Saturday, June 29, 2019

Catching the feather - My tribute to Dad

This is a long post. I was asked to give a tribute to my Dad at his funeral. He was difficult to summarise in a few words, and I'm not a good enough writer to try. But this is what I came up with. 

Dad ready for Stamp World London 2010

In all the cards we have received as a family – and thank you all for those – and in the many comments on Facebook in tribute to dad, those personal notes and stories from so many people talk about a man who was a genuine one off.

All of us here will have our stories about dad and I’ve been asked to tell a few that give a flavour of his character, on behalf of the family. Some of these are from Mum, some from Dave, Sarah, Cathy, Esther, Dan, and suggestions from the grandchildren too.

But I’m going to start with one of mine...

A couple of years ago I went to the Memorial Ground in Bristol to see Bristol Rovers play Shrewsbury Town. I met Dave and Dad who had arrived a while before me. Naturally, Dad had managed to befriend a Rovers fan who had smuggled him and Dave into the home supporters bar for a drink, and then smuggled them out again.

When I arrived, this chap offered to do the same for me, and we queued for the bar. I thanked him for taking care of my brother and my dad and he smiled. He said, “Your dad... he’s a lovely guy. But he’s, erm, he’s stuck on transmit.”

That is probably one of the best descriptions ever of my Dad. There were few people he met who didn’t depart from a conversation with him without knowing he was a doctor and a Shrewsbury Town fan and about the church he went to, and the community work he was involved in. He would tell everyone at length about the work of Street Pastors, or Kidz Klub, or Shropshire Philatelic Society or whatever.

In fairness, Dad did find out a lot about people too. He loved asking questions, often asking several in rapid fire succession without waiting for answers in-between. Mum often had to intervene to save a person he had just met who was being interrogated, and it was excruciating if as a kid he did it to one of our friends. Sarah probably wins in terms of the most embarrassing story – Dad innocently asked her ex-boyfriend if Sarah was a good kisser, and unfortunately asked him in front of her current boyfriend. Sarah sums that up as “how best to embarrass my teenager”!

One of my favourite stories about dad was one I heard many times growing up. It happened before I was born when my parents lived in Birmingham. Mum had gone Christmas shopping. Ailsa, who was lodging with them at the time, was poorly with flu. Dad was left to fend for himself and decided to cook himself bacon and eggs. When my mum returned home laden with shopping bags, dad met her at the door and told her about his culinary travails.

There is a long version of this story but I’ll tell a truncated version. I’ll skip the bit where he burned his fingers picking up the bacon to see if it was cooked underneath, because my favourite bit is about the eggs.

As my dad explained to my increasingly exasperated mum, who was still stood on the doorstep, still holding the heavy shopping, he had picked up the egg box, and opened it, and a feather had flown out, and he caught the feather!

But he dropped the eggs.

My mum says she found one of those cracked eggs under the washing machine three weeks later.

I love that story about Dad. He caught the feather, but he dropped the eggs.

When Dad got talking, time often got away from him. As kids, we would wait as he had conversation after conversation with people after church. Usually we would be having a kickaround with some of the other kids in the Sunday school room, and family by family the others would leave until it was just me and Dave left. Dad would literally be talking to whoever was on locking up duty that week while Mum, me and Dave waited for him to get in the car, so we could go home and Mum could try and rescue the Sunday roast.

Dad’s post-church conversations backfired on him one night after an evening service. I was learning to drive and was in the driver’s seat of the family Vauxhall Astra sitting in the car park outside the old Barnabas Church Centre in Hill’s Lane in Shrewsbury.

Mum was in the passenger seat. We were waiting for Dad. Eventually the back door opened, dad got in and the back door closed. The clunk of the door closing was my cue and I put the pedal to the metal the way a teenager does.

We turned out of the car park and hit the first traffic lights. They were green and we sailed through. The traffic lights at Welsh Bridge were green and we sailed through. The traffic lights on Smithfield Road were green and we sailed through. I said, “Wow, this is amazing, can you believe all these lights are green, dad?”

There was silence from the back seat.


My mum turned her head.

The back seat was empty, except for Dad’s large shoulder bag full of papers. My mum yelped with shock. I almost drove into the kerb. Where was he?

