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  1. My father married the girl next door. My parents met because they lived next door to each other, in post-war Barrow-in-Furness. But saying it like that makes their story sound so simplistic. My parents did not a make big deal of how they met. It certainly wasn’t a family story, brought out at every chance and worn as a badge of pride. I only found out how they met when I was fifteen. My parents had taken me back to Barrow-in-Furness, a car drive up from Liverpool with our pet dog. That trip we had not visited either of my father’s brothers, who still lived there, he was not close to either of them. He had been close to his brother John but John had died several years before from cancer. With hindsight, losing his brother deeply affected my father, John was the first of his brothers to die and it made my father face his own mortality. My father was always stoic with his emotions, not talking about his feelings and just keeping things to himself. I wasn’t aware, at the time, of how much John’s death affected him, I was not a preceptive teenager, but I have had many years to look back on events. I don’t remember why we visited Barrow-in-Furness that bright spring day, but my father decided to drive around the city, showing me places from his childhood and youth there. As we drove around, our dog bounced about on the car’s backseat with me, she hadn’t had a long enough walk and was full of energy. We drove to the street where my parents had lived as neighbours. It was a narrow street of terraced houses, the briefest strip of pavement in front of the two rows of houses and the road itself still made from cobblestones, causing the car to rhythmically shudder as it was driven over them. My father stopped the car in front of two houses. They were a matching pair of terraced houses. He told me that they were the two houses where he and my mother had lived, with their parents, before they married. The house where my father had lived now had a cream-coloured rendering covering the front of it and a pale pastel-coloured front door. The housed my mother had lived in had a frontage of dark grey bricks and a chocolate-brown front door. The car drove on and my parents made no more reference to those houses. I was fascinated by it though. I might not have been a perceptive teenager, but my imagination had matured early and was very alive. Falling in love with the next-door neighbour was a cliché of much fiction, and even songs, and here were my parents who had done that. But it also gave me another insight into my parents’ lives, especially before I was born. My father loved to tell me stories about being a boy during the Second World War and my mother would talk about growing up and living with my grandmother, but neither of them talked at all about their adolescence and courtship. Their lack of information intrigued me; my imagination began to fill in the details. My father was born and grew up in Barrow-in-Furness, living in the same house, but my mother was born and grow up in Kendell, Cumbria. She moved to Barrow-in-Furness as a teenager, after the war, when her parents moved there; her father had got a new and better job there. He was the first person to own a car on their street. But how did they meet? Did their mothers become friends, chatting over the garden fence, and so they got to know each other? Did my father see the new girl next door and decide that he wanted to court her? Did my parents become friends first and then from friendship did romance bloom? I don’t know, they never told me, but my imagination has filled in that blank space over and over again. I am not a fan of romantic fiction, but I am fascinated by people’s stories. How someone met their partner can tell me so much about them, about their relationship, and it fascinates me because we are all different and we all have our stories. As a writer, how couples met can be the catalyst for so many stories and can help me shape characters. But I just don’t know how my parents met. Then, as an adult, I stumbled across a fascinating detail. My father wasn’t the first of the Payne brothers my mother dated. First, she dated my father’s older brother Arthur before she dated my father. How did my father feel when his brother was dating the woman he wanted to? Or did he first notice my mother when she was his brother’s girlfriend? Did my father dating his ex-girlfriend affect Arthur’s relationship with his brother? As for my mother, why did she stop dating Arthur and start dating my father? What did my father have that Arthur didn’t? I don’t know the answers to any of those questions and I won’t now, both my parents died nearly twenty years ago. I wish I had asked them those questions, asked them how they met, asked them about their courtship, about their life together before they married. They were middle-aged when I was born and they always seemed so old to me as a child, too old to have once had a romantic life or even a life before they became parents. Back then, I had such a narrow view of life. I have learnt differently since then. After my parents died, I inherited so many of my mother’s photographs. One of my favourite ones is of my parents before they married. It was taken on a summer’s day and my parents are standing in front of a farm gate. My mother is wearing a