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.

What’s next?

Part two of part two. 

When someone dies, clearly the first question many people ask is “what do I do now?” For some that is an existential question and for others it is a deeply practical one. I know this because when my dad passed away the nurse gave me a pack of paper that was basically a load of “here’s what you do now” information. One of those things was the need to register the death at the registry office. There’s lots to do after death, I found it weirdly very helpful – I need to do all this stuff with legal that and bank account this. It allowed me to distract myself while still being involved sort of thing. I’m sure some people find it brutally difficult, but I enjoyed it. Enjoyed is the wrong word there, but I’m not sure there is a word to adequately convey both enjoying and not enjoying something all at the same time. Maybe the Germans have a word for it?

To book an appointment to register a death you need to contact the registry office. In Leeds this requires that you fill in a webform, a webform that looks like it was designed in 2004. Sadly, it was down when I tried to log on so I was forced to call, after a while on hold being told that the registry office in Leeds does not tolerate rude or aggressive behaviour, a very helpful person answered and asked me what the issue was – I told her and she said not to worry that she could book an appointment for me. Evidently, she was opening the same webform I was attempting to use because she went quiet and told me the form was down and she could only ask me to wait until later. In my head I said “well, he’s dead so I have plenty of time” but of course I didn’t say that because that would be rude, aggressive even.  It was 9am and my gut instinct is that the systems manager didn’t get in until 9:30 because when I tried again 30 minutes later the error was gone. Someone had reset the AWS instance. 

The form came back to life (IRONIC WINKING AT THE READER) and I got an appointment and more warnings about being respectful toward the staff – rude and aggressive behaviour will not be tolerated! Make sure you are on time as missed appointments hurt all our feelings and so on.  I have always found both these statements very questionable metrics – where is rude and aggressive behaviour tolerated anyway? Also, maybe it’s not us maybe it’s your appointment system that demands people are free between 9-3 Monday to Friday in handy half hour slots – especially where they’ve just had a baby arrive or loved one depart. 

Here I am, then, sat in the registry office wating my turn – it’s open plan, which is, if you ask me, an odd choice given the task at hand. I sit in the “looked nice in the corporate furniture brochure” seat and it is as uncomfortable as it is ugly, but no doubt very hard wearing. A family come in looking very sad and using words that I am now becoming all too familiar with; “probate”, for example. Then a young couple arrive with a toddler and I play peek-a-boo with him for a short while. What a feeling it is to bring a smile to the face of a toddler – like, the best feeling on Earth. The poor bastard has no idea how his life is about to be flipped upside down by the very quiet new-born brother strapped to his mother’s chest. 

My appointment in late in the day, and the office is thinning out. The toddler and baby leave, the family in grief leave, everyone else leaves – my appointment time flies by, just the 45 minutes, but enough to make someone rude and possibly even aggressive I think to myself. Eventually and with a fulsome apology my person arrives to take me to a semi-open desk in the semi-open plan office – again the stickers on the desk remind me of how vitally important it is to make my appointment on time and how being aggressive is not nice. The process of getting a death certificate is swift in the grand scheme of things. The lady processing the form for me explains that there are some odd questions, but they are all legitimate and needed. I didn’t think there were any odd ones to be honest. The last bit is pretty important, it’s about proofing the document and you can tell that the staff are used to being told that everything is correct before then, when the document is printed, being told “oh, actually that’s not their real name” because she verifies everything with me four or five times and asks me if I’ve ever proofread anything before. I smile because I have proofread millions of words and all I can think of now is how many howlers I’ve missed, but no mind, the data here is correct and she clicks “Done” on the screen. The certificates pop out and she has to sign them in ink, because WHO THE FUCK KNOWS? She shuffles the newly signed certificates into a folder. The folder I learn later has lots more “what to do now” information in it. It’s been very perfunctory and professional really, the questions were easy to answer her demeanour was personable but not too personal. There was small talk about what he’d done for a living and how he’d been a Bookmaker and I had made books, “funny” I say, “yes, funny” she says. She added some more information sheets and printed a receipt and went to get some more leaflets about what to do now and came back to put them in my new ‘your person is dead folder’ a keepsake. Sort of. 

