The Ides of March

My dad died peacefully last Saturday in Edinburgh’s Royal Infirmary. My mum, sister and I were all there with him at the end, which was comforting for us, and hopefully for him. Two weeks prior to this, Dad had come out of his coma, which brought us both elation and despair. We had envisaged him slipping away quietly without regaining consciousness, and hoped that this is how things would play out. But Dad was made of sterner stuff than we had given him credit for, and regained consciousness to the point where he could hear and understand us, but was unable to speak or communicate, aside from a few breathed words. That he showed little sign of frustration at what amounted to two weeks of captivity was testament to his inner peace. I do believe that God ministered to him and was a great comfort during this time.

So we found ourselves bidding goodbye to the now familiar surroundings of Ward 202, and the nurses that worked there and did such a great job of making his last days as comfortable and peaceful as possible. I lost another £4 to the machine in the car park, and drove off into a world without Dad.

It will be an emptier place without him, even though Dad and I rarely talked at length. Despite being a preacher in the second half of his life, he was a quiet man who kept his opinions, for the most part, to himself. During my final three years at high school, he picked me up from town every day and drove me the six mile journey home. Frequently not much was said, and both of us were content with this arrangement. Since his retirement, and my parents’ subsequent move here to Edinburgh, opportunities for talking with him have been almost limitless, but rarely taken. I wish now, of course, that I had spent more time with him. But chatting never came naturally to either of us, and that’s just how it was. I did spend enough time with him over the course of my life to appreciate his reserves of dignity and grace, his wisdom and dry Irish humour. Over the last few weeks, too, I was able to spend a fair bit of time in his company, reading and praying, sometimes just talking about my day at work. I continued to assail him at times with my piano-playing via my iPod as he was unable to tell me to stop.

Last Saturday being 15 March, he now shares the date of his passing with Julius Caesar, which might just please him. He was never an emperor, but no-one looked more regal with a paper crown from a Christmas cracker.

The funeral director came to call on Monday, and we found ourselves leafing through brochures of flower arrangements, which included some corking Pearly Gates motifs. We passed these by, and settled for something altogether more discreet, since Dad wasn’t big on ostentation.

Monday also meant a visit to the cemetery to choose a plot for his grave. I had a fleeting vision of Dad somewhere upstairs shouting “PICK THAT ONE! PICK THAT ONE!” but in reality he was probably rolling his eyes at us humming and hawing over the decision. We settled on a quiet corner, very close to the nearby Church of Scotland, but when they came to dig the grave the soil proved dodgy. Dad would have been delighted to discover that the Presbyterian church had been built on suspect ground. So we had to move his resting place to a more central location.

Sadly, therefore, it’s not quite a corner any more, but there’s now part of a foreign field that is forever Ireland.

Northern Ireland, obviously.

Leap Year’s Day + 1

It’s not every year you get a chance to blog on 29 February, so it seemed a shame to miss the opportunity.

However, I did. So here I am, on 1 March instead. The 29th passed off peacefully, with no proposals needing deflected. Nasty Jen had hatched a proposal scheme which involved the payment of a large fine should the poor unfortunate have the temerity to reject her offer. The amount was reputed to be in the region of £10,000. Frankly, as escapes from captivity go, it seemed cheap. I haven’t heard yet if anyone was significantly lighter in pocket this morning.

Jones will be dismayed to discover that my turntable count has risen to two this week. I had been becoming more aware of the limitations of mp3s, having discovered that when played at higher volumes, the distortion is irritatingly noticeable. So when an old friend’s dad called to say he was jettisoning his Rega Planar 3, I resolved to dust off my vinyl collection, and begin enjoying analogue music again. Having already in my possession a Planar 2, bought second hand years ago from some guy in Albion Road, the arrival of a second deck might finally herald the birth of my DJ career. Or perhaps not.

The turntable, I was informed, needed a new stylus. No problem, I thought. Until I really did think. Where on earth do you buy a needle for your record player these days? I searched online, but only succeeded in bewildering myself with the types of stylus that were available, having no idea if they were suitable for the cartridge. And then the Admin Supremo’s Apprentice stepped in. His dad, he explained, used to “mess around with” turntables. So, on the recommendation of the Admin Supremo’s Apprentice’s dad, I found myself descending into a basement emporium on Leith Walk, a room lined with speakers, valve amplifiers, turntables, and even, gosh, the odd CD player. Four days later I had my P3 back in residence and was listening to the unadulterated purity of analogue sound – no jitter, no quantisation errors.

Digital sound has its uses. iPods rule when convenience takes precedence over sound quality. I have been putting some of my dad’s favourite old tunes onto my iPod the last few days, and playing them to him. He’s been in a coma for over a week now, since suffering a brainstem stroke following a fall, and I have no idea if he hears the music or not. But I hope he does, and it brings him some comfort. Alison and Maggie were scrambled from London within hours of the accident, and Maggie’s presence has been a joy in a difficult week. I have been fine-tuning my role as the mischief-making uncle, winding her up to levels of excitement at all the wrong times. Just before bed-time is ideal for chasing tennis balls down the hallway, I find.

My dad has had a difficult few years lately – having been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease just over ten years ago. It has played havoc with his mobility, sleeping, stomach, speech, his dignity, and more. At times his frustration has been obvious, but mostly he has remained gracious and a model of Christian love.

On one occasion we were on holiday at Rossnowlagh in Donegal. I was about 7 years old, and made some dismissive comment about dad’s age (he would have been 57 at the time) and his running ability. Whereupon he pointed to a nearby sand dune and offered to race me. I remember being stunned at how such an old man, in my eyes, could outpace me so easily. Twenty-six years on, I was staring at his feet one evening while I was visiting him in a nursing home, where he was staying while mum was in London. They were swollen and misshapen through heart valve malfunction. I recalled the Rossnowlagh race, and silently grieved over his loss of mobility. Age takes its toll on everybody, but Parkinson’s steals so much more.

I have often cried out my frustration to God that Dad has had to go through this. Never more so than recently, as he lies in a hospital bed, awaiting the end. Why? I know not.

But though He slay me, yet will I trust Him. Shall not the judge of all the earth do right?