Friday, July 05, 2013

My North Star

from Jacqueline

Earlier this week one of my friends was telling me about her daughter’s best friend, and how the girl has an eye-wateringly wealthy father who doesn’t know what it is to be a dad. He lavishes money and “stuff” upon her – sports cars, a clothing allowance, first class air travel, and everything a girl in her twenties might want.  But he is just never actually present in her life.  My friend said the girl would give up everything, just to have a real dad.  And not for the first time, I gave thanks for my dad. I was blessed.  And I have missed him so much since he passed away, one year ago today. Has it really been a year? 

My mother, brother and I have all dealt with his loss in different ways.  For my part, I have made my way through this twelve months of mourning by arriving at each anniversary as if it were an island in time, something to endure before setting off for another landing point.  There was the anniversary of the day I discovered just how very ill he was, then soon after, the anniversary of that flight to England, when I thought I was going for a few weeks and did not return to my home in California or see my husband for another five months.  There was the anniversary of the first middle-of-the-night rush to the emergency room, when I was at my father’s bedside for the best part of twenty-four hours, and by the time I came back to the house, I was sort of punchy, as if the world around me was foggy with sound distorted.  I remember when I returned to the hospital, after a rest, I approached the nurses’ station, where a new team had come on duty.  They looked at me and one said, “Well, no prizes for guessing who you’ve come to see!”  And it reminded me of the story, told since I was a small girl, that when my father came to the hospital to meet his firstborn, a daughter, the staff knew whose dad he was straightaway.

There have been other landmarks – the second emergency room rush, and then a transfer to the hospice, and in between those times, there were the bittersweet moments of togetherness, all remembered, and all honored this past year with an ache in my heart.

But this is not going to be a sad post, for although this is a strange week - a week when, if I lived a century ago, I would be transitioning from black to lavender, a sign that the mourning is over and life is taking on color again – I want to remember the funny things about my Dad, the good things.  My dad was never born to wealth – quite the opposite, and he never made a fortune – but my brother and I were privileged by the riches laid at our feet.  I believe it was my father’s solidity, his calm demeanor and his goodness that gave us the confidence to take flight and explore the world – he was man of great curiosity who loved the idea of adventure, even though he didn’t have much opportunity for adventure himself. 

My father was passionate about the stars, and loved looking up at the night sky. “If you can find your north star,” he would say, “You can find your whole universe.”  My cousin’s boys still laugh about Dad and the stars. When they were in their early teens, they came to stay with my parents.  As was customary, my father put on his boots to take the dog for a last-thing-at-night amble across the fields, and he asked the boys if they wanted to come.  They were very excited, not least because they were town lads who loved walking across wild fields in the dark.  And they loved listening to Dad talk about the stars.  They were a good two fields away, when my father –  completely immersed in pointing out constellations – suddenly looked back and said, “Blimey, I forgot the dog!” 

My dad knew how to be a dad. He knew what was important, and he knew what we needed in a father.  He knew who he was, and he understood who we were, and how our way in the world was different from his – and he loved our way in the world so much.  He had always told us to “think different” (yep, even before Mr. Jobs uttered those very words, my dad was there first), which has stood us in good stead.

A week before he died, my mother contracted a viral infection, and was not allowed to visit the hospice for a few days, so it was just me and my Dad.  He was expected to return home soon following a couple of weeks of “respite care” – but in the meantime, I was visiting him twice daily and staying for a few hours each time.  We’d often talk for a while, discuss a book he was reading or something on the news, or we would watch Poirot on TV, or A Touch of Frost, or perhaps New Tricks.  And he would tell me stories about when he was a kid – I loved that, hearing his stories.  Then he suffered a fall on July 1st last year, and within three days had lost consciousness. 

My brother and I were there when he passed away – I had taken my mother home earlier in the evening, because she was beyond exhausted by the vigil and by her grief.  They had been together 65 years and were soul mates.  My father left this world with my brother and I telling him how much we loved him, which is how it should be, I think, that the last words you ever hear are, “I love you.”

Then he was gone.  But he probably stuck around for a while, if only to have a last laugh at my brother and I.  We remained with him for some twenty minutes, then there came a moment when we knew it was time to leave.  That’s when my brother looked at me and I knew something was bothering him.  The conversation went like this.

“Jack, aren’t we supposed to open a window?  To set his spirit free?”
“Are we?
“Well, what do you think? Don’t they say you’re supposed to do that, open the window?”
“Oh, blimey, I think you’re right.”  I turned to the window and struggled with the latch.  “Hang on Dad,” I said.  “You’ll be out soon.”
My brother began to laugh at me, messing with the window in the almost-darkness.  It was a tension laugh.  I began to laugh with him.
“You know what, John.  I’m pretty sure if Dad needed to get out of this window, he would have put a cosmic sledgehammer through it by now.”
Dad was good with tools.
“You’ve got a point,” he said.
We waited a little longer, our arms around each other.
“Can you smell that fragrance, John?” I asked.
“You mean the roses?  I smelled it as soon as he took his last breath.”
“Me too.”

I Googled it a day later:  “Smell of roses at point of death.”  There were various explanations, mainly to do with the fact that there’s a disconnect in the brain when someone dies, and it causes various gases to join together, which in turn leads to something that smells like roses.  All very scientific.  I prefer my brother’s reasoning for our experience.

“What do you reckon it is?” I asked.
 “It’s the sweet smell of heaven, Jack,” he replied.  “The sweet smell of heaven.”
Today I am wearing my new lavender sun dress.  I never wore mourning as such, but my dad liked to see me in a dress, so it seems the right thing to do.  It’s the end of this year of anniversaries.  Yet I still miss my north star.  He showed me my whole universe.

And now for something completely different!!  On Sunday, Our Paul will be interviewing Yours Truly on his fast-becoming-famous new podcast series:  Pulp Friction.  (I know ....).  Here's the link if you want to join us:  Pulp Friction


  1. A compassionate tribute, a beautiful narrative. Your rendering took me back to the summer of 2005 when I flew to Wisconsin because my father could no longer speak on a telephone. You have wonderful memories, as do I. Thank you for sharing.

  2. from Jacqueline - thank you st, for your comment. These are bittersweet moments to be cherished.

  3. Poignant memories of a loving family as only you could retell, Our J. The anniversaries won't stop but neither will your devotion to and respect for your parents. Lucky you.

  4. Heartfelt and touching. Thank you for sharing this most personal of tales.

  5. from Jacqueline

    Thank you, Paul and Patty. The thing is, it's good to know that there can be laughter at the saddest of times, and that isn't a bad thing. My dad loved nothing more than a good laugh. Yes, it is a personal tale, but there again, a universal experience.

  6. Dear Jackie, have been thinking of you all day while running from here to there for appointments. First thing when I got home was to turn on computer to read your blog, but first had a lovely conversation with Mum. You were so lucky to have such a wonderful Dad to love. He really was a very special person. A gentle man. Thanks for sharing. RBB

  7. Ms, Winspear, I was reminded of Maisie's relationship with her father Frankie Dobbs. Agree with everyone above. As Paul said, it was heartfelt and touching. Thank you for sharing your Dad with us.

    ~ Diana

  8. from Jacqueline

    Well, I concede there is a bit of my Dad in Frankie Dobbs. Thank you, all,for your comments. It seemed the right day to share my Dad - he was one of a kind.

  9. A beautiful tribute that brought tears to my eyes. It's been a little over two years since I lost my mom, who was a single mom all my life, and I still miss her every day.

    I remember thinking often that first year that it'd be nice if we still wore black for the first year, because it mirrored how I felt.

    Thanks for sharing your story.