Acts of service

Part three of part two

An ex-colleague of mine got in touch to say he’d read part one and he used a phrase I’d not heard before, but it was one that resonated so sharply with my experience: “Sympathy Fatigue”. Who knew that at some point you’d be thinking to yourself PLEASE STOP BEING NICE TO ME – it’s such a selfish feeling that brings shame and guilt with it – you can’t say to someone “please can you just stop caring about my needs”. It seems almost unkind to them, by not meeting their need to be nice with niceness you feel bad, but you start not wanting them to be nice at all WHICH IS MAD, but that, I guess, is the weird reality of life. People are nice and that’s what you want, but also in the fog of grief you don’t want them to be nice, but they are, and really that’s hard to process because every niceness is a reminder an echo.

The final part of the present is a simple story of how I brought my dad back to life for a few seconds. Again, bear with me. We spread dads’ ashes at about midday at the base of a European ash tree, I said what he’d asked me to “he did everything he wanted to and lived a happy life” and I added, ”you can’t really ask for more than that”. You can of course, you can demand more life, but cancer isn’t listening.

After, the day was spent with coffee and cake and family and a lazy afternoon in a cottage I’d rented. We were booked into a local pub/restaurant just down the road for an evening meal together too. A small affair really, just the 9 of us, but in this place, we were the biggest table of the night. A young woman served us, and we had a lovely time over food and chat for a few hours. Something my dad used to love. 

When dad went out to a restaurant He ALWAYS paid. Not in a Tony Soprano “I’m the family boss” sort of thing, more in a “I enjoy this, and I want to pay” sort of way. He’d occasionally settle the bill before anyone knew. Like, he wasn’t a millionaire, but he wasn’t poor either and I’m talking Pizza Express sort of thing and not The Savoy, but still it was his thing. Something he liked to do, just because. Small. Invisible. Kind. To the outside observer it might look selfish; the bill arrives and we’d just give the bill to dad, or the waiter would say “who’s paying” and we’d all gesture at him, but only because we knew he’d want to pay with zero fuss – no “oh go on then”. No, “it’s my turn”. He didn’t like fuss.

Something else he did was tip well, not mad like, but generously. If the server was young, they got a larger cash tip – it didn’t matter if they’d been shit, in fact, if they’d been awful, but tried, they often got an even larger tip. One time, in a Pizza Express as it happens, the young man serving us was so nervous that we’d both assumed it was his first service on his first ever day – he was shaking. He brought us the wrong food and then knocked over a drink on the table as he was serving us the right food. It was, for him I’m sure, mortifying. We both reassured the young lad that it was fine. Because, let’s be honest, it totally was. 

The bill probably came to £40 – Dad always paid in cash, always had cash, and like some 1970s gangster it was folded up in value order. I saw him put £60 maybe £80 in on the plate and we left. As dad passed the young lad he said “thank you so much” not theatrically or sarcastically, just normally. Like, I know, it’s not huge money, but it’s enough to make a small difference and dad didn’t need even to see a reaction, it wasn’t performative, he liked to, of course, he liked to see the smile, but it wasn’t essential, it was just a good thing to do if you had the means. I asked him once why he did it and he just shrugged, “they might buy something nice with it for their old dad” he said.

Our family meal over, I ask for the bill, I notice that service isn’t included. It was the sort of place where you go to the till to pay and the young woman who’d looked after us was there, I paid the bill, with my card, I’m not a 1970s gangster after all. I dropped a healthy cash tip on the receipt holder thing and said to her “thank you so much” Her eyes were, for a moment on the cash tip, she looked up at me and said “are you sure??” And I said, yes and thanked her again. Her face lit up, eyes glossy and smile beaming. For that brief second my dad was back in the room with me enjoying the moment and I thought of him and that made me happy. After we got back to our cottage my uncle said, he’d noticed that service wasn’t included and so he’d given the woman who served us some cash as we left…My dad would have loved that. 

To Mimi, white tabard nurse, coffee machine nurse, registry office lady, waitress at The Gamekeepers Inn. You’ve no idea how much your acts of service and kindness in ways large and small, visible and invisible made a difference to our individual and collective – small and very large moments of grief. Thank you.

Dad had lung cancer, bone cancer, liver cancer and some other stuff, he died in January 2024 and we scattered his ashes in March 2024.