She squares it all off and I realise I’m locked in just watching her hands on the folder, she puts her glasses on the pack of papers. I look up. She looks me in the eye and says “finally, I just want to say how very sorry I am for your loss” Up to this point it’s all been very matter of fact, but this was so personal, so warm that it really brought me into the moment. The death was official, one for the books and she knew the exact time to switch modes. It only lasted a few moments, but I’m learning that it is in the small moments, when you’re off-guard, when a total stranger does something small and thoughtful that the grief will ambush you and squeeze those emotions you’ve been holding on to so hard you can’t swallow or speak. 

Cracking Eggs

I wasn’t sure I wanted to write about my dad dying. Grief is an odd beast in the way that it just rocks up and often when you least expect it. I thought that by not writing about my him, maybe the grieving process would be easier. My writing style, such as it can be called a style, isn’t always suited to the serious or profound. I’m more of a dad-joke and poor taste comment. Case in point, don’t think for a second that I didn’t have a dad-joke vs. dead dad joke line primed and ready to go. Taste and better judgement moved me on though. 

But here I am, writing part one of what I laughingly planned out as a three-part piece. A guy I once worked with used to plan out magazine features by drawing them freehand on any scrap of paper he could summon. At the time I thought it a rather over the top waste of energy and resource, but in retrospect it was a fantastic way of visualising the words and layout without giving the art monkeys too much direction. I planned this out on the back corner of a piece of paper that had a work to-do list and the measurements of my bedroom window. 

Sometimes, people who find out I used to write for a living think it a very ignoble pursuit, they can’t see the strings so it’s all circus to them. Only very rarely do people seem to respect the fact that in a very specific way I know what I’m doing, and they don’t. That’s not bragging by the way, it’s just the way it is with any trade – plumbing looks easy to a lot of people especially with all the plastic push-fit stuff that’s available, but it’s not until you are knee deep in PEX that it dawns on you that, actually, there’s more to it than inserting pipes into connectors. For example, the writers and editors have reached the end of this paragraph and wondered why it’s here at all.

Anyway I’m 300 words in now and I should really get to the point – the plan, by the way, was to produce three posts on the theme of past, present and future. If I’m being honest, if a student had come to me with this I’d be circumspect about the present and the future thing, but hopefully it’ll all make sense when I get to those. Which brings me on to the first instalment; Past. 

Past is prologue as the saying goes and this story is very much of that ilk. It’s formative for me, in ways I hadn’t really assessed or realised, in deep ways I didn’t understand even at the surface level. When I was 7 or 8 I had an interaction with my dad that has completely shaped the way I am and how I act (most of the time). Of course, I’m the historian here so I’m painting this in an entirely positive light so if you’ve met me and I haven’t acted this way I’m sorry and also; keep your mouth shut. 

You can’t make an omelette without cracking some eggs and this is a story ostensibly about cracking eggs, but really, it’s got nothing to do with eggs. Back to me as a 7 or 8 year old, it seems odd that I can remember with absolute clarity some of this tale but not other parts at all, but there you go, the memory is an odd beast. I was in the kitchen in the house on Harlech Road in Beeston, South Leeds. It’s a terraced house made of red brick that is almost black from years and years of pollution and they are on the ‘cheaper’ side of the park – Mrs Bucket would not approve. The houses, though cheaper are big. The terraced houses on Harlech Road are through and not back-to-backs as most of the others in the area are. I’m in the kitchen and that’s all I can remember in detail, can’t remember the colour of the walls, the flooring type, what was where or how the events that about to unfold began or ended, but from a process of elimination I do know that in some capacity I have been asked by my dad to procure 2 eggs. I’d love to be able to tell you more about the mythical eggs, write a long drawn-out story of where the eggs were stored, who bought them or, like Bill Bryson perhaps, the history of the egg in 500 jolly fast paced pages of prose that has you doing that breathing out hard laugh or occasional guffaw. Sadly, I’m nowhere near as talented as Big Billy B nor can I remember a single detail about any of this story prior to the aforementioned getting of the eggs. So, here’s what I do know; I put the eggs on the table. Shocking, right?

I put the eggs on the table, the table I have no recollection of. I couldn’t tell you the colour, style or any single detail about the table if you had a gun to my head. But what I can say with 100% clarity is that the eggs are on the table and I put them there. Slowly, one of the eggs begins to move. Where it’s off to I have no idea, I’m 7 or maybe 8 remember so my imagination is probably not that sharp. Well, I know it isn’t because of what happened next. The egg picks up speed. 

