Rob Atkinson: Looking back on my father’s legacy

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It’s a watershed in anyone’s life to lose a parent, no matter how expected the loss.

It happened to me and my two brothers just over three years ago, when our dad died of pneumonia and other complications of Alzheimer’s.

He was 87, so he’d lived a good long life – and the nature of his condition meant that he’d gradually been slipping away for quite a while.

We’d possibly convinced ourselves that, when it finally happened, it would be something of a merciful release. But the shock and pain of loss were feelings we just weren’t ready for.

Three years is quite a bit of thinking time. A few friends have since had the identical experience, and one of them asked me to reassure her that her pain and sense of grief would eventually ease.

By that time, I was able to tell her the sadness does fade away, but that it’s a rocky road to tread. For a long time, I kept coming face to face with the finality of bereavement, and small events - like missing our Scrabble challenges, or remembering funny things he’d say to make us all laugh - would come back to twist the knife. Grieving is a slow process, with its setbacks and bad times, but it is something that slowly heals and enables you to look back fondly on good times.

So, what is a father’s legacy? I can point to a number of things in my own life that are the direct result of his influence on me. I’m sure that this is true of most of us.

My dad inflicted Leeds United on me, rather a mixed blessing, but he also helped shape my personality, and he provided the kind of male role model that, I’m now aware, not every son is fortunate enough to have.

And the thing is, his guidance continues to be available to me even though he really left us some years before he actually passed away.

Many is the time, even now, when I’ll catch myself wondering what dad would have done, when I’m faced with some or other decision. This surprises me, and I’m sure it would surprise him even more. One of his stock sayings was “You never listen to a word I say”. But I did, dad. And I still do.

My dad had lost a lot by the time his final days came around three years back. He couldn’t live at home anymore; he’d long been unable to drive.

He’d become totally dependent on others which, for a fiercely proud man, must have been hard to take. But, as long as he had the power of speech, he retained an ability to laugh at life. His was a unique and not completely accessible sense of humour.

As he got older, he’d laugh helplessly at any jokes we told him – but in years gone by, only his own witticisms really tickled him. Then, when he’d said something he thought incredibly funny, he’d sit there, tears rolling down his cheeks, throbbing with silent, painful mirth until we were all in tucks just at the sight of him. It makes me smile now, simply thinking of it.

Knowing how much he missed his home and garden, as well as the independence and freedom his car granted him, it’s difficult for me to imagine I’d have had him cling on to life under those conditions.

I think, in the end, he was ready to go. But I really miss him, and all those Sunday afternoon Scrabble sessions we had, as well as the arguments over football and politics.

I’d give a lot to have those options now, but I know how lucky I am to have special memories that will always be with me. Perhaps that, in a nutshell, really is a father’s legacy.