King of the World

My father is getting smaller. I remember him standing tall at six foot two. He used to lift me up high onto his shoulders and I’d sit there, King of the World. My mother would roar at him to put me down before I fell to my death. He always did what she said. But later, when she wasn’t looking, he’d lift me up again.

My father used to duck his head when he came in the back door. He didn’t need to, but it was habit of a life time to drop his head just a little. Now he drops his head all the time.

It was when my mother died that he first shrank. I tried not to watch him as they let her coffin into the ground. I felt a loss that made my heart ache and my stomach heave. We had never been very close; mostly my mother interfered, always wanting to know everything, which made me tell her nothing.

‘You need to do more on the farm.’ She had said this to me since I was twelve years old. It drove me mad.

My temper was never really under control when it came to her. And I had felt her disappointment and her accusations more and more as the years passed and I stayed away. My father said nothing but they had to give up the farm not long before she died; couldn’t manage it on their own anymore.

I loved her because she was my mother, but I knew that she would never forgive me for forsaking them. She came close to saying it many times. She was from a family that worked to provide for the family. And to her, I did nothing but leave them.

She was raised to tough out the toughest of lives. She was harsh and hard as nails. Her words were angry and criticizing. They were mostly aimed at my father. But she loved him despite her anger. I’d see it, be it rarely, in smiles and certain glances. And my father didn’t take it to heart anyway. He was set in his ways and would wind up the most patient of people. Sometimes he did it on purpose.

He knew the words to set her off. Sometimes he’d kick me under the table as he said, ‘the council left holes in the road’ and we’d both try to hide our laughter as my mother started on her rant about ‘that good for nothing shower’. We weren’t meant to take part, just take heed. I think she knew what we were doing after a while, and put on a good show so we’d have a good laugh. Conspirators, we all grew closer through scheming. But then I grew up and grew different.

She was laid out in the house, her coffin in the dining room. I had opened the old, stiff windows beforehand. I wanted to let that dead, musty smell out. I had done my best to clean the place. But in truth there wasn’t much to be done. It was old and dated and bared the scars of being lived in, but she had minded it with pride.

Neighbours, friends, relations, someone who knew someone who knew her, they all went in and out. There was endless tea and sandwiches and cake. I just ate and ate; crammed one thing after another into my mouth. There was less to say when there was food in there. My father stood too long shaking hands, thanking people. His bad knee got worse. Then he sat too long, trying not to cry. His stiff back got stiffer. He wouldn’t say. But I knew by how he winced when he moved. I should have done more to help him. But I didn’t. I just wanted it all to be over.

Everyone said she never looked better. But it wasn’t true. She didn’t look like my mother at all now. She looked like a wax doll. Her face painted and her hair curled. She was too clean, too perfected, too still.

My father was like half a man then. I suppose they used to know each other so well, every moment of the other’s life. They were so intertwined that one without the other seemed impossible. And he would have no one to talk to now, no one to ignore.

I remember bringing him back to the house after the burial. It was too cold and too dark inside. There was no fire lit, no food in the fridge, no clean clothes waiting for him to wear. Her absence could be felt in every room.

My father sank into his chair and looked at the empty space on the old tattered couch. She used to sit there and shout at the TV, or my father, or both. And he would agree, or stay silent, or wind her up more.

I looked at the room as with a stranger’s eyes. And I saw not my parents’ home, not the place I grew up in, but a damp, cluttered old house, with faded pictures of nothing but memories.

I worried about him. I worried about how he’d manage in that house alone, first without the farm and now without my mother. How would he cook, or clean, or bear that silence? How would he manage the washing machine, or fill the fridge? How would he use a bank card or pay the bills? How would he cope? She had done everything inside that house, decades of caring and minding.

After the funeral I had to go. I had my own worries and my own work away from there. The factory bosses already needed me back; stock needed to be checked, more orders had to be made. I’d no interest in all that now. It felt like another world, too real and impatient. I’d been dragged out of it when I wasn’t ready, and now they wanted me to step back in, unaltered, when I wasn’t ready again. My mother was buried, the funeral was done. I should be over it all now. The time for sympathy and understanding was behind me. Life wanted me back.

So I tried to help him as best I could before I left. I tried to show him how to load the washing machine and put washing powder in the drawer. I tried to show him how to use the oven, and pay the bills. I tried to explain that I had to go; I had work to get back to. I could feel my mother’s frustration with him growing in me now too. Suddenly his welfare, his life seemed to be my problem, my responsibility. And I wasn’t ready.

‘The neighbours,’ I said, ‘will help out.’ That’s what they did for each other there, when the need grew, on the farm or in the house. But I didn’t know that his pride was bigger than his desperation. I didn’t know that the oven would stay cold and his clothes would stain and smell and tare. I didn’t know that he’d never use the bank card. Instead he’d stand too long queuing in the bank, his knee seizing up and his bad hip cramping. I didn’t know that he’d never take the help he needed.

I didn’t know him at all.

Day ran into day so his needs moved far from my mind. And I hardly rang him once a week. ‘Of course you’re busy son, don’t be worrying about me.’ And mostly I didn’t. I was distracted by my own messes. And there were plenty. In my determination not to grow into who my parents were I’d forgotten to grow at all. I was soon nearing forty and still acting like the boy I’d been at home. I spent my Saturday nights out with the lads, drinking until I was stupid and going to nightclubs. I made a fool of myself most weekends, chasing after girls that were barely women out of school. I felt their disgust, so I went and drank more.

