Beyond the horizon…
On May 3rd 2011 at 11.15pm I lost my father. He died peacefully at home, with my Mum by his side, one month after being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer… A month during which he managed to see or talk on the phone to all of his ten grandchildren; preparing them for what was about to happen with warmth and humour, and without a trace of fear or self-pity. A month of unprecedented April sunshine, where he passed most days in either their small back garden, where the clematis bloomed spectacularly, or their front garden overlooking the sea. He talked to everyone who needed him too, as did Mum… they drank Pimms as the sun set, shared jokes and memories… and truly offered us all a lesson in how to do it right.
We managed to organise a hasty family visit – and he knew we were there. I spent a precious day with him on the Friday, and on Saturday Joe and the children arrived too. And although he was frail, and full of morphine, he was able to acknowledge them with a smile and a joke… then he went to sleep, until Tuesday …when he died.
He was quite simply the best father any child could hope to have. Everpresent, as he worked from home as a writer all his life. Always available for advice, generous beyond belief, clever, witty and always interested and supportive, with the kind of constructive critiscm that made one feel valued, respected and loved.
As a performer, nothing ever gave me more pleasure than performing for my parents… not because I craved their approval, and certainly not because they thought I could do no wrong… but because in front of them I always felt that I was the best that I could be… and fearless.
The Funeral – May 13th.
It was beautiful.
I was very nervous of my own reaction. Everything about his death had been so dignified and full of acceptance… that it was actually easy to accept, even though I was losing someone so very precious, and with such a huge place in my life and my heart. I didn’t know if the funeral itself would throw the sense of calm and tranquility I was feeling back in my face, and unleash a torrent of grief…
There was something slightly surreal about arriving alone at Mum’s house, all in black, and going upstairs to find my sisters and Mum getting ready in her bedroom… reassuring each other, making last minute decisions… like we were about to go on stage. And we knew of course that in a way we were… this was where we all went ‘public’ with our very private story…
The hearse arrived, as we stood in the front garden (overlooking the sea)… yet another magnificent day, clear blue skies, and not a hint of rain. The kind and sensitive Malcolm from the funeral parlour, who had made everything so manageable for Mum, walked ahead of the hearse, in his top hat and tails as it slowly descended the steep hill.
There was an old man sitting on the bench opposite the house, and when he realised what was happening, he stood to attention, and removed his hat… and didn’t move until we had driven away. There was something so poignant about this stranger’s respect.
We arrived at the church, and of course, it was full of old friends from my childhood, family I hadn’t seen for years, and love and warmth for this great and profoundly popular Man who was my Father.
It was with such pride that I watched my Joe, Luke and Harry and my nephew Harvey help carry in the coffin, and whilst I’m not particularly religious, it was comforting and familiar to be in St Mary’s church, opposite our old house; where Arthur was Christened, and most of the children had performed in Nativity plays and Harvest festivals over the years.
The service was a wonderful selection of stories, memories, wise words and the poem “Death is nothing at all” read beautifully by old friends (not family… good decision by Mum), with humour and genuine passion. Mum had found an old interview from more than 20 years ago, where Dad had responded to the question – “What is the meaning of life?” – his nugget of life philosophy was read to us all –
WHAT IS THE MEANING OF LIFE?
(Jeremy Paul, 1996, in answer to the question, ‘What is the meaning of life?’ in an off the cuff interview on camera!)
“The meaning of life is to find your own happiness, and soul; and rationalise the woes, the bad things, make sense of them, put them into a department that’s manageable and not let them overtake you.
The meaning of life is to find space, and peace, and tranquility; and essentially love, which is what actually gives you all those other things – and to deal with the difficulties in a very contained way. And not to fear death, to be absolutely on for the fact that it can happen at different times and different ages to people. That a life is complete, whether it ends at 26, 29, 42, 60, 80 or 100 – a life is complete in itself and is fulfilled at whatever point it ends.
Never lose sight of joy, love, or generosity of spirit.”
The penultimate reading was a chapter of Dad’s latest creation – “The Perilous Adventures of a Rabbit called Jones” – a sophisticated and very witty children’s story. It was heart-warming to hear the chuckles to this as yet unpublished piece…
Dad would have been thrilled…let’s hope he was!
There was a suitably comic dash to the crematorium in Friday rush hour traffic – again Dad would definitely have appreciated the – “follow that hearse...” moment having of course slightly over-run in the church. My experience of cremations is that the crematorium can feel pretty unspiritual, and that the exit of the coffin tends to be mechanical and undignified… well times have changed, I’m glad to say. The chapel was beautiful, and “ours”, despite our late arrival. There was no-one waiting on our tail, and the short service was touching and personal, for the close family in attendance.
In his last few weeks Dad had taken great pleasure listening to music – and one of his favourites was Bob Dylan’s “Beyond the Horizon” (a song that had mysteriously passed me by)… so instead of sad and serious piped music playing; the service ended with Bob – the lyrics proving incredibly pertinant, and the lightness and swing in the rhythm made Joe and I want to dance! It was us who left Dad, passing and touching the coffin if we wished (and everyone did).
Outside we wept and hugged and read the messages on the family flowers. Then returned to join the mellow and all-important wind-down at The Grand Hotel – overlooking the bay. We were pretty well the last to leave!
We spent a family weekend of reflection under glorious blue skies. Then on Monday evening, Mum, Tara, Sasha and Sophie (my three sisters) and I went up to a wild flower meadow near their home overlooking the sea with Dad’s ashes divided into five canisters. We took a rug, a bottle of sparkling wine, and a punnet of strawberries…
In the evening sun, we separated and took our time scattering his ashes into the flowers… Then we sat on the rug, and shared a moment of connection and memories, old and recent… There were smiles and tears, and a lightness of spirit.
It was truly magical.
A perfect conclusion, a perfect farewell.
So now more than two weeks on, I am slowly beginning to believe that I really won’t ever see my Daddy again… The reality is both impossibly daunting… and OK.
He was an inspiration, to me and to so many others, and the grace of his passing is as generous as he was.
Jeremy Paul 1939-2011