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Friday, 27 December 2019


Three weeks ago today, I lost my beloved father. A man I never really appreciated enough until I married someone who was all words and no action – the total opposite to dad in every way. Dad was solid, hard-working and honest, the word reliable written through the middle of him like a stick of rock. My wedding day was twenty-four years exactly before the day of my father’s funeral.

I’m sure it took dad a long time to be able to work out what strange creature he had sired.  One who didn’t think sorting out a pension was a priority, who baulked at the idea of a steady job with sick pay in favour of the wild west of careers: the crowded waters of writing commercial fiction.  We didn’t always see eye to eye but never enough to fall out. He must have despaired – albeit quietly – as I made so many mistakes but he never interfered, just let me get on with it all but he never let me down when I asked for help. And because I was divorced when my sons were tiny and they never saw their father again, dad was their role model of a patriarch. A man with a pronounced sense of right and wrong. A man of quiet honour. A knight of good manners and decency.

Dad was generous but he didn’t splash his cash. When my other half once bought me a Mont Blanc pen for Christmas, Dad’s immediate thought was, ‘How much will the bloody refills for that cost you.’  And when I tried to show off my new blue, beautiful Mercedes a couple of years ago with every feature known to man, Dad stared at the gorgeous walnut dashboard and he said in a horrified voice, ‘There’s nowhere for you to play your cassettes!’

I did try and drag him into the 21st century.  I bought him an iPad for his 80th birthday and he gave it back to me after he’d spent hours trying to turn it on. He was quite happy in the 20th century thank you with his cassettes and his LPs and his gadgets from Richer Sounds. Never did he come home from Leeds where he worked without buying a gadget. He had more Walkmans and headphones than Dixons (‘Dixons’ became his nickname). I did convince him to get a mobile so I could pick him up from various hospital visits.  He had one number in the memory – it was mine. He turned it on to ring me and then straight off again when he’d rung so you could never have got him to answer a call. A ten quid phone card lasted him about five years.

One day when I was a teenager I walked in to find this beautiful old typewriter on the table for me. My dad had got it from work because they were giving it away and he knew I’d want it. He carried it to the bus halfway across Leeds, sat it on his knee all the way home and then nearly broke his back carrying it from the motorway because it weighed a ton. There was no fanfare, he’d just got it for me because he could. My jaw dropped when I saw it because it was the best thing in the world, the ultimate in gifts that matched the recipient. I didn’t think he ‘got me’ but that precious memory reminded me over the years that he did. 

He was stupidly independent, didn’t want to put anyone out so he’d not tell me he had a hospital appointment and he’d tell mum not to tell me but as he’d set off for the bus stop mum would ring me and I’d get in the car, race down the road and pretend I was just passing so I could take him. We did this so many times he must have thought I was psychic.

I’d got so used to taking dad to the hospital, sitting and waiting whilst various bits of him were prodded and poked to find out why he didn’t want to eat. He had cameras up and down him, blood tests, scans… results all negative. He never said that he was worried about what they’d find, never gave a cry of relief when they hadn’t found what he was convinced they would. 

The end, when it came, was like a two hour film condensed to a clip. He went in to hospital yet again with a debilitating backache. The medical team found his heart rate twice what it should be working overtime to compensate for other things going wrong. The backache went, the heart rate stayed high. The docs negotiated a maze of treatments trying to sort problem A whilst not inflaming problem B and setting into motion problem C. We went from expecting dad to come home as soon as his heart rate came down, to find that other problems had shown up, to hearing that the palliative team were being lined up to being told, ‘your father is dying’ in a space of a few days. Dad, the docs said, had been living on a knife edge and one condition too many just sent him over the top. Throw in a blood condition that made infection hard to fight off. Ironic that my dad had given blood so generously for so many years and yet at the end his own let him down.

Seeing a 'Do Not Resuscitate' notice at the front of dad's file sent me in a tailspin. It made sense that he wouldn't be. But seeing it there in bold blue brings the reality of the situation to you in all the dimensions there are on the planet. It gave me nightmares imagining my dad having that conversation with the medics, wondering what would be going through his head. I wanted to protect him from that knowledge, take it away, change it.

And you can say what you like about the NHS but based on dad's three weeks in Ward 17 of Barnsley Hospital, I wouldn't hear a word said against it. I've not always had this experience with hospitals and treatment for dad but if there was ever a department that should be held up as a example of how it all should work then this is it.  And it doesn't take much. Doctors who seek you out to inform you how things are going. Proficient consultants not spieling jargon at you but explaining, using rhetoric you can take in.  One consultant leaned over and just squeezed my hand and it said everything - it said 'I understand this man is your father as well as our patient'. A nurse who was going off duty for a few days and pretty much knew that she wouldn't see us again coming to us to say goodbye, telling me that it was a privilege to nurse my father. Tea ladies bringing mum and me a constant stream of drinks, nurses pressing a cup of soup or a meal into our hands. They were kind and kindness is one of the greatest qualities: understated, flies under the radar, gentle and yet so very potent. 

