But, during our last phone chat – where I’d mentioned Easyjet had cancelled the July flights I’d booked to visit – she sounded short on empathy: the months apart lockdown had enforced upon us ensuring our relationship was coming unstuck. So to try and communicate about the death of a parent with her when what had once seemed so alive between us was now dying… no, no phone calls.

Anyway, I’m a writer and writers prefer to write words rather than speak them (or so it appears to me). So I added a note about my father on the Facebook post I’d done marking his passing. It read “What is there to say when your father dies? And a long way away, at that? He lived a very long life - "I'm bloody old!" he said in a recent phone chat - and was in good health for most of his 93 years. He survived Covid but a fall exacerbated the decline that had set in two years ago. Dad was very friendly, loved to chat, garden, watch sport, read the paper and, until he was 90, play golf! From him I got my love of reading and Westerns - as a kid he would take me to Sam Peckinpah gorefests that I was way too young for (and I appreciate him doing so). We had many differences and he certainly had his faults but he was a good, hard working, loyal fella and I will miss him immensely.” There’s no easy way to say goodbye but I hoped that, with this short summation, I’d given some idea of his character and the role he played in my life. He was never a soldier – being just months too young to be called up for the Pacific campaign at the end of World War 2 – or an activist, nor remotely famous (or interested in being so). But he was a warm, chatty, helpful person and I think this is how he would have liked to be remembered.

Then I called my mother and she said that, as dad was a donor (i.e. his body was donated to Auckland university’s medical school, thus there would not be a funeral), her idea was to host an evening in his memory at the bar in their retirement community. A good idea – he certainly liked a drink – and much better to have people chatting about him with a glass of pinot noir or cab’ sav’ in hand rather than solemnly singing hymns he had no faith in. Again, I couldn’t be there but I wanted to contribute. Rather than sending a wreath or videoing myself speaking about him I wrote the following.

“A few words about my dad. Well, I guess I have a lot of memories. I remember waving goodbye to him as he reversed down our driveway on his way to work in the mornings when I was a little boy. And him holding my hands at the beach and teaching me to swim by insisting I kick and breathe. I remember him taking me to lots of Westerns – dad loved a cowboy movie and so would take Neil and I to the cinema and, to this day, I still love a cowboy movie. He used to buy us lots of books and I especially enjoyed reading Tintin and Asterix books – I think their travels and adventures helped inspire my own more humble adventures some years later. He used to read to Neil and I – we loved a bedtime story and he was a good storyteller. He took me on my first ever visit to a record shop – Marbecks in Queens Arcade. I must have been about 8 years old and I bought an EP of The Monkees as their TV show was being repeated at the time. I must have begged him to take me there and I’ve never forgotten it. And I still own that Monkees EP. Not that dad and I shared similar music tastes – I’m obsessed with music while he wasn’t very interested. He did like Gilbert & Sullivan: I recall him taking us to see performances of Pirates Of Penzance. Can’t say I ever shared his enthusiasm. Dad would have his transistor radio on whenever he was working in the garden or downstairs. It used to drive me crazy if he had me helping out as it was always on a news station, not a music one! He was a good gardener – I recall our back garden at Robson Street being a real garden of Eden: he and mum grew so many veggies – potatoes, silverbeet, carrots, lettuces, beans (dad loved beans), peas. And also apples and kiwi fruit and grape fruit and, I think, tamarillos. They even had a banana tree at one point but I don’t think it was ever hot enough for real bananas to develop. I’m sure mum can remember some other fruit and veggies we ate. Amazing how much they grew – I think it was all “organic”, as people now describe it. He was also a bee keeper – he had hives over in Western Springs and he would bring the honey back and do all the removal of the honey from the comb in our garage. It sounds a bit like that 1970s sitcom The Good Life, doesn’t it? Mum and dad used to love to watch that show so I guess they related to it. I’m also aware that before I was born dad learnt to speak Maori and went and taught in a rural community where Maori was still the main language. And he wrote a book on Australian Aboriginals for school kids – he told the truth about how the problems the Aboriginals suffered from were caused by white settlers and I remember him discussing this with his brother, Selwyn, who declared he didn’t want his kids learning such and dad saying they had to learn the truth. So in some ways he was quite a pioneer as back then few people in education spoke about Maori or Aboriginal rights. As you can imagine he lived a very full life and enjoyed himself a lot. Obviously, he had mum to look after him so that made things a lot easier. Is there anything else to tell? Well, he liked to play golf – but I think you knew that.”

Writing obituaries for British newspapers has provided part of my income for some years now and I realise the above would be rejected by my editors for lacking the kind of linear narrative expected. But I wasn’t interested in detailing dad’s life into what year/what degree. Instead, I just wanted to let memories I had of him flow. Good memories (I also have bad. But his positive attributes outshone the negative). I then got on to my sister-in-law – being based in Australia my brother would not be in attendance (at the time of writing this–early July 2020–quarantine also applies to those across the Tasman Sea) – encouraging her to get their children to write something, as they also would not be there to say goodbye to the grandfather (or “papa” as they called him) who loved them so much.

They did so and, for my mother, so alone beyond her sister and a niece and nephew, this made all the difference. She could wish him goodbye with my aunt and others reading out our tributes to him. I won’t pretend it was comparable to being there, to being able to hug mum and accept the consolations from those who knew him. But it was something. And in a lockdown where being socially isolated has ensured that many of us are suffering from a lack of human contact, well, I felt our souls gathered to respond to my father’s passing. We mourned from a distance, apart yet together.

Has there been a soundtrack guiding me through my father's passing? As he cared little for music there was no artist or genre to turn to. Yet the passing of Ennio Morricone some six days on from him did make me reflect on all the spaghetti Westerns he had taken me to see and how, even at a young age, my ears heard in Morricone's soundtracks something extremely distinctive, a music that enriched the images we were watching on the screen. So, yes, I've listened to a lot of Morricone and remembered the movies and cinemas dad would take us to. And I've also played Horace Silver's Song For My Father. This album leads with the title track, a beautifully warm six minutes of Latin-infused bop. I listen and stare at the album cover featuring Silver's nattily dressed father. No one would ever claim my father was a smart dresser. Or had an ear for jazz. But in this lovely and loving composition I can hear the masculine grace only a father might possess. Adios, dad.

Main photo: Felicity Kendal and Richard Briers in "The Good Life" (1975) tv series.
*This article is part of the project Music & Conversations in the Attic, co-financed by AFCN.
About the Author

Garth Cartwright

New Zealand born, London based journalist, critic, DJ and music promoter. He is the author of several books including Princes Amongst Men, More Miles Than Money, and Going For A Song.

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