A Tale of Dead Daddies
These letters were written by Carolyn and Judy Bastick, sisters and my mother and aunt, respectively. I have decided to seam their writings as a single piece, two juxtaposed complements from which emerges a richer picture of the day that their father died.
— Harry Jensen
~ ~ ~
In the interest of full disclosure, I am Harry’s mother. The surviving parent. I qualify to blather on this subject (at least privately) because I too have a dead dad. Except mine has been dead a lot longer. April 19th marked the 22nd anniversary of his premature and unexpected demise. On our DDD, I was newly arrived from Minnesota, having scrambled to find a flight to the UK, determined to beat the global shutdown, and I was saddened to find that even though I was finally on English soil, this year I was not after all going to be able to visit my father’s grave. Because this year we are all having a pandemic. Like a worldwide virusy party.
I would not be able to give his nicely patinaed gravestone a pat, give him a haircut as needed, and stroll over to stare at the now almost illegible marker memorializing a mass grave for a mother and her two daughters, brutally murdered in another century. The killers were never found. To share his final resting place with such persons has, in my opinion, added an appropriate air of mystery to this graveyard, attached to a church built a thousand years ago. The reminder that evil is ever present.
I thought at first that I might write about Harry’s dead dad; my former husband. But I decided it was too risky. Too hard because his death is so fresh. So easier on me (and probably Harry!) to write a little something about my own father’s death. Harry’s grandfather.
I read all Harry’s blatherings, eagerly log on to the website each morning to see if he has posted something new, and we have taken to chatting on subjects that he addresses in those writings. Death stuff. Divorce stuff. Dad stuff. My dad and his. It has been cathartic. I feel we have both been brave. He is eight time zones away and I have never felt closer to Harry. Death has an upside apparently.
I wish that I could have been a fraction as self-aware as I went through this grieving process. After 22 years, my sister Judy and I are only now touching on some of the darker memories. Only recently recognising that the all-too-familiar pedestal that is instantly assigned to the dead parent was not entirely earned. That we have therefore, on occasion, not given our mother the credit she may have deserved, so intent were we in preserving the rose-tinted and skewed memories of our deeply flawed father. We have also recognised that we are blessed in having each other. I am amazed how we remember shared experiences differently. And am equally horrified to learn that events I believed impacted me alone were replicated in Judy’s life. There was a pattern in that paternal behaviour.
One of the things I’ve been contemplating is whether it is easier to be waiting for your parent to die, to have a timetable provided by doctors, or is it better to be blindsided? To pick up the phone on an ordinary Sunday afternoon, no cell phones, no caller ID, and to hear your mother announce from 4,000 miles away in a weird muted voice: Carolyn, Daddy’s died. That’s it. Your life will never ever be the same. You will remember where you were, how you felt, what you were wearing, how things smelled, just as if you had been pre-warned. But somehow different. I think?
But this I do know. While it is excruciatingly painful to lose your own dad, there is something that is arguably worse. To have your children lose their father. Like a double whammy. I cannot absorb my boys’ pain, make it go away like you try to do when you are a parent. I can only bear witness.
— Carolyn Bastick
17 March, 2020
~ ~ ~
In January of 1998 my father (Harry’s grandfather) suffered, what was thought to be, a stroke. He was paralysed down his left side and his speech was slurred. After about a week, his consultant decided that it may not, after all, be a stroke and that he might have a brain tumour. He was moved to a specialist hospital where they carried out various tests, all of which were inconclusive and they reverted to the stroke theory. He was moved to a cottage hospital a few miles from my parents home where I visited him every day and where he remained for the next 3 months. His speech had recovered, he was still paralysed but was declared fit to return home. Since the stroke, his character had changed; the always smart, polite and well mannered person who rarely lost his temper had become rude, temperamental and sometimes verbally aggressive. He did not want to be this person, he would ask the nurses daily to give him something to end it all and had even started writing them cheques in the hope that they might be persuaded. Appointments were booked for the health visitor to assess the home for wheelchair use and a date was set for him to return home where he would probably run my mother into an early grave. On the evening of 19th April, just days before the move date, he died.
This is my story, my memories (there are a lot a blanks) and my thoughts — some a bit weird — of that evening:
I had decided, and had been advised by the nurses, after a particularly tricky visit the day before, to have a break from visiting daddy, so my day had been filled with mundane stuff like catching up on work and jobs around the house and spending a bit more time with my five-year-old daughter, Poppy. Late that evening, around 11pm, the phone rang. This didn’t worry me as my sister, who was living in the States, and I had been in the habit of talking quite late at night.
I didn’t recognise the voice — what the fuck, is this some kind of sick joke, who would do this?
“You heard me.”
Then I recognised the voice, my mother. I think I let out a groan, I don’t remember crying, my mind was racing — fuck, fuck, fuck.
“I’m on my way,” I said.
Shit, Poppy, what the fuck do I do with Poppy at this time of night?
These are the times when you discover how great your friends are. I called Lindsay, whose kids were at the same school as Poppy, told her what had happened and she offered before I even had to ask.
Poppy didn’t wake as I bundled her into a sleeping bag and carried her out to the car. I don’t remember packing stuff either for Poppy or for me, but I must have done. Lyndsay was standing outside her front door in her dressing gown as I drew up and handed over my sleeping baby, before driving on to the hospital.
The ward that daddy was in was dark but light enough for me see that the curtains had been drawn around his bed and that the other occupants were sleeping, except for Frank who gave me a sad smile. I raised my fingers in acknowledgment, returned his smile, and continued on.
I’m not ready for this, not ready to see my dead father, and where the fuck is the opening to those curtains?
Luckily a nurse arrived and saved me the embarrassment of scrabbling around and waking everybody.
Deep breath, Judy.
Daddy looked asleep, peaceful and younger — are they sure he’s dead, he doesn’t look dead, maybe I should pinch him just to check. I kissed his still warm cheek and stroked his hair and sat by his bed. Mummy must have been there too, and I must have spoken to her, hugged her, I just don't remember. Some time later my brother, Rupert, arrived. He, like me, kissed daddy’s cheek — well that’s a first, I’ve never seen you kiss daddy before.
I have no idea how long we spent there and no recollection of driving back to my parents home, of any conversations or any drinking, and there must have been a lot of drinking.
Rupert and I were sharing the spare bedroom, I got undressed and into my bed. Rupert started undressing and I turned away.
“Night night, Rupee.”
“Night night, Jude”
Daddy’s dead; I wish I’d visited him today.
— Judy Bastick
22 May, 2020