I can’t begin to relay how hard it is to watch someone so mentally strong have moments of delusion and fear, a glimpse into a world that too many people have to inhabit of their parents crumbling from the inside. We were spared that protracted horror. But seeing the textbook breakdown of him, a Benny Hill speeded end – just enough time to say your goodbyes, not enough time to get our heads around it… was the hardest thing of my life.  We didn’t do slush, but a friend of mine told me to make sure I said the ‘I love you’ words, however daft they sounded, and I did and he said them back. He was terrified the attached drips were prolonging the death he’d been told was coming, I was terrified when the drips came down, the monitors switched off, the sticky pads on his chest removed. I made sure I told him that the typewriter was the most wonderful present I’d ever had. When he slipped into semi-unconsciousness, his hands were typing as if he were dreaming about it.

My first thought was to have him at home but I was wrong. Mum and I sat by his bedside from dawn to long past dusk for days and days and days and could monitor how his pain relief was working, rush out for a nurse when the medicines started to fail. The worst part was witnessing his mental anguish, his frowning, banging his forehead and because I know how his brain works, I knew what was going on in there: he’d looked after mum and me since we came into his life and he was going first. That thought was both killing him whilst forcing him to cling on.

We live five minutes away from the hospital. He slipped away very quickly at 4.30 in the morning, we dashed up there but missed his last breath by minutes. I shan’t beat myself up about that because I’m pretty sure dad wouldn’t have wanted us to witness that. So many nurses told us, people slip away when loved ones aren't around, as if they want it that way. I was just glad he wasn't alone, that a lovely young nurse was sitting with him. He didn’t like to put anyone out which is why if he could have planned it, he’d have worked it around Easter, Christmas, Father’s Day, Mother’s Day, birthdays… but some things you can’t play to a diary.

I don’t know if it’s ironic that my next book was written like a forerunner of what I was to go through – choosing what clothes for a deceased person to wear, the songs for the funeral, keeping everything as is in the house as if he’d just popped out into town, slippers by the door waiting. Throw in wandering like a zombie around Meadowhall looking for a plain black coat and dress.  In my case whilst every shop I enter trying to keep my eyes dry is blasting out the old Christmas favourites by Slade and Paul bloody McCartney. Never were two worlds so incongruous.  I never thought whilst I was writing it all that I was describing what I'd be living before the words had gone to typeset, that I'd get it so horribly bang on. On 12/11 I was celebrating my parents Diamond Wedding with them, looking forward to Christmas, mum bragging about her card from the queen, popping the cork off a bottle of champers.  On 11/12, I was delivering clothes at the funeral parlour for dad to wear.

Grief, I’ve discovered, distorts time. This three weeks since he passed has felt both like years and hours. It’s like a Funhouse without the ‘Fun’ part. A few steps on sure ground underfoot before the room starts whirling or you fall through a hole. Nothing is solid, my world has changed shape. Triggers to bouts of overwhelming sadness hide behind corners ready to leap out without warning and don't necessarily have any apparent relevance. The finality of it all is the hardest to bear – that I will never see my daddy again, never see him strolling up the road so I can pull in to give him a lift, though my mind has already started playing tricks on me and spotting him, even though the ‘him’ is nothing like him at all, just a man in a flat cap walking where he used to walk. My recent memories are full of painful vignettes, of throwing my arms around a coffin and sobbing into the wood, of rolling a toothbrush around my father’s mouth to moisten it because he was too weak to drink, of hovering over my father's bedside as if he were my child and throwing the rightful order of things out of the window. Of riding in a black limo behind the hearse and thinking how many times I’d seen one on the street and wondering who had died and what their story was. I felt strangely calm until the car turned into the crematorium and I was floored with the impact that  it was us taking centre stage and all those dear old friends that I had seen so many times over the past few years when I’d taken dad to funerals, were lined up to say goodbye to him now. Surreal is the only word that comes near to summing it all up. I keep thinking this can’t have happened. It hurts too much to accept that it has and my brain is doing everything it can to repel the facts. I cannot refer to dad as ‘was’ as opposed to ‘is’; for such a little three-letter word ‘was’ has a dreadful power.

