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Brandy slid down my throat, burning a path through my oesophagus on the way to my stomach. I shuddered at the hot harsh taste from a drink I was none too fond of. John had poured large measures and in the absence of anything else alcoholic, it would have to do for now. He raised his glass looked at Mark and me and said, “Cheers, here’s to the old man, God bless him, and to uncle Iain too. May God welcome them even though they were a pair of toerags from time to time!“. He threw back his head and gulped a large amount of the brandy before walking towards an armchair and flopping down like a rag doll. The last few weeks of misery were etched on his face; gaunt with dark circles beneath cheerless blue eyes. I felt his pain as I watched him struggle with his exhaustion and grief.
“How are you John?”, I asked, desperate to know how he was coping. He ran his hand through his dark brown hair before knocking back another large gulp of brandy. He looked past me staring vacantly into the distance. For a moment I thought he was going to cry but he stood up, strolled over to the brandy bottle and refilled his glass with a four finger deep measure. I wanted to caution care but this was no ordinary time for us, no run of the mill situation and “if you couldn’t have a drink now then when could you?”, I asked myself.
Leaning his arm on the mantelpiece, he turned towards me and finally held my gaze. “I feel like hell, Mob. It’s been a nightmarish two weeks, a real rollercoaster of emotions. Dad was still a grumpy old bugger but he was scared and that was hard to watch. I wouldn’t wish it upon anyone to watch a parent die like that, no matter what they’d said or done in life".
“I’m sorry and I know this is still very raw for you, but how was it, how did he cope at the end?” Perhaps it was morbid of me, kind of like rubber-necking at a road accident but I felt it was important for me to know the details so I could empathise with him, get the complete picture of just how awful it must have been for him and dad.
John walked back to the armchair, placed his drink on a side table and sunk down into the drab and uncomfortable burgundy leatherette chair that had been my father’s favourite for twenty years or so. I’d only seen my father once in this apartment some two years before, sitting in the same chair that John now occupied. It had been a short and depressing visit made out of guilt that I hadn’t seen him in such a long time and made out of curiosity to see just how he had faired and if there were any changes, regrets, apologies. I’d been shocked and saddened to see him try to warm his hands by the side of a clothes iron that he would plug in for that very purpose for he couldn’t afford to have his gas fire fixed. So much of what I felt for him was a complex set of emotions that ranged from hatred to pity but never love. But that day I felt compassion for a man haunted by his addictions; a victim of his learned behaviour from his violent father before him and a victim of circumstances borne out of a rough Glaswegian culture that endorsed domestic violence as almost a right-of-passage for a generation born at the time of the First World War. I had his fire fixed and paid his quarterly heating bills thereafter; I didn’t love him but neither did I hate him anymore; I couldn’t walk away and leave the man to freeze for the rest of his life in a city that was on the same latitude as Canada and frequently published record low temperatures. He got practical help and money from me in lieu of love.
His appartment was alien to me; he’d moved here long after I had fled the family home at fifteen to go and stay with a friend so I could continue my studies in my attempt to make a better life for myself. The apartment smelled of neglect and I felt sorrow for a life not well lived that had ended in an alcoholic haze, in pain and isolation from his family. There was a hollow echo to our conversation as though there was nothing of substance, no warmth here to cushion the sound of our words. It had a forlorn and desolate atmosphere with threadbare rugs placed on the dusty floor that was covered in cheap cracked linoleum where grimy ancient floorboards peaked through. The bare light bulb hanging from the nicotine stained rose holder in the ceiling streamed out naked light and cast strange shadows on the grubby and torn wallpapered walls of the room. The thick aroma of stale beer and cigarettes hung heavily in the air, a testament to the lifestyle that had brought my father to his knees with lung cancer. Years of his own disregard for his comfort and welfare were evident everywhere you glanced. A quick inspection of his kitchen had left me breathless; it was so dirty it should have been condemned and if the cancer hadn’t carried him off then surely to God, Ecoli would have done for him instead. A swift examination of his cupboards found no food for his consumption but instead offered up a bizarre collection of empty scotch bottles, about a hundred in total. For why he had started this strange collection, I do not know. My rapid troll through his apartment told me all I needed to know of the man of late; squalidness, neglect and loneliness reeked from every aspect of his small home. I suddenly felt deeply ashamed and sorrowful that his life had come to this; living with no real pride or respect for himself, no apparent signs of care and attention by himself or from anyone else.