We quickly decided it couldn’t have been the Rapture, because dad would have taken his bag with him.

(My dad always carried a bag of stuff with him. I remember him going into a fancy shop in The Parade in Shrewsbury where he was sold a Continental “man bag”, when such things were really unheard of. When one of my teenage friends referred to it as “your dad’s handbag” he protested to them that “It’s not a handbag. It’s a Frenchman’s Purse!” Because that’s so much better...)

Anyway, it wasn’t the rapture. So we did a loop around the one way system and returned the car park, to find my dad waiting for us rather annoyed. Apparently he had got into the car, but then he had seen someone else in the car park he wanted to talk to, so he had got back out of the car to talk to them.

Apparently Dad ran down Barker Street after our car as I sped through green light after green light. But, what can I say? I didn’t check my mirrors.

Dad was annoyed because he thought we were pranking him and he didn’t like to be the object of a joke. He would often tell people “Welshmen don’t like to be teased”.

But he liked to play jokes. He liked to answer the phone saying “Church Stretton Naval Base”, which confused my friends, then Dave’s friends, then Sarah’s friends.

He was playful. He loved playing games with his children and then his grandchildren, whether that was setting up a Hornby trainset on the dining room table, pretending the toy animals on the sofa were talking in silly voices, or even just going over to Springfield Mere opposite our house to feed the ducks.

As you grow older your relationships with your parents often change, and for me, as an adult, I can honestly say I became friends with my Dad. Our friendship grew after he retired, but his old life as a doctor poked through occasionally. We would meet former patients who would greet him with “Hello, Doctor.”

On one of our trips to Wembley with Shrewsbury Town – and Dad, unfortunately, has left this earth with a one hundred per cent record when it comes to Wembley. Five Shrewsbury games there. Five defeats – we were in the crowd outside the stadium before the game and a lady came up to Dad and greeted him really warmly. She was accompanied by her son, a tall six foot something well-built powerful-looking young man. She and Dad chatted briefly and then she went on her way. I said to Dad, “She seemed really pleased to see you.”

He smiled a modest little smile and said, “Well you see her son, there? When he was two years old I was called to their house. He was having an asthma attack. I nebulised him on the kitchen table and saved his life.”

He didn’t say it boastfully. If anything he was a bit embarrassed talking about it. I saw something else in my dad that day. For all his funny quirks, he also did things that were extraordinary.

He loved people and he loved being with people. As his children if we came to stay, we knew we could never leave quickly. He would often come and knock on the car window as were about to drive away to check one more thing with us, ask one more question, tell us one more fact.

On the Saturday before he died, I’d come to Shrewsbury for the day and had tea at their house. My last memory of Dad was looking towards the house as I got ready to back out of the drive onto the road. He was standing in the doorway, silhouetted against the light in the hallway, watching me go when really he wanted me to stay.

Ultimately, the reason so many people have felt this loss with our family is because you knew that he was interested in you; in your lives, in what you were doing, in your dreams.

He lived out that Scripture to rejoice with those who rejoice and to mourn with those who mourned. He welcomed people at the door of Hope Church because he believed that everyone should be welcome. He was an encourager to so many because he wanted everyone to succeed. He believed that people mattered and that powered his faith, his politics, his friendships.

I know a lot of people here but I don’t know everyone. I may not know why you came today, or how you knew my dad. He was many things. He was a doctor, a colleague, a mentor, a boss. He was a leader, a preacher, an advocate, a trustee. He was secretary of the society, a prayer co-ordinator, a fellow fan in block 14. He was a husband, an uncle, a grandfather – “little Grandad”, and some of us had the privilege of calling him dad.

John Matthias was my father and my friend, and I loved him. That’s all I really needed to say today. Thank you for listening to everything else as well.

Monday, June 10, 2019

A sudden departure - losing my Dad

Tomorrow it will be 13 weeks since my Dad unexpectedly died. Given that means it's been a quarter of a year since that Tuesday night, I feel I want to get some things out and down in type. I'm still trying to get used to a life where he is no longer an active participant. It's quieter.

