I believe, I like to believe, that Dad was telling us about one of the saddest books he’s ever read; a journal of a man who’s slowly dying.
“At one point, he’s applying for the army, to fight in the First World War. He’s given a sealed letter by his family doctor, but he’s told not to look at what’s inside it. The army doctor says no, he’s not fit for the armed forces. He’s curious, so he opens up the letter on the train home, and finds that his doctor had written to tell whoever was examining him that he has multiple sclerosis. It’s a wasting disease that’ll kill him in only a few years. The rest of the diary is the rest of his life, as he slowly succumbs to it.”
I don’t remember if Dad ever read any of it to us, but he recommended it for when we were older; it was a terribly sad but beautifully written book.
I only got around to reading properly it this year.
Today’s the three year anniversary. I’ve coached myself not to think about Dad too much, because when I consider him for any length of time the pain wakes up. I can mention him. I can say that he would have loved some such thing, hated something else. When I think of all the things I’ll never be able to tell or ask him, something so mundane as stories he told me that I can’t remember now, or even where his books came from, I don’t want to exist.
We don’t discuss him very often. I can’t speak for my mother and sister, but I love him too much to be able to talk about him more. I miss him and I miss him and I miss him. I’ve had dreams where he’s still alive, totally normal and as it should be, so that when I wake up there are moments before I remember what happened. When I hugged one of his friends, I honestly thought for an instant I was in my father’s arms again and didn’t want to let go. It made for a very awkward moment.
So. The Journal Of A Disappointed Man. And A Last Diary, also included in this 1984 Hogarth Press edition. Written by W.N.P. Barbellion, the pen name of Bruce Frederick Cummings.
I went into this book expecting misery and melancholy and to feel even worse than I currently was on that particular day. Instead I got wit, mirth and stubbornness in the face of an inevitable strangling demise. I got bits that made me snort in laughter:
On a ‘bus the other day a woman with a baby sat opposite, the baby bawled, and the woman at once began to unlace herself, exposing a large, red udder, which she swung into the baby’s face. The infant, however, continued to cry and the woman said,-
‘Come on, there’s a good boy – if you don’t, I shall give it to the gentleman opposite.’
Do I look ill-nourished?
I got entries that celebrated new discoveries and enjoyments, tinged with pain:
Words, idle words all day in a continuous rush. And I am sure that the match which fired the gun-powder was the discovery of the de Goncourts’ Journal! It’s extraordinary how I have been going on from week to week quite calmly for all the world as if I had read all the books and seen all the places and done everything according to the heart’s desire. This book has really jolted me out of my complacency: to think that all this time, I have been dead to so much! Why I might have died unconscious that the de Goncourts had ever lived and written their colossal book and now I am aware of it, I am all in a fever to read it and take it up into my brain: I might die now before I have finished it – a thought that makes me wild with desire just as I once endured most awful pangs when I felt my health going, and believed that I might die before having ever been in love – to die and never to have been in love! – for an instant at a time this possibility used to make me writhe.
I saw snippets of the passionate love he had for his wife (who was fully aware of his multiple sclerosis before she married him):
Your love, darling, impregnates my heart, touches it into calm, strongly beating life so that when I am with you, I forget I am a dying man. It is too difficult to believe that when we die true love like ours disappears with our bodies. My own experience makes me feel that human love is the earnest after death of a great reunion of souls in God who is love.
I found flickers of his rage at his debilitating disease:
Suffering does not only insulate. It drops its victim on an island in an ocean desert where he sees men as distant ships passing.
And I found his courage and marvellous philosophy in the face of his impending death:
You would pity me would you? I am lonely, penniless, paralysed, and just turned twenty-eight. But I snap my fingers in your face and with equal arrogance I pity you. I pity you your smooth-running good luck and the stagnant serenity of your mind. I prefer my own torment. I am dying, but you are already a corpse. You have never really lived. Your body has never been flayed into tingling life by hopeless desire to love, to know, to act, to achieve. I do not envy you your absorption in the petty cares of a commonplace existence.
Do you think I would exchange the communion with my own heart for the toy balloons of your silly conversation? Or my curiosity for your flickering interests? Or my despair for your comfortable Hope? Or my present tawdry life for yours as polished and neat as a new threepenny bit? I would not. I gather my mantle around me and I solemnly thank God that I am not as some other men are.
I am only twenty-eight, but I have telescoped into those few years a tolerably long life: I have loved and married, and have a family; I have wept and enjoyed; struggled and overcome, and when the hour comes I shall be content to die.
This next part will be hard – like I said, if I loved Dad less, I might be able to talk about him more – but it’s what I came here to do.
So. So, so, so.
How can I compare Dad’s life to Barbellion? Barbellion died when he was only 31, while Dad was 81 when he died. Barbellion’s end was prolonged, drawn out and agonising, while Dad’s was mercifully quick – it only took a little over a week. Dad suffered from ill-health in his later years – diabetes, three heart attacks, a sprained arm that was never quite right again, aches and pains – still nothing to compare to the degeneration and neurological failure of Barbellion’s multiple sclerosis. Dad’s last years were filled with joy and contentment; A Last Diary, also included in this edition of the Journal, chronicles his last two years and is full of pain as well as some joy, while the end approaches:
February 20, 1919
My beloved wife spent the night here, then returned to Brighton. ‘Do you feel my heart on my lips?’ ‘Dear, I love you,’ and her tears trickled on to my beard.
