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?

Lie-ins and bowel movements

Woke up on Tuesday morning at 7.50am. Jumped out of bed, suppressing expletives in various languages and pulling a muscle in my back as I did so – that one under the shoulder blade. 7.50 is the time I normally leave the house in the morning. Decided this time not to leave the house, given the distress which would have been caused to onlookers by my state of undress.

Shortly after arriving at work at 8.30 on the nose, discovered that our receptionist had also slept in when I joined her in the queue for breakfast in O’Brien’s.

The backroom staff at work have had their numbers boosted and their biscuit supply disproportionately depleted by the arrival of Dish, freshly arrivée from France and still blogging, much to everyone’s relief. Having spent a whole year picking up working practices in France, we are anticipating her going on strike at any moment, but in between spells on the picket line she will be helping the Admin Supremo in his tasks – primarily coffee-drinking and causing civil unrest. And cheerily replying “Super Dooper Doo” when asked how he is by people on the phone, shortly before ferociously devouring them for applying the wrong tax code to our invoices or some such.

Mum, meanwhile, has gone south for the summer, or at least this week, to spend time with my sister and little Maggie. Share the love, I say. It would have been rude of me to keep all of the nagging to myself for the whole year. Dad, having been notified that I would be staying with him while mum was away, immediately booked himself a week in the most expensive nursing home he could find. I fear I may have messed up the porridge production one morning during my last stay, and my dad has a long memory when it comes to the quality of his food provision. Initial reports from the nursing home have been encouraging: the desserts have been of a very high standard. In fact he almost fell out of his chair with excitement while describing them. Dad takes his desserts very seriously.

Speaking of falling out of chairs, the toilet seat at work has cracked again. Reluctant to speculate on the identity of the guilty party, I can only report that all members of staff used the facilities on the morning in question, and none reported any problems getting purchase. Nor, indeed, was any damage noted or commented on. Perhaps their circumspection can be attributed to a desire to not feature in a blog entry…

Time for bed. Don’t want to sleep in again. Angry Mac Guy describes a blog as a generic layout filled with details of the writer’s every bowel movement. Apologies if this one’s been a bit like that, I like to think it usually isn’t. Come to think of it, my blog normally has details of other people’s bowel movements. Not sure that’s any better. Ho hum…

Melancholy and chicken kebabs

Melancholy. What a word. I was discussing its beauty with Judith, a lurker on this blog, this morning. So beautifully… poised, it whispers sweetly of the warm darkness you find deep within a slough of despond. I have recently discovered some new melancholy music (it’s new to me, folks, ok?) in Quasi and Ray LaMontagne. The latter’s album ‘Till the sun turns black’, as if that wasn’t mournful genius enough by itself, includes songs with lines such as:

“I never learned to count my blessings
I choose instead to dwell in my disasters”

Gorgeous. Then there’s Quasi.

“Life is full life is grey:
At its best it’s just OK.
But I’m happy to report
Life is also short.”

Came across Quasi on Cully’s iPod. Cully is a maverick musician/artist who works as an arts staff worker for UCCF. Cully’s iPod is an unplumbed depth of exotic-sounding bands like the Violent Femmes. Exotic, and unheard of, to a boy with a sheltered Church of Ireland upbringing. Anyway, Cully does a good line in quirky songs himself, and played a great set at a gig a few Wednesdays ago. The gig was held in order to raise funds for UCCF’s CU Leaders Training weekend (CULT, as we like to call it) which took place last weekend. I was doing sound at both the fundraising gig and the weekend itself, which is how I came to be in charge of Cully’s iPod. So now you know.

After that gig, I dropped sound kit off at various locations, including my church (where I set the alarm off at about 11.45pm – apologies to any local residents who may be reading), and then stopped off for a chicken kebab, having gone to the gig straight from work and therefore being reasonably peckish at this point. On exiting the kebab emporium at about 12.15am, I weighed up my options. The thing about kebabs is, they leave a bit of a pong (on your clothes, breath, and in the room where you’ve eaten them), often only really noticeable the morning after. So I did the sensible thing and headed down to my mum’s. Mum, of course, was awake. With me in the kitchen and her tucked up in bed, she insisted on holding an inter-room conversation.

– “Did you have a good night?”
– “What?”

– “Did you have a good night?”
– “Yes.”

– “Are you having your supper?”
– “What?”

– “Are you having your supper?”
– “Yes.”

– “Would you not rather eat in the living room?”

Now that is a superfluous and irrelevant question to be asking at 12.25am. No. I feel bad enough for stinking out your kitchen never mind your living room.

– “No, I’m fine here, thanks.”

One Saturday, not long after this, I popped into my mum’s for lunch. No mention was made of the foul-smelling kitchen. Parents can be so forgiving at times. Just as well, really.

Over lunch we discussed funeral plans, cremations and choice of songs for same. Dad fixed his gaze on somewhere unspecifically distant.

– “I would like ‘Crown Him with many Crowns’, and ‘the Irish one’.

– “Whiskey in the Jar?” I volunteered tentatively, but I think he meant ‘Be thou my vision’.

In other sad news, Wiseman has got a girlfriend. What’s more, another friend, Jamie, has just got engaged. I began to wonder if I’m the only sensible/stubborn one left.

Then I remembered DC, and smiled. A cursory glance at him and I feel reassured that I won’t be alone on the singles shelf for some time yet.

Operations, pancakes, and cricket

Operations first. My mum went into hospital today in preparation for getting her ankle messed around with tomorrow, yet again. She’ll be in until Friday probably, at which point she will return home and start waving her sceptre about and issuing decrees. Until then, she has left dad in my care, which is possibly a little foolish, but I am family and so she has to trust me.

So this week I am staying with dad. We had some discussions at the beginning of the week about our likely diet. Beer and sausages were proposed, and I have to say the old man’s face lit up, but sadly mum has stocked the fridge with proper food, and we’ll just have to make the best of it. How we’ll get through the week on my cooking is anyone’s guess, my dad has a drugs supply that would land him in serious trouble in Singapore, but whether any of them will be strong enough to counteract the effects of my culinary expertise remains to be seen. Those of you given to prayer might like to send some up for us both. Those of you who aren’t, now might be a good time to start 😉

I got a phonecall from a nice lady at the Yorkshire Building Society today, explaining that my fixed rate mortgage was about to expire and that my payments would shoot through the roof. I have to say I was more concerned at the time with trying to keep the jam on my pancake (this sounds like it could be a euphemism but it was completely literal this afternoon) as it was threatening to slide off. However, mortgage payments are a necessary evil (for homeowners at least) that one has to give one’s attention to from time to time, and so I tried to carry out an adult conversation about discounted rates and fixed rates and the like, while pretending not to eat a sticky pancake. It was quite a long conversation so I think I managed to get through 3 pancakes. Regrettably I managed to land a fair amount of the jam on my tie, which lent me a certain gravitas during my subsequent appointment with a client.

Bellevue finally took to the cricket field again last night, and managed to defeat our old friends D Mains for the third time this summer. We won by 5 wickets, despite my clumsy efforts behind the stumps. More here. Holy Cross also managed to win on Saturday – we beat Dunfermline by 6 wickets, which was immensely pleasing. I chipped in with 26 not out at the end.

Right, better get off to bed. Mum has left a list of commandments which must be obeyed in the mornings, and the morning isn’t my best time of day, so I’d better get some sleep. Don’t think too hard about jam and pancake euphemisms, although any printable suggestions will be received with interest…