My dad never really talked much, being a quiet guy who had already witness a lot of death by the time he retired. He had a peculiar habit of buying the RAF monthly newspaper to specifically read the Obits, and learn who of his old colleagues from the war years, had finally died. He always thought he’d die young from ‘kicking’ bombs during his years on bomb disposal, in Germany. You know, to see if they would start ticking.
He told me they use to send the junior in (newest on the team) to the pit to see if a bomb was ticking and, if not, to kick it and run … run like hell! And, if all else failed, the axiom from those who’d been at it a while was, hit it with a hammer.
I think he was joking. I hope he was joking. But then, you never know.
So it was something of a surprise to him that he lived as long as he did—he died aged 68 in 1991. Especially as, even before I became a teenager—I think I was 10 at the time, and we were stationed in Singapore—my dad had his first heart attack from stress and, of course, the ubiquitous build up of cholesterol in his arteries that also gave him angina.
He would have been, oh, about 42 at the time. Still young and yet, his own father died at 52. So I’m sure this was also on his mind way back then. But that one heart attack, and the 17 (yes, he was almost proud of the fact) that followed within a year, didn’t kill him either. Though, they did make the doctors stop and think, we better check this guy out.
The following year, about six months before we repatriated to the UK, they took him into hospital and opened him up. In that, I’ve never seen my mother cry. What they did to him made her weep. They cut him open like butchering a pig. From breast bone all the way down past his belly button.
The resulting scar, and stapler marks never went away. But made him look like Frankenstein’s Monster, when he went without a shirt, which wasn’t often.
But even after all that, and staying in the airforce for for another 4-5 years, pushing papers, he hung in there.
It was lung cancer that finally got him, and, as he was wont to say, it started the day he stopped smoking. Maybe it did, maybe it was 50 years of puffing almost 20-30 cigarettes a day that did it. It’s like they say, we’ll never really know. There was no autopsy, he died in hospice care, and the doctor signed off on the death certificate, cause of death: heart failure.
My mother and I were the last to sit with him the afternoon he passed. He’d been in a coma since the day before and when we came, the doctor on call told my mother it was only a matter of hours, and shooing me out of the room, had a private talk with her.
When I returned to sit with my mum, her holding his hand, while I rubbed his head, we sang quietly to him, and something beautiful happened. A Red Admiral butterfly came into the room and was there, with us, for that final hour. It even landed on my dad’s chest a few minutes before his last breath.
That’s when I saw just how much my mother could cry.
I hope a butterfly comes for me when it’s my time.
Take care and stay safe out there, where ever you are in the world.