After he died, one of his two best friends George told me a story about dad. George had found him a job on a building site, but dad was better with his head than his hands so he moved into being in charge of bonuses in the wages office. But the building trade was rotten, men were cheated out of their wages left, right and centre. When two men, who had left, came back to collect their bonuses, dad was told  by the managers not to give them and put the money in petty cash instead. But dad was adamant that they'd earned them. He was threatened with the sack if he disobeyed, so he 'sacked himself' and took the men's money with him, kept it in his back pocket in the hope of bumping into these men who he had little hope of tracing. But weeks later, bump into them he did - and he still had their money for them in his pocket. 'That's your dad' said George. And it really was.

Whilst looking through old photos, I came across one of mum and my godmother that I've seen so many times over the years but none of us ever spotted that in the background there was dad carrying me. Someone said to me that it was a sign... that he was there and always would be, in the background caring for me. It's the sort of thing I'd have dismissed as sentimental bollocks. Now, it brings a strange solace because you take your comforts where you can find them and I'm scrabbling around for all I can get my hands on. 

Sadly my godfather Cyril died just three weeks later. Dad was upset about the prospect of losing the other of his best friends and then went on to overtake him. I hope they're together, as they were through their lives.

There is a piece of me missing. I will adjust, regroup, recalibrate… because that’s what people do. But I will not be the same person ever again and I don't know if I'll be harder, stronger or weaker but time will tell. Nor am I sure that I will ever get to the end of missing him. One day I will be able to watch the full Andre Previn/Morecambe and Wise sketch and think fondly of dad splitting his sides at it every single time without experiencing a crippling pang of loss. I hope. All I know for certain at the moment – and it’s a cliché, I’ll give you that, sunshine – is that the world is a little poorer for not having more tolerant, kind people in it like my father with his cassettes and his quiet, innate decency.  He was, quite simply, a gentleman. 


  1. That was beautiful. I am currently in a similar situation and my father has recently passed away very suddenly, it is so hard to wrap your head around the speed and impact such an event has on you and the pain it leaves behind. Thinking of you and your family

  2. I think he will be well proud of you. Milly Johnson, writer, my lord, if you were my daughter, I'd be very proud indeed. I have always said, "they never leave, they just fade from view", sentimental bollocks? Who knows? Love to mum, see you at the cheese counter. 1964 x.

  3. Beautiful tribute to what sounds like a wonderful man, it resonates with me having lost my father 5 years ago, time helps but he left a gaping hole in our lives, love to you and yours

  4. Wrapping you in a hug, Milly x x x

  5. I am glad you could put your feelings to paper, I hope it helps start the healing process. I know when my Dad died, I was a basket case, I couldn't stop crying over a man that never loved me. People came up to me telling me what a great man he was, but I didn't want to hear that, I wanted to be left alone with my pain. Even after 20 plus yrs, I still feel guilty for not doing enough to mend the invisible fences we had between us. I wish you God's Holy Spirit to comfort you Milly, we all handle the loss of a love one differently, but it's how we land back on our feet that's important. I wish I could say or do more for you, but know so many are praying for you. God bless.

  6. My dear lass. It is a hard time indeed, and you never stop missing them. After 12 years I still long for my mam. But, cliche though it is, time blunts the pain to a dull ache. You will live, and go on, and continue being the woman your dad was so proud of. Love to you and your mam xx

  7. Sitting reading this in floods of tears. You have more or less described my own experience, which was about to begin this time last year. My dear Mum passed away at the end of last January. I wasn't prepared for how hard it hit me, nor how much it affected me physically. Look after yourself. Big hugs. xxx

  8. Milly, your words are so heartfelt (I had to mop my eyes three times whilst reading) and having lost my dad in 1991 & mum in 2005 I completely understand how you are feeling.

    It does get easier, you will learn to live with that gap in your family, and life carries on - and your dad will always be in your heart, free from worry & pain.

    Chin up, lass xx

  9. My most sincere condolences Milly.

  10. Sitting here reading this with tears running down my face because I lost my dad in August and you have put into words exactly how I feel Milly.

  11. That is a lovely tribute to your dad x

  12. My condolence, dear. You have a Dad that lived his life, and good memories to think of. He is at peace now and wish you good time. Warm hugs from Copenhagen

  13. I feel for you. My dad who was born in Leeds and a true Yorkshire man died suddenly two years ago this week. Sadly we had just moved him from Kent where he was living into a retirement flat in Lincolnshire where we live and he was only in the flat for 6 months to the day. Much of what you said was so much like dad - fiercely independent to the end. Thoughts are with you and others in similar circumstances. Elaine