Two poor grief-stricken things. She shook with the anguish of the moment, withdrew, and again flung herself on my breast. I sat motionless in my chair. Ah! my God! how I longed to be able to stand and pick up, press to me, and hide away in the shelter of strong arms that sweet, dear, fluttering spirit. It is cruel — cruel to her and cruel to me. I thought my heart must break. There comes a time when evil circumstances squeeze you out of this world. There is no longer any room. Oh! Why did she marry me? They ought not to have let her do it.
February 21, 1919
I sometimes fancy I am not weaned from life even now. Pictures in the paper make me agonise. Oh, for a little happiness for her and me together, just a short respite. What agony it is to have a darling woman fling herself into your arms, press you to her dear bosom and ask you desperately to try to get well, when you know it is hopeless. She knows it is hopeless, yet every now and then. . . . She pictures me in a study in her flat (all her own), walking on two sticks. And already the tendons of my right leg are drawing in permanently.
I am not weaned because my curiosity is not dead. When I think of dying, I am tantalised to know all that will happen after. I want to be at my funeral, and see who’s there and if they are very sorry, who sheds a friendly tear, what sort of service, etc. Oh! I wish I were dead and forgotten.
But reading this book has perhaps helped me come to terms with what happened to my dad, as much as anything. Barbellion only lived 31 years, but he constantly read and discovered new things, fell deeply in love, came to terms with his condition, lived in as much bliss as could be found with his wife. With degeneration and death on the way, his words and opinions blaze on the page, the screen, however or whichever way you read them.
My father lived for 81 years and did so much. He lived as a child in what was then India and was now Pakistan. He survived through the Blitz when his classmates died in the bombing. He became a surgeon who saved more lives and amassed more amusing and gruesome stories than I could possibly keep track of. He collected the hoard I’m still endeavouring to sort through. He supported and lived with his mother throughout her life; then, in his fifties, met my mum and began a new unlooked-for family.
(Dad always said if he hadn’t met Mum, he’d have ended up retired on some beach somewhere, drinking himself to death.
The final day, and all the days afterwards, we told Mum she was the best thing that ever happened to him.)
There was always the knowledge, from when we were quite young, that Dad was going to die long before Mum. Die and leave us. I never knew what Dad thought about it, but I would sometimes cry from how unfair it was. Mum wasn’t going to get to grow old with Dad. He wouldn’t be there for whatever we did later on. I had to work fast to make the most of our time with him!
The last years of Dad’s life were so happy, but I still wasted them. I was going to write a book for him, but there was time. I wanted to get published, but there was still time. I wanted to dedicate the book, the first book, to him, but no worries, there was still time enough. And then there was only pneumonia, the hospital, denial, and one afternoon there was a body that had, only half an hour before, held Dad.
But before that, there had been a wonderful holiday, the last family holiday, in Venice. Where we visited places we remembered from childhood, ate wonderful food, stayed in an apartment overlooking the Grand Canal, and had a glorious time, and Dad was slower and more careful and needed to be well wrapped up against the cold, loving it all.
This is the quote that seems to crop up most often on the internet from Barbellion’s journal:
To me the honour is sufficient of belonging to the universe — such a great universe, and so grand a scheme of things. Not even Death can rob me of that honour. For nothing can alter the fact that I have lived; I have been I, if for ever so short a time. And when I am dead, the matter which composes my body is indestructible—and eternal, so that come what may to my ‘Soul,’ my dust will always be going on, each separate atom of me playing its separate part — I shall still have some sort of a finger in the pie. When I am dead, you can boil me, burn me, drown me, scatter me — but you cannot destroy me: my little atoms would merely deride such heavy vengeance. Death can do no more than kill you.
It hurts to think this, and it helps. Dad’s dead. Death doesn’t destroy what he accomplished in life. Because of him, probably thousands of people lived longer and happier lives, touching the lives of other people in turn. Mum still brings home stories of former patients of his who’ve come into the hospital he worked in, where she still works, expressing sorrow and reminding her what a wonderful man he was. He made close friends, friends with children whom he was godfather to, writing witty and quote-riddled speeches for weddings or, on one sad occasion, a funeral; these friends still keep in contact with us. He read and sketched and painted and collected notebooks full of his favourite quotes, particularly from poetry. He gave us a love of books and history and paintings and films and plays. He told us true stories and dirty jokes and anecdotes and past surgical cases. He was part of why I wanted to be a writer. He’s part of why my sister is such a talented artist. He made Mum so very happy. He made all of us so happy. His death has made all of these things hurt, but it couldn’t destroy them.
He’s my mother’s husband. He’s our father. That hasn’t stopped just because he died. Regardless of what we’ll eventually do with his ashes, however much it will always hurt, he lived. He was.
And that’s all.