I’ve been away for a week. Part One was visiting my dad with my lads, his grandsons; for Part Two, we teamed up with my wife, my stepdaughter, sister-in-law and brother-in-law and my two nieces to visit my wife’s and her sister’s parents.
And Part Two has left me feeling so guilty about Part One, that I’m wondering if repeating Part One in the future might just do more harm than good.
It wasn’t because Part Two was any better than Part One. It wasn’t. Just different. Very different.
Part Two was more structured: breakfast at a certain time; lunch at a certain time; dinner at a certain time. That’s the way my mother-in-law does things. In a previous life she must have been the world’s best Bed and Breakfast landlady. She puts on a fine spread which more than adds to the ever-increasing fine spread I’m developing around my middle in my middle years.
My dad’s is much more free and easy – help yourself to whatever’s in the kitchen, then off down the pub, kids included. Back for whatever remains in the kitchen; kids to bed; then settle down to watch four different America cop shows all running concurrently. He hates adverts, you see, so he switches to another channel the moment they come on, then he stays there until that show’s ads come on, then moves on to another channel. He’s like a shark: if he doesn’t keep moving through the channels, he fears he’ll die. Something like that.
My dad and my parents-in-law are as different as Dairylea and a runny Brie. But that’s not what this post is about.
This post is about the phone call he made to me a few minutes after I arrived at Part Two. And then the call half an hour later. And the call an hour after that.
Me and my sons – and my stepdaughter, who had joined us by then – had said our goodbyes to my dad on Thursday lunchtime after four great days just hanging out with the old fella. We’d been to said pubs, wandered around the local shopping precinct, and then each of us had laid a single carnation on the plot that is my mother’s final resting place.
‘See you in the summer,’ I’d said.
But will we? After those phone calls, I’m not so sure.
Now, my dad never calls me. Never has. He only ever uses the phone in times of emergency. Even then, he’s called one of my brothers to call me. He doesn’t like to bother me, you see. Thinks I’m busy because I’m the Big I Am in London. Even now that I’m the Big Used To Be But Still In London, he never picks up the phone.
So I was worried to see his number flash up on my iPhone.
‘Everything alright, Dad?’ I said.
‘Yes. Sound, sound. Just checking you got there alright.’
‘There’ is Darlington, where my wife’s folks live and where we’d travelled to from my dad’s in Manchester.
‘Yeah, all sound, Dad. No worries. ‘Twas good to see you,’ I replied.
‘Yeah, you too. Are the lads there?’
‘Yep. All fine, all sound.’
‘Can I talk to them?’
I called over my seven and four year-olds and they each said their dutiful thank yous to their grandad for their stay. And that was that.
Until his name flashed up on my phone half an hour later.
‘Quiet here,’ said my dad. ‘You could hear a pin drop.’
‘Count yourself lucky,’ I replied. ‘It’s chaos here. We can always swap if you like?’
‘Ha. No chance. I’ll leave you to it.’
And that was that. Again. Until an hour later.
‘Are you OK, Dad?’ I asked when I answered the phone.
‘Yeah, yeah, sure. Just…you know…’
‘Just what?’ I asked.
‘Just missing the lads, that’s all. It’s like a morgue here.’
And that’s when it hit me, full force, like the heel of a hand to the centre of my chest: he was lonely.
I’ve never thought of my dad as being lonely before, because I guess he’s never been lonely. He had four sons born within five years; until December 2010, he had my mum. But more than that, he’s always had his mates in the pub.
Yet just recently, they seem to be dropping like flies. He’s 74 – the time of life when you get the local paper to look at the obituaries to see who’s died. He seems to know someone who has shuffled off to the other side about once a fortnight this past year.
I noticed it in the pub. There was hardly anybody in there.
‘Beer too expensive?’ I’d remarked.
‘Yeah, that and illness or death.’
And I think a combination of this and the energy and life my sons brought to his home have made him realise he’s not going to be around forever, either. Spending time with his grandkids, who love him like they love me, is making him pine for them when they leave. Their fleeting presence in his life two or three times a year makes their absence all the more poignant when they leave.
So is taking them up to see him doing more harm than good. There is no question that he gets a monumental amount of pleasure from them being there; but is it better to not give him that fleeing pleasure when it results in poignant pain when they leave?
‘Give them a big kiss goodnight from their grandad, won’t you?’ he said, as we signed off our final phone call.
‘Sure thing, Dad,’ I said.
And as I was about to put the phone down, he asked: ‘When are you bringing them up again?’
When? I don’t even know if I should. I thought parting was supposed to be such sweet sorrow. I don’t feel any sweetness at the moment.