I’ve been away from the woolen cross site since late November when my father died. He was 84. The picture above was taken one Christmas around about 2010.
In the 1930’s growing up in the wild East of Glasgow’s Gallow-gate, Soho street was home to my father and even when his memory was a slippery thing he could still tell you about the bakers, the pub, the fire station and dairy that ran the length of the tenements.
He could tell you of roller skating down the flat tarmac street and rising at 5 in the morning to queue for rolls and butcher meat, or how his mum would go to the pictures and see Errol Flynn only to find her wee dog, Jackie, dodged the trams, to sneak into the cinema and sit in the dark at her feet.
His mum died when he was no more than 10. He remembered the wee dog refused after that to ever enter the house again.
His own father cared little for raising children, never mind dogs, and on the day my dad’s bed was sold as a gambling debt he chapped the door of an upstairs neighbour and asked if they would take him in.
And God bless them, Jimmy and Lucy Campbell, welcomed him into the room and kitchen they shared with their own 3 children. Jimmy was a carter and Lucy a dinner lady and my dad never forgot they gave him a home.
Jimmy showed how a man could look after his family, iron and wash and clean the house, and Lucy who had a voice like a goose in the fog taught him the joy of singing. And there was a lot of singing in their house –especially on a Saturday night after a week’s hard working.
My father found his voice and he loved to sing: he would hoover the house to “Arividerchi Roma”; he would answer the door to “and I love you so.” And he sang to my mother from West Side Story, Maria: I’ve just met a girl called Maria…when first they met in the noise and heat and molten metal of the Saracen foundry.
He had just come from 3 happy years spent in Germany as an armorer In the Royal Air Force and was thinking about re-enlisting when he met my mum. They were married at Barmulloch church of Scotland on the 28th of March 1959, that night my father sang: the bells are ringing for me and my girl…
And throughout their married life those bells rang with gladness, faithfulness, laughter and hard work. Sometimes they sounded out a sadness, when their infant children Patricia and Steven were lost to cystic fibrosis.
How do you keep faith with kindness when the world is a rough hand on the scruff of your neck? How do you remain gentle when chance and circumstance is a callous thing –
My dad’s life was the lived answer to these questions: lived with a quiet dignity when all that can’t be changed keeps your happiness like a bird in a cage; his song remained kind, gentle and generous.
In his working life my dad had many jobs few of which meant much more to him than keeping the wolf from the door. But he loved running works football teams and raising money for them –and he was a good player himself trial-ing for Clyde before his national service began.
My dad also had an acute sense of fairness. One story enough to tell:
He and my mother spent a short spell in England and went to work at a sister foundry to Saracen. Travelling down with a group of fellow Scots, he discovered the Englishman he worked alongside was earning more for the same job.
He queried this and was told it was because the guy had been working there longer. There was a black man who worked along with them too and had worked there longer than them both.
My dad asked out of a matter of interest what he was getting paid and discovered he was on least of all. My dad told the man and let all the Scottish boys know and walked out the same day. When he returned to the foundry in Scotland the union rep asked him – “what you do down there – because they’ve all come out in strike.”
He loved telling that story.
He was the kind of dad who would come straight off from night shift and take you swimming; he’d make a 2-course breakfast for you and your sleepover pals, so early that you had to learn the art of eating it without waking up.
He loved being a papa to his grandchildren and in his garden would grow wishing strawberries for them (as well as being the reason they couldn’t eat their tea due to limitless supplies of crisps and pokey hats). No wonder they loved him.
After he moved to Stonehouse you could set your watch by him going to the cooperative: he was there so often the staff even bought him a birthday card.
As she grew frailer, more and more he was my mum’s carer and their mutual stubbornness meant these roles weren’t always acted out graciously – more than once I was the reluctant referee. But there was no question about his loyalty, patience and love for my mum, even when the cuckoo of dementia began to nest in his memory.
The year following my mother’s death was a struggle for my dad, and we kept him at home for as long as it was safe. For nearly a year he loved the runs we would go in the car where we would sing together: sometimes rhinestone cowboy, but latterly “we’re off to see the wizard” and occasionally the French national anthem.
He couldn’t easily grasp names of faces he loved, forgot words to the songs he’d sung by heart and each day he was in made less and less sense to him.
But he could still recognize kindness and love and there was so much of that around my dad.
As dementia unraveled him it never completely unpicked the dignity he had in facing what he couldn’t change; the smile he could still summon though he was less and less sure of what was going on around him.
The final gift my father gave us was his letting go of life…
We made up a play list of songs he once knew by heart and told him of how loved he was. Ally and I sat with him, anointed him with holy oil and in prayer commended him to the infinite mercy of God.
We walked him home if you like, for what is the love of God if it’s not the home we come from and return to.
Death didn’t come for my dad like a hungry bear from its hidden hibernation. It arrived like winters first snow, one flake then another, until its whiteness was silently everything.
Like the first disciples in a locked Jerusalem room, my dad’s wonderful surprise shall be how death is not an end but a threshold where the risen Jesus shows the wounds of his love and with a life that can never die says Peace be with you…
From here my dad shall find there are other songs yet to be sung, songs he had never imagined. Songs we’ll one day join him in:
When we sing to God in heaven
We shall find such harmony
Born of all we’ve known together
Of Christs love and agony.brother sister let me serve you…