Now, here’s something I cannot recall for sure, but I think I’ve maybe added in for poetic comedy recollection, I think egg one starts to roll of it’s own volition, I know for certain that I didn’t move the eggs because I know all I’ve done so far is put the eggs on the table. However, egg one is now rolling and as it meets the edge of the table physics takes over. At almost exactly this moment egg two sees the opportunity of a lifetime and begins rolling too. Comic. Timing.

Here, my dad alerted by the sound of egg one meeting its end has turned around to survey the eggy chaos unfolding behind him. I can’t remember what he was doing, washing up maybe or getting the oven ready – it’s all a long-forgotten blur. Anyway, he watched me as I watched the egg, lovingly referred to here as egg 2, but I doubt I’d got as far as naming it back then. Egg 2 went the way of egg 1 and my dad shouted at me. I have no idea what he shouted – not a clue, he could have used foul language, but I truly doubt it, he could have said something mean, but somehow I know he didn’t. I know he said something in a raised tone, but honestly, I can’t remember the words or tone or volume with any degree of accuracy. I know I cried. 

I can still imagine the tightening of the windpipe and the way the tears that you can’t stop sting. I cried because it was my fault the eggs broke and that dad shouted, or raised his voice though I can’t say for sure how raised, and like a rabbit in the headlights my egg drama response was not fight or flight, but freeze. Two eggs over edgy, a waste. 

What happened post egg smash is lost on me too – completely. Not a clue if this meant there was no egg and chips for tea or if we had to have something else. No idea if I was charged with cleaning up to atone for my inaction. No idea what happened from that point on until bedtime and even past then. 

I was asleep, I remember that, and I remember being woken up. I remember being confused, because as you’ll know if you’ve ever had your own 8-year-old, they wake confused. It takes them a moment to re-enter the real world when they’ve gone to Bedfordshire or wherever you send yours off to. But I know for sure I shook off that confusion because I remember what happened next with clarity as if it happened to me today. Dad was there on my bed and he said to me “you’ll never guess what happened?” “No” I said, because I was the least inquisitive child in the world at that time. “Well, I was cooking my own tea and I put two eggs on the table and they rolled right off! I’m sorry for getting angry.” 

I can hear the words like he’s still here now. 

Fast forward a decade or so and it hit me like a lightning bolt – for I am thicker than thick. He didn’t let two more eggs roll off the table you absolute moron! That was his way of making sure I didn’t worry about it, that he knew it wasn’t a big deal and that he was sorry for shouting. He never shouted at me anyway, so I think it might be more realistic to say he raised his voice in the moment. 

He didn’t wait until morning he knew it needed to be done even though that meant waking me up. It was imperative that I know as soon as possible that two broken eggs were just that and nothing to be sad or mad about. Also, that he was sorry.  

Of course, as adult now myself I can see the potential series of events that led him to be annoyed at me for standing watching two perfectly good eggs throw themselves on the floor and go to waste. He was paying a mortgage; he was paying the other bills and all that other boring adulting stuff. I’ve no idea if he’d just found out that he didn’t get a promotion or if the car had a huge repair bill, no idea if he’d just had a shit day. There are a million and one reasons why he might have lost his temper with me, I recognise that now. Watching me, stupefied and spectating as egg 2 went splat could have been the straw that broke the back of a monumentally shit day, week, month or whatever, I’ve no clue because we never spoke about it again. But what I do know is that he didn’t try to justify his reaction, he simply tried to make sure I didn’t feel I was the stupidest person on the planet, how could I be if it happened to him as well? And, he apologised. 

The wider point here, of course, is that of all the things I remember about the incident the only parts that I can recall with clarity are the words he spoke to me in bed that night. The apology and the story that put the ‘egg incident’ firmly in the realm of accident that could happen to anyone because the universe is like that sometimes and you’re not a thicky thicko for letting it happen. It’s just one of those things. Also, that people react, potentially overreact and that’s going to happen even if they are your dad, and when it happens, even if they are the adult and you are the child, they should apologise. It makes a lifetime of difference. 

Childhood trauma stays with you, but then again so does how that trauma is dealt with and, of course, this isn’t a perfect story and he wasn’t the perfect parent and neither am I and that’s ok – it’s all a work in progress.

Besides it’s all in the past now anyway.

Dad had lung cancer, bone cancer, liver cancer and some other stuff, he died in January 2024. 

Part 2 soon, but I wouldn’t hold your breath.