Something happened last week, which made me refer back to the diary I kept when Dan and I were living in Denmark, WA. It was the end of February, 2011. Dan’s mum was staying. I wrote that I was going to call home that afternoon.
It was my mother who answered. Her voice was croaky, annoyed at losing sleep – it was 7am her time. She said: your father’s had a heart attack.
He’d been playing tennis at the weekend and felt something in his chest. He told my mother after the game. I can see the offhand humour he uses, though this is underlined with a seriousness as he recognises that he wouldn’t be telling my mother unless he was worried. But at the same time, he doesn’t want to make a fuss; he really doesn’t want to make a fuss.
My mother persuaded him to see the doctor who then sent my dad to hospital, saying it was a heart attack. That was Wednesday. It was now Friday.
I began to cry, asking how come no one had told me.
Mum said that she wasn’t going to until it was a fait accompli: there was nothing to worry about – they would put a coil in to hold up the artery, and that would be that. She was going to see Dad later.
Give him a hug from me, I asked.
I can’t, she said. I told him I don’t love him anymore.
It was because he had let her down. He was supposed to be her Rock of Gibraltar.
Last week my Dad’s left hand stopped working properly. We were on a boat with Dan and a friend of Dad’s from university. That morning, we’d been caught in a storm. The plan was to sail to Newton Ferrars, but as soon as we got out to sea, we were hit by something.
Dad had mentioned the wind as we were having breakfast, saying it had been howling down the estuary at four o’clock that morning when he’d got up to take a pee. It wasn’t howling any more – it sounded soft, but I realise now that this is the sound of gathering.
We put on our gear and the four of us went on deck. It was raining. I didn’t have any waterproof trousers so I’d borrowed a pair of wellingtons and had put a pair of shorts on. I wasn’t too exposed – though, with the rain, the wind was chilling. I’d be all right as long as it didn’t pick up.
We went slowly out to sea. The sky was blurred. It looked like it was dropping down on us. Moving gradually down the channel, muffled – everything hazy and running at a sort of timeless pace, I didn’t notice the storm coming until it was on top of us.
My belly is churning. I have wedged myself in the cockpit with an arm hooked over the railing behind me because the boat has tipped right up and I don’t want to fall forward, into the water. The cutlery is clanging in the drawer below. I can hear the trays in the oven sliding around. Dan is up the front with Dad. They have their life jackets and harnesses on. They are trying to bring the jib in.
I drum three of my fingers in a sequence on lid of the box where the gas canister is kept. Because of the rain, I feel a film of water beneath my fingertips. Through this, I am able to keep from throwing up – as long as I watch the horizon.
I see how changed the land is – only a silhouette through the mist. The sea is caving in and then rearing up. The land looks austere, in a primitive form, unmanned, untamed – and yet it is a rock, stable. The sea crashes at it, this entire body of water that can be settled one moment and then suddenly churned up.
I find out about Dad’s hand later that day.
We’d turned into Falmouth, moored up against another boat. Dan and I went down the jetty to feel the comfort of land. On the way, a man called good morning from his boat.
It was the strangest thing to realise it was still only morning.
My Dad went to have lunch with another friend from university who lives in Falmouth.
He was back by the time Dan and I returned to the boat. I made tea and sat up in the cockpit. The day was clearing and the sun came out between the clouds very warm. When I went down below, Dan was sitting opposite my dad.
Are you going to tell her, Dan says.
They both look at me.
My Dad says that he has lost some mobility in his left hand.
Did you have wine at lunch? I ask.
He looks coy – after his heart attack last year I am trying to get him out of the habit of drinking at lunch time. I tell him quickly that I’m asking because he’s slurring his words and I want to know if that has anything to do with what’s going on in his hand.
It would be a good thing if you had a glass of wine at lunch, I say.
But he’s in that cryptic mode of his where he avoids the truth for some reason.
He says he’s waiting for his doctor to call him back.
It’s okay, Dan keeps telling me, reaching up to where I am standing next to him, taking me by the wrist.
I touch my Dad on the arm, waking him.
It’s nearly five, I say. Do you think we should call the surgery?
He thinks, rubbing his sleepy face. If they haven’t called it’s because they’re busy.
He takes a deep breath then and says: how about this trip to Penzance to see your Davy?
The week before, as we were planning our route along the coast, I’d asked if we might be able to make a stop at Penzance where Humphry Davy was born. I’d written about him in my first post here. There is a statue of him in the high street I wanted to see. But all that week the wind and the tides had been against us.
We go down the pontoon together to ask the harbour master about trains. When we get to the office, my dad’s phone rings. He takes the call outside while I look at timetables with the man in the office. When I go out, Dad is just finishing.
They say I should try and see someone here, my dad tells me.
The doctor takes an age, saying: lay your hand here, try and push that, wriggle, pinch this.
