The day my Dad died

20th December 1996 at 00:00
Michael Tweddle, aged 15, describes how he and his family coped with the death, after a long illness, of his father, Jeremy

Jeremy Tweddle was my Dad. He died more than two years ago, when I was 13. I didn't believe that what I'd been told was going to happen actually would. But it did - on Tuesday, July 26, 1994, at exactly two minutes to six in the morning. My Mum had promised to wake us early if he died overnight, and at six she woke my older brother, my sister and me. She had rung the hospital, and they'd said that Dad had died two minutes earlier.

There had been much debate the evening before about where we should be that night, which a professor at the hospital had predicted might be the last for my Dad. I was pretty much exempt from the negotiations, mainly because I was 13 and the youngest - but also because I was in an extreme state of shock. The glimmer of hope that had always been inside me during the good and bad times of his illness had finally been snuffed out.

Whatever we did would not have affected Dad much. He was unconscious by this time and we had to think about us. Should we spend the night in his room, waiting for him to die, and probably almost hoping that he would, so that we could go home and get some sleep? We decided against this.

When Mum told us the news, all I could think about was that he would still be warm when we arrived at the hospital to see him for the last time. It was not a pleasant sight. His stomach was swollen because of the size of the tumour he had. But, although his face was thin and covered in a beard to hide the thinness, he was still recognisably the friendly-looking, handsome man he had always been.

I think the reason I felt such pity was because it was no longer my Dad. He wasn't breathing or snoring - something he nearly always did when he had his eyes closed. We weren't visiting a person, we were viewing a body. And the body had an eerie movement, which shocked me. It turned out to be the specially designed massaging bed on which he was lying, but I didn't know that. I just didn't want to ask the nurse whether she was sure he was dead.

It was when I touched his hand that I felt most sad, sickened almost. It felt like moist rubber, like it could never have been human. It wasn't how I wanted to remember him. The last contact I made was to kiss him on the head, something that I had never done before. I knew then that things were about to change. It felt completely wrong when I whimpered "I love you", because I did not love the limp body I was talking to. I loved the person who was, and will always be my Dad. When I said these words, I felt immensely guilty that they didn't feel right.

I am eternally grateful that my family decided we should see him after he had died, because it proved to be a massive release of stress. He was no longer in pain, he would no longer have to force dozens of pills down his neck every morning nor face the terrible thought of his looming, possibly painful, death. All the stress that had built up over the previous 13 months was released when I saw him that morning. We would never again have to go through the process of worrying about him, day in, day out.

Seeing him was proof that he was dead. If I hadn't seen him, I might still have hoped that one day he would return.

We now went through a very different process - grief. In some ways I am still grieving today. I have conquered the intense feelings of bitterness and shock, but the person who said that time heals all had a lot to learn. The event of his death may have happened two years ago, but the sad fact is that my Dad is still dead, just like he was two years ago. I am still without him, just like I was then.

The first six months after he died were the easiest. Everyone expected me to be upset, different and lonely. My family and I were all in it together, helping each other out, talking about our feelings. Now, quite rightly, things are back to normal and we are all living our lives again, but this does make coping harder. People may think I've "got over it". The truth is that when I am 80, I will still not have seen Dad since 1994, I will still miss him the same amount if not more, and his absence will still be a very sad aspect of my life.

That Tuesday was a very strange day. On the way home from the hospital we were all cracking jokes and laughing. We couldn't help it. Back at the house we cooked ourselves a big bacon breakfast and couldn't have been more merry - it was like a summer version of Christmas. There was so much togetherness and tranquillity, it was phenomenal. As more members of the family turned up, it became more like a festival. I cooked some cakes for the post-funeral party - and party is the accurate word for the occasion - in between games of cricket in the garden with my brother and walks to the shops with my sister.

Of course, we were not smiling all the time. When the long black hearse turned into our road on the morning of the funeral, I burst into tears, something I have done very rarely in the past two years. I was glad that happened because I'd been worrying about not being able to show my emotions at the funeral.

The next hard-hitting moment was the end of the summer holidays and my first morning back at school. It signified the return to normality and getting on with life. Dad had timed things so perfectly that we had all summer in which daily routines weren't necessary. I experienced great difficulty in composing myself, ready for the ring on the doorbell when my friends would call.

Out of all my friends only three knew about what had happened, and I realised that the best thing to do would be to put a brave face on it, at least until everyone knew. I was not looking forward to being asked: "Did you have a good holiday?" What on earth would I say to that? "Well, my Dad died, but apart from that it was great fun"?

I did not have to wait long before everyone knew. My form teacher told them all while I waited in the headmaster's office. I got a few strange looks when I returned to class and two or three people might have said they were sorry, but otherwise, life went on.

It's been going on for two years now, and I'm still putting a brave face on it all. It is not, I know, that people don't care, they just don't know how to tackle it. They are probably worried that they might somehow offend me or, God forbid, upset me. Then they feel awkward: they can't say that they know how I feel, because most of them don't. I am sure too that people are actually curious, and would like to know about my experience. I would be happy to answer their questions if they could bring themselves to ask.

Sometimes, people who don't know about my Dad's death talk about my parents or my father, and I will play along. I would prefer it if they knew, but I don't say anything because I know they would feel awkward and tell me: "I'm sorry. " I have occasionally been tempted to be really black-humoured and reply: "Why, did you kill him?" I think I get it from my Dad. He was often tempted to come up with lines like "I'm dying to see you!" but normally restrained himself. Most people don't treat the subject of death very lightly. It's something I can do, mainly because I have come to realise that it happens to everyone, it's part of life. I also believe that in striving for a good life, quality is more important than quantity. My Dad had a good life: his obituary in The Guardian will tell you that. He was extremely successful in achieving quality, even if he did fail a bit on the other one.

Jeremy Tweddle was a senior lecturer at the University of Central England, where he trained English teachers.

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