white 1940s dress with a wide belt around her waist and the skirt flowing out under it. My father is in shirt sleeves with his left hand down by his side, carefully holding a cigarette. They both are wearing photograph expressions, their best smiles directed into the camera’s lens. They look so happy. There is a postscript to this story. The last time I saw my Uncle Arthur was at my father’s funeral. It was during that awkward limbo time when we were waiting for his funeral to begin, waiting for the right time to leave the house for the church, waiting for all the other mourners to arrive. I was standing outside my parents’ house with my brother, just waiting. My cousin’s car pulled into the street and he got out of it. Out of the passenger side of the car slowly stepped my Uncle Arthur. But he was the double of my father. The same build, the same profile, the same head full of hair. He was my father’s doppelganger. The shock caught in my throat. “Oh, my God…” I hissed in shock. “Yes,” my brother agreed with me. Drew
  2. The room was quiet; the only sounds there were small and slight, ones that would not normally have been noticed except for the silence there. There was the mechanical noise of the little pump occasionally leaping into life as it delivered another dose of painkillers. There was the hiss of air escaping as the air mattress slowly inflated and deflated. There was also the sound of his breathing, slow and almost rasping as he drew in air through his parted lips, held that air in his lungs for what seemed like an age, and then slowly exhaled it. He looked so small lying there in the middle of that hospital bed, almost lost in all those clean sheets. His eyes were closed, as they had been for so long now. His skin was dry and pale, it had taken on a grey pallor, while thick and dark stubble was pushing through his chin. His hair, only now thin and wispy, thinned out only by the chemotherapy and not by aging or baldness, was disheveled, more pushed back over his head than brushed into any style. My mother would have cast a sarcastic comment about his appearance if she had been here. My father was dying and all I could do was sit there at his bedside and wait. At first, I had sat silently by his bed, simply waiting on him. Doing anything else felt almost disrespectful. Unfortunately, boredom and distraction soon set in. At first, I just casually glanced at a magazine, a distraction as I flicked through its pages. Then I read one article from it, the one that had snatched my attention. Then I read another article, and then another one, and then I had read it from cover to cover. Finally, I swallowed my good intensions, took out the novel I had been reading on the train up there, and started reading it. As a nurse I had nursed many dying patients before and there had been so many different things to do, I had been kept busy with my tasks. I wasn’t a nurse here, I was a relative, I was his son, and all I had to do was wait. As a nurse, I had watched so many relatives doing this, sitting at their relative’s bedside and waiting, and my heart had gone out to them. Now it was my turn and I felt so useless. All I could do was sit there and wait; nothing practical or positive about it. My sister had organised a kind of rota so that she, my brother or I would be sitting next to my father’s bed, keeping him company, making sure he was not alone. I had travelled up to Liverpool, from my home in London, when he was admitted to the hospice. When I arrived, he was tired and weak and barely responsive. By the Saturday afternoon he was completely unresponsive, he was unmoving in his bed, he had stopped eating and drinking, and his eyes were now permanently closed. He seemed to be waiting for something, but what? His three children were at his bedside, who was he waiting for? My mother had died two years before from cancer. Her death had been quiet and quietly organised, like so much of her life had been. She had made so many arrangements and kept so much to herself. But at the end of it all, after her death, my father had been left on his own, and that was the last thing he had expected. My father came from a generation of men who expected to die before their wives. He’d had heart disease for several decades and because of this expected to die before my mother. But the treatment and management of heart disease improved over that time, and his heart disease was managed well. My mother died before him, not what he had been expecting. Unfortunately, again, like so many men of his generation, my father didn’t have the emotional or psychological knowledge to survive being widowed. He hadn’t just lost his wife of nearly fifty years, but he had lost his close companion, his friend throughout so much, he’d also lost the person who had organised so much of his life and the person whose council he’d always trusted. This broke him because he couldn’t cope with his loss. Grief made him angry and nasty, how could we be happy, how could we carry on as normal? He was angry at me, snapping at me and saying the most hurtful things. I’d lost him to the anger of grief. Martin and I had only been together a few years then and I’d wanted him to get to know my father, but that wish was now gone. My father had been replaced with a bitter and angry old man. It felt so unfair. Some uncaring person had told my