Letter to my Father

John Pretty 221st June 2012

Dear Dad,

I wished you hadn’t died.

With an ache in bones and stomach, it hurts. But not as much as you had suffered from the infection of spine that spread.

We had come daily to the big hospital where you lay. It was a madhouse staffed by wonderfully communicative doctors and committed nurses. But then you came to Southwold’s cottage of a hospital, the quiet room with opening window, view of painter’s sky that had come for days, powder blue and racing cumulus singed charcoal grey. You would have painted such skies well, I said, and you smiled, crinkling eyes and agreed. “I would.”

I wished you hadn’t died. We have come to love the smiles and jokes. The light that seemed to shine when you were told someone had arrived. “Oh,” you said, “hello. How nice.” You had learned by then to turn your head, but we could tell your eyes were no longer seeing. You had some bad periods, eyes rolling back into your head, or a day when a hacking cough came upon you, and caused us many worries. But then you said with Suffolk understatement, “it is a pesky cough, isn’t it?”

We heard early in the morning of the longest day of the year that you’d deteriorated overnight, and I rushed north in the car, telling Chris first he should go too. The land was all intense colours. Brilliant blue sky, rich greens in hedges, poppies by the roadside, yellowing barley. I tried not to drive like a lunatic; you would have been proud. But I was too late, though did not know it. Parked, walked around the corner by the churchyard opposite the hospital, the wall around which I fell from aged seven into that bank of stinging nettles. Now I walked with jacket off and keys in hand, the sun shining, an incandescent light refracted and reflected by the sea and its spray cast in the air, swifts slicing too over the hospital and low down the street. I came into the hospital, and thought it would be good to see you. The nurses nodded but were guarded; then in front of the room was a white screen, blocking entry. I stumbled, moved it apart. And entered a land of shadows, of darkness. Mum and Chris shook their heads, and I fell apart. And they did again.

I wished you hadn’t died.

You lay there. Still, but not unmoving. The airbed that automatically changes pressure to prevent bedsores would move, and you would twitch. We’d shiver forward, looking. Wondering if you’d open your eyes, and smile, “only joking.” But you didn’t. It was an absurd thought anyway. Your heart had stopped, your breathing too. We knew what your medical records looked like, wide as a handspan. Forty years since the first heart problems; two open heart surgeries at famed Papworth. We’d been so used to your fighting that the end was an utter shock. We had been saying, but not really believing, we think the end is near. You had never complained about the unfairness of it all. Yes about the pain and discomfort, the prevention of painting or using a camera. Or even going for a walk. Or getting out of a chair. Now we sat, by the bedside. And you were there, grey now and sallow. No longer able to smile, or say, “you good boys.” We sobbed. But you’d have probably scoffed, and said “don’t worry, I’ll be alright shortly.

John Pretty 1I wished you hadn’t died. Many people today use the euphemism “passed”, or “passed away.” I don’t like it, and I think you would have agreed. Death carries so many taboos. We dare not talk about it, for fear it seems of bringing it on. Thus do modern rationalists revert to superstitions. We talked about this, Dad, do you remember? We still hold to superstitions as they are relics of a time when we felt such close connections to nature and each other that any action was felt to influence very real outcomes. So, we dared not do anything to make the outcome worse. Superstitions are no more than bets of influencing the future. We all do it. Especially when death is involved.

But then we took on the taboos; we had to plan. For the after. Funeral, thanksgiving, cremation, scattering of the ashes on the waters at Blackshore. We hope you did not mind. It helped us prepare, and not to have to take hard decisions when are heads were scrambled and our stomachs cramped and our legs gone from under us, and people expressing sympathies and us not knowing what to say.

I wished you hadn’t died. Because you made us laugh on the final day. We sat around the bed and you said, “I want..” and paused, and we leaned forward and said, yes?… and you said triumphantly, “a cigarette.” And we laughed. Out loud. And Mum said, but you gave up in 1962! And you said with a knowing smile, “I know.”

Dad, I wished you hadn’t died. You were one of the last great artist-craftsmen of this country. You were a perfectionist carpenter, designed and made furniture of the highest quality and finest lines, taught so many how to make a snug mortise and tenon joint. Yet you were the finest of watercolour and lately oil painters. Watercolours are a particular thing – you have to have it all in your mind before you start. A granular knowledge of what you see, and then the capacity to think how it would best be represented to capture the essence of a place. And then paint, without whites – they are paper colour, and you have to paint around the whites. I have never fully understood how you did that. We think you painted five thousand paintings, and know you sold a couple of thousand. You’ve won prizes, including 13 Medailles d’Or in France. You were proud of these, and I think France was proud of you. More than England, which makes me sad.

Dad. We sat beside you when you were dead. Kissed you, hugged, gripped your shoulder, held your hands. But you had become cold. We were in pieces but your body was now composed and no longer in pain. For that we were grateful. Outside the swifts still drifted fast, the sky now a cobalt blue, the houses and their white woodwork bright too. The staff nurse kindly brought us coffee and tea. And we just sat, and you just lay. Previously, we had done this for hours, and then you’d wake up. But not now.

Dad. I am writing this with tears filling my eyes and smudging my whole face, lips tight, jaw clamped. You’d have said something reassuring. I had thought this letter would be helpful and cathartic. But all it did was make me cry.

Dad. I wished you hadn’t died. But then I turn, and on the wall is one of your paintings. And in more than two thousand homes are others, hanging proudly. Probably looked at closely again, with fondness and pride. I think you may have been amazed at how much people thought of your skills. You have left a legacy on the walls, beautifully framed every single one.

We will make a celebration of it all. But no doubt cry again, drained as we all will feel. We will make Blackshore and the Blythe River and the yeasty North Sea sacred again. When your neighbour John came early in the week, and talked of the bungalow up at Easton Bavents, I played on the phone the song of the skylark, your favourite bird, and you smiled, and said very quietly, “that’s lovely.” Your childhood is that song spread from the sky.

Dad – what have I missed? Sailing, the RAF, growing up on Easton Bavents, your sister Mary, teacher training, Africa, cars, cameras, teaching, France, your’s and Mum’s place at Fondespierre amongst the olive groves, your fondness and indeed pride in all eight grandchildren, all our families.

Dad, I wished you hadn’t died. I had so much to ask and tell, so much to say.

With all my love

Your son, Jules

John Pretty 3