My work days were too long, ten or twelve hours mostly, six days a week. I didn’t want to share my workload, look as if I couldn’t cope. So when I did manage to think of my father I was only reminded of the guilt I felt and loneliness he lived in.

It was the neighbour who rang me. He was found face down on the small road outside our house. His plastic bag of tinned beans, sausages and brown bread knocked across the road. I was surprised he knew how to fry the sausages.

‘Your father is asking for you, he needs you.’ I was ashamed that it took someone else to tell me that. I was ashamed because at that moment I was glad my mother was dead. She wouldn’t see how I’d left him.

I went straight to the hospital after work. He was lying on a hard bed, metal bars pulled up either side. The bodies in the other beds stared, glad of the distraction. I ignored them, feeling their judgement.

My father was sleeping. I gently shook his arm. It felt like a twig under my hand, and he still didn’t wake. His mouth was open and rattled breath wheezed in and out. He didn’t look like my father. He looked like an old man.

They wouldn’t keep him there long. They needed the bed. I cursed at them. I threw all my anger and rage at them, better that than at myself. I couldn’t stay long either. Work wanted me back.

We had to sell the house and what was left of the land, the nursing home cost a fortune. It was sad to think that the home I grew up in was gone. And I knew it broke my father’s heart. He’d worked so hard his whole life for it.

I visited my father in the nursing home a few weeks later. He had a small room with a bed, a locker, a hard chair and a sterile en suite. It was just like every other room in the place: smelling of disinfectant with a faint hint of urine. He was sitting up in the bed watching one of those documentaries my mother used to hate so much, the control in his hand. He looked different.

He was so happy to see me that the wave of guilt nearly knocked me over. Didn’t he blame me for all this?

‘Dad, how are you? You look good.’
‘So I’m told.’ He grinned that grin that I knew since I was a child. And the sight of that smile made me realise just how much I missed him.
‘I’m fine, son, just fine. It’s great to see you.’
He took my hand in both of his. It was a moment of awkwardness. Should I put my other hand on his? Should I lean in over that hard bed and hug him?

In the end I did nothing. I just stood there like a fool until he sighed and let my hand go. The warmth and comfort was gone before I’d realised that I’d felt it.

‘How’s work going? I hope they’re not having you work every hour of the day.’
‘No, no. Just enough now to keep us all going. Can’t complain.’

We had said more to each other since my mother died than we had in my whole life. He wasn’t a talker. Although he wasn’t much of a listener either, my mother had been right about that.

‘How is it here, dad? Are they looking after you? Do you need anything?’
I was afraid of his answers, so my questions rolled out one on top of the other. But he probably knew that.
‘Fine, now, fine. What more could I want? They give me my dinner and keep an eye on me.’

I pretended not to see the tears he tried to blink away. I didn’t know what to say. And I knew he would never say what he really needed to.

He looked so clean, pampered and defeated. Somehow life had beaten the fight out of him. And maybe I had helped. He reminded me of one of those shiny ceramic ornaments my mother used to have all over the house. They were all gone now. I threw them all out when I cleared out the house. What use was it to anyone now?

And, to be honest, he reminded me of my mother too. She’d looked like that in her coffin.

I nearly ran out of there that first time I visited him. I convinced myself that it was just that I hated those sterile places. But when I got to the reception desk I felt my stomach heave and I raced out the door, punching in the code as quickly as I could. It was their home, but they weren’t allowed leave.

I managed to get to the grass out the front when I really felt my stomach rise to my mouth over and over until I was just dry retching. I coughed and spat, wiped the spittle from my chin. I stood up straight and took slow deep breaths. My hands were grasping my jumper too tightly. Getting sick always reminded me of when I was a boy, when my mother was always there to pat my back and clean my face.

At first I thought the sickness must be one of those awful viruses you hear about. The type that leave you with days of vomiting and shitting. God knows what you’d pick up in there. But it wasn’t. And I knew it wasn’t. It was guilt.

The man I loved, the man who worked his whole life to give his family all he could, was left alone. It was me who left him with no one after my mother died. And now I was doing it again.

I was plagued every day after that. Every time I blinked an image of my father would flash before my eyes.

Sometimes it was him as he was when I was young: strong, solid, modest; smiling proudly as he looked down at me. Sometimes it was him sitting in the house that day after my mother’s funeral; his eyes watery and his heart broken. And sometimes it was him, as I pictured him, lying flat on the road, his shopping everywhere. I could imagine his shame, his tears, his fear of losing his strength and his freedom. I could imagine him lying there, alone and in pain, with no one in the house to call out to.

He died two months later. It was a few days after I had phoned to cancel visiting. I had called the nursing home late, when I knew he would be in bed. I couldn’t bear to hear the disappointment in his voice. I wasn’t able to stomach much more guilt. ‘You’re all he talks about,’ they had often said.

I had never imagined a day when he wouldn’t be there. First my mother gone, now him.

Returning to the life I’d built away from them was hard. Still I went out with the lads on Saturday nights. Still I drank and drank; made stupid jokes; tried to get with girls too young and too pretty for me. Still I worked too many hours. It was night when I’d get home. The house was always cold and dark and empty. And usually I just turned on the TV loud to drown out that silence.

The grief I saw in my father after my mother died unnerved me. He was meant to be my rock. It was always him who was there for me. I didn’t know it until it was too late, but he gave me confidence and courage in everything. It was simple: he loved me and he believed in me. Not that we said such things. Those are the words of TV and therapy. But that’s how it was as long as I could remember. I was King of his World.

This sadness was too much for me. The moment my mother left him for good, I suppose I did too.

– Teresa Sweeney