Tuesday 19 March: I was in Pizza Hut. I'd left my phone charging at home. I'd even made a big deal out of that, joking with Cathy that she would have my undivided attention. Towards the end of the meal, she said she had an odd text message off my brother, Dave, asking if she knew where I was. I had a pang of guilt. A few weeks earlier Dave had asked me to pay the balance on a fishing weekend we had booked. I hadn't paid it. He was probably reminding me.

Cathy passed me her phone and I called Dave. "Hey, what's up?" I asked.

"Jon... Dad's died." His voice cracked as he said the word 'died'.

I went numb. I don't know what I said before I ended the call. Cathy came back to the table. I told her. We left the restaurant and drove home, packed a couple of suitcases and drove up to the family house in Shrewsbury. Dave was waiting for us with Mum. An hour or so later my foster sister Sarah arrived from Edinburgh.

Dad had fallen backwards down the stairs, and hit his head. The trauma of the injury meant he died within minutes. He may have been alive when the ambulance crew loaded him into the van, but he was dying as they did so. 

We still now aren't a hundred per cent sure what caused Dad to fall the way he did. If, as the most plausible hypothesis goes, he blacked out due to low blood pressure, he wouldn't have even known he was falling. There is a minuscule comfort in that his experience of dying was no experience at all. Minuscule. 

This is the first time I've experienced a sudden bereavement like this. I've got more to say about "sudden" death, but maybe that's for another post. 

The next few weeks passed rapidly. Funeral arrangements. I gave a tribute at the service, and felt happy with what I said. But the euphoria of those moments, which carried me so far, has worn off. 

Rapidly we experienced some "firsts". I went to my first Shrewsbury Town game without him, and felt strangely insulated from the emotions around me. None of it mattered and I felt strange seeing how much people invested emotionally in the event. We had our first family celebration - Mother's Day - and then a few days later I had my first birthday without him. We had Easter together as a family, and then recently I went with Mum and Cathy to Llandudno on what would have been his 75th birthday.

Those 'firsts' are all things we saw coming and planned for. There are other things that are unplanned. I didn't expect to feel a pang of grief so strongly after the FA Cup Final, realising this would be the first FA Cup Final that we wouldn't dissect afterwards. Growing up FA Cup Finals were always a big deal. We would watch them as a family, and Dad would run a sweepstake. After the game we would walk over to the local newsagents and whoever won would get to choose a box of chocolates, which we would all share. It felt like every year Mum won, and always picked Cadbury's Roses. If I'd won I would have picked Quality Street. 

And this year, after Manchester City bulldozed Watford, swatting them aside to a joint record margin of victory in an FA Cup Final, there was no phone call; no conversation. I felt desperately sad.

I feel sad at the moments that are lost. I wanted to take Dad to Jenner Park to see Barry Town play. We'd talked a lot about them as I'd been watching them this season. But we never got round to it. I wanted to go with him to Birmingham and see all the places he talked about in his stories - the churches he went to and the medical school, and revisit our old house. But it feels like all those memories are lost. He'd talked about us going to Snowdonia and climbing the last few mountains he had yet to tick off. Honestly, I don't think he was well enough to do that, but now it definitely isn't going to happen. 

A few weeks after he died I was ambushed by a voicemail he had left on my mobile. It felt strange to hear his voice, confirming some plans for the big birthday party that he never got to see. I wanted to record that message and save it, just to hear him fussing about details again - he always wanted to check the details. But then a few days later I went to play it back and the message had erased. They only get saved for thirty days, which I didn't know. It felt suddenly raw and real, like I had lost him all over again. You can't plan for those moments.  

So after 13 weeks it's slowly becoming reality. Life without Dad. Sometimes I just feel tired of it all. Sometimes I just want to tell him something interesting I found out. He used to tell me that he prayed for me every day. A few weeks after he died I thought 'Who is going to pray for me now?' It's not even that I particularly want anyone to pray for me, just that I don't know if anyone does. 

A friend warned me that grief is exhausting, and she was right. Even when I'm absorbed in work, or a book, or the internet, or a film, it's something tiring that I still carry with me. (I can't unhear the crack in my brother's voice.)

It's been a hard 13 weeks; a hard quarter year.