father that he’d get over the loss of his wife, someone who didn’t really knew my father, and this had only made him even angrier. A loss like his someone would never “get over.” That Saturday he was dying in his hospice bed, but he had started dying two years before when he lost my mother. It had been the day after my mother’s funeral; he had been such a lost and angry little old man. It had been heart-breaking and I’d not known what to say. Were there any words I could have said? On the Friday afternoon, my sister’s vicar had visited my father. The man clearly said that he’d seen many people in my father’s situation who had got better, got up out of bed and lived for years. The man’s naked denial had almost taken my breath away. I said that my father was dying, his hands and feet were icy cold because his circulation was slowing and failing, his internal organs were failing; he’d never get better. That vicar told me off for denying hope. He knew better than me, he was an ex-policeman and now an Anglican vicar, I was only a nurse. I was left feeling angry and frustrated, what was the use of this vicar? I spent Sunday afternoon was my friends Loraine and David. When they heard what was happening, they invited me for Sunday dinner and a break. I did my nurse training with Loraine and now she was married to David, an Anglican vicar, and they were living in Liverpool then. When I arrived at their home, at lunchtime, David told me he had prayed for my father at their morning Eucharist service, he’d prayed that my father’s suffering would end soon. I could have hugged him for that, I wish I had. That afternoon, after a wonderful Sunday dinner, we sat around and talked about books and gardening and fish ponds. Loraine and I gossiped about the people we trained with. Their dog made a big fuss over me. As I sat with the dog on my lap, patting him, I realised it had been days since I had touched anyone else, I had barely shaken hands with anyone. When I returned to the hospice that Sunday evening, my father was still lying there in the middle of that hospital bed, breathing in that painfully slow way. He was still waiting for something, just hanging in there. He died the following Wednesday morning and I wasn’t there. At first all I felt was relief. That awful waiting was over and his suffering was finished. He’d been so unhappy and angry as a widower, he’d not liked or even wanted the life he’d lived those last two years. He’d been so unhappy without my mother. Later I mourned, my father was gone and it felt strange and uncomfortable and very awkward. I went back to work too soon and had to be sent home when I burst into tears, apologising for the fact that my father had died. It was only after his funeral that the realisation came to me when I compared the dates. My father had died two years and two months to the date, almost to the hour, after my mother had died. That’s what he’d been waiting for. For Thomas Price Payne 19/12/1927 to 2/07/2003 Drew
  3. The end was coming faster than any of us wanted. My father knew he was dying and said as much in early March this year. He'd battled cancer over the last three years. I wonder if he'd opted for the surgery from the start whether he'd be with us now. He chose chemo and radiation and other options. I don't discuss this with my mother. She doesn't need me to bring it up. But, how he fought this disease was his own battle in the long run. He died as he'd lived—on his own road. He taught us about living your own life. He taught us right from wrong. He taught us that we had to be able to look in the mirror and see a person we could be proud of. My father is why I am who I am. I'm out and always have been since I figured out I was gay. He and my mom were the first people I told when I was about thirteen, I guess. Later, I told them about the lifestyle I live. Both of them have always accepted me and loved me. For that I'm grateful every day. At the end of May there will be a celebration of his life. It'll take place outdoors, a casual drop in for friends and family. A time to remember a wonderful man. There will always be hole in my heart, but in time it will fill with memories of him and that will make it easier to bear. My mother was a good partner for Dad and she misses him greatly. They'd been together over 50 years. But she is as strong as he was and while it hurts, she is holding on and reaching out to her sons, family and friends. I'm no poet but my wonderful husband tells me this is okay... Well for better or worse, this is for you, Dad. When I was young, you were bigger than life Father, a giant in my boyish eyes Under gentle protection, love was rife You taught me respect and to eschew lies Acceptance of me, I never doubted I wore my own skin, not someone else's guise You gave me freedom, never rerouted Meeting life in spite of what may arise Dear Father you are from life departed I will always recall your words most wise Love, be kind and forever bighearted For all of these will deliver the prize Of a life lived well, few regrets and strife Where no demons exist to exorcise ***************************************** Comments aren't necessary. Of course you will do as you wish and that's okay. Not sure when I'll feel up to replying so if it takes me awhile, I hope you'll forgive me.
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