“John?”, I turned my face back towards my brother to prompt him to come back at me; to at least try to relate some of those two weeks with dad. That way I could spare him a bit and share his narrative with our brothers and sisters as they arrived to ask the same questions over and over.
“Sorry”, he apologised. “I was watching you scan the room; you’ve got the same shock and disgust on your face that I must have had when I saw it two weeks ago. That’s the reason I was here in the first place”, he offered, as the start of his narrative as to how it was he who happened to be here in Glasgow with our dying father when he usually lived down south like me.
“Christ John, the place is a dive, a bloody squat. I don’t remember it being this bad when I saw him two years ago”. I wondered if perhaps his death had suddenly made me look much more closely at everything; brought things into a stark reality that I couldn’t hide from.
“Exactly what I thought Mob. I couldn’t believe the deterioration in the flat and in him either. But there’d been a flooding from the apartment above and from what I can gather he’d just left it, didn’t bother to sort it out at all. That’s why the place smells so musty”, he offered, as an explanation for the shambolic environment we were sitting in. I nodded my head in agreement because the all engulfing smell made me feel I’d develop consumption if left to wallow in such surroundings for more than a day or two. It was no wonder why the doctors had diagnosed pleurisy when my father was first admitted to hospital.
“Dad called me out of the blue”, he continued, “asked me if I had a couple of weeks to spare to come up and help him decorate. As I was between jobs, I thought what the hell. A couple of weeks in the old homeland would be just what I needed to stave off the boredom until my next contract started. But I knew when I saw him, he was clearly very ill and that the decorating plea for help was his way of getting me here to help him. He never said it but I’m sure he knew it was serious, had probably been in pain for months and only decided to do something about it when it was too much for him to handle”.
“Oh dear god almighty John, what must he have gone through being isolated and scared like that for him to have finally sent out a distress call to you?”, I said, more out loud to myself. “It’s not as if you kept in touch that often is it?”, I asked, looking at him for confirmation or denial that he’d been a better child than I had been.
“No, you’re right. Our contact was sporadic at best so I was as surprised as you are that he made the call”.
Trying to imagine Dad’s last few weeks of loneliness and terror was like a bolt of lightening to my heart. I closed my eyes to steel myself because I was so deeply mortified that I had let my father’s life come to a close in such a way. The if’s the if’s the if’s......If only I had known, if only he had said earlier, if only I had cared.... They went on and on pounding my brain but it was futile to think what if? But you do it anyway.
“And so”, John carried on, “I got here albeit under false pretences, realised what was going on, got him into hospital and the rest is history. I called the family, let everyone know the regular updates and sat and waited, just waited because there was nothing else I could do. The old man was in and out of consciousness until the last few hours but at least the morphine kept the worst at bay. He was delusional from time to time but he was compos mentis for enough of the time he managed to spend with Alex", he said in conclusion.
“Alex, Alex is here? Where on earth is he then?", I asked in astonishment for I hadn’t even considered that any of my other siblings had made it home.
“Oh, Christ I thought I’d told you. He turned up yesterday afternoon. He’s off picking up dad’s clothes and other stuff from the hospital. They asked yesterday that someone come in and do that today. Thankfully Alex offered to do that for I have seen enough of that place to sicken me for the rest of my life”
I was relieved that John had not been alone when my father passed away and appreciative that Alex had made it home so dad could see another of his son’s in his final hours. With that thought, my brother Alex walked into the apartment. I stood up and we walked towards each other finally culminating in a tearful hug of brother and sister lamenting the loss of a parent.
Now there were enough of us present to start the planning of the funeral of a man, a father, who had been robbed of us in life by alcohol and now had robbed us again with his death.