Dad’s own father died at sixty-six – younger than Dad is now. It was a series of strokes – soon after he retired. My Dad has worked overseas most of his life. Towards the end of his career my mother was begging him to stop working, saying it was time he came home. There was always just one more trip.
Now the doctor gets up to consult a book. He has my dad take his shirt off and I see the scar down the centre of his chest. I have a powerful sense of how important he is to me – aware that during the storm that morning I hadn’t felt fear – I knew we would be all right because he was there and nothing defeats him. Finally, I am getting to know my father after more than thirty years of catching glimpses of him between jobs.
The doctor clears his throat and says something about a damaged nerve. I move in my seat and in that movement I am aware at how solid I’ve been sitting.
That’s a relief, my dad says in his offhand way. It’s not a stroke then.
Oh, no, the doctor says, looking at us both then and taking the depth of our relief. Sorry, no, I should have said sooner – not that.
It’s pouring when Dad and I get out of the station in Penzance.
The night before, reading the book I’d brought with me on Davy, I had come across the line: ‘the death of his father was to make a profound impression on his mind. It changed the whole course of his conduct.’
I asked my dad if he could say the same for his father.
It happened over a period of time, Dad said. Towards the end, he couldn’t really speak.
By this I took that, because it hadn’t been sudden, Dad meant the effect was gradual, even minimal.
It affected the way that you viewed retirement, I said to him, remembering that he’d once told me that he didn’t know what you were meant to do when you retired: he saw nothing when he thought of it – his own father had either been working or dying.
The rain is coming down heavier as we walk up the high street, looking out for Davy’s statue, and also the Star Inn where he spent many hours, standing on the balcony, telling stories – those gathered from the Arabian Night or his grandmother.
Dad and I talk about how this purpose – this trail we’re on – makes the weather bearable by giving us a reason to be making our way through it.
Davy’s biographers all draw attention to his diverse talents. Coleridge said that ‘if Davy had not been the first Chemist, he would have been the first Poet of his age.’
In a letter to his mother, reflecting on his school-life, Davy wrote: I consider it fortunate that I was left much to myself when a child…I perhaps owe these circumstances the little talents that I have and their peculiar application.
I am grateful for the life my dad has given me. Though his trips were lengthy, my mother bore them steady and resolved – so that I was never afraid – and no matter how long he was away, he always came back.
The day before the storm we had moored on a buoy in the estuary at Heyford. I decided to go swimming. Although it was cold I thought this would be the only chance I would get.
I’m going to swim to that buoy I told my dad, pointing across the channel.
The water was dark – an ivy green. Imagining how cold it was going to be almost made it impossible to dive in, but I finally did, squirming to the surface and swimming quickly.
The current was strong. I had to head upstream of the buoy so that I would be drawn onto it. When I got there and turned, I saw my dad on deck. I waved.
He handed me a towel when I climbed back up onto the boat, and then he went down below. I sat in the cockpit, feeling the burning cold of my skin, the hotness of blood beneath, my pounding heart.
Later, Dan told me he’d watched my dad while I was swimming. My dad had been in this amazing state, he said: not fretful or nervous, but absolutely at the ready.
Such loving concern surprised me – not because my father has lacked it, but because he has spent so much of my life away. Once, I asked my mother why Dad never said that he loved me. She told me he chose to show it in other ways. Because of that, I have never doubted his feelings or searched for reassurance. I have simply trusted that anything I could ever want from him exists, if I should ever need it.
What I felt in Australia, as I waited for news about my dad was that I was only just getting to know him. The day before, I’d had news that more than one artery was blocked – a coil wasn’t going to work. They were doing more scans. I left my phone beside me when I went to bed that night.
My brother said, you sound frail, when I answered my mobile. It was the middle of the night and though I could feel the depth of sleep I’d been in, I could also feel that an awareness of the situation hadn’t left me, because I was sharp with it now.
I feel frail, I said.
Don’t, my brother told me. You’ll set me off.
I knew that Dan was half awake beside me because as my brother began to explain what was happening on the phone, he took hold of my knee beneath the covers. We were lying in the moonlight. I could see the silhouettes of all the trees tops beyond the huge window.
My brother told me that it was something to do with cholesterol – a build up in the arteries. But it wasn’t because Dad was in poor shape, it was hereditary.
Dad’s really healthy, he said. The doctors are going to do a by-pass tomorrow and it will be fine. You can speak to him the day after.
I told Dan everything once I got off the phone. The sky outside was a bright grey. The moon was near the top right corner of the window, big and white.
Dan stretched and sighed, turning to curl on his side.
When I finished he said: so, it’s genital, then?
There was a moment of silence in the semi-darkness. Then he said: wait…what did I say?
The two of us began to laugh – wonderful, deep, sleepy laughter.