The strangest thing about losing my father is realising my new place in the family

The business is wholly discombobulating, rather like a drug experience absolutely without any of the good bits.

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“Death has not required us to keep a day free,” Beckett wrote in his monograph on Proust, and this was a line that has kept coming back to me for the past few weeks, since I returned from travels abroad, filed a piece – about Beckett, as it happens – and discovered that, pretty much as I had typed the last full stop and got into a taxi to get more quickly to the ancestral home, my father had died.

I worry about the propriety of even mentioning this; but as this is a column predicated on my personal life, it would have been dishonest, if not impossible, to keep it quiet. About my father’s last decline I shall be silent, but if there is any value to this column it is as a light-hearted solace to people in similar situations, and most people my age or around it have to face the death of a parent at this point in their lives. So let me at least say what you may have to deal with, on a purely logistical level, if it hasn’t happened to you yet.

The first thing you might, if you are unlucky, marvel at (apart, of course, from the obvious) is the remarkable attitude of doctors’ receptionists. These people are often typified as being obtusely and deliberately unhelpful, a characterisation to which I had hitherto only half assented, born as it is from anxious patients trying to be seen by a GP sooner than it is possible to be seen. The receptionists at my local practice are unimpeachably professional and as efficient as you could hope for.

The receptionists at a certain north London practice, on the other hand, as bitter experience has recently taught me, do not seem to have grasped the fact that when people call them up, it is not necessarily to exchange badinage but, at the very best, because they are not feeling well; and that it is not advisable to try to crack wise with someone who has been a widow for about half an hour, and then, when the conversation is not going as swimmingly as you hoped it might have done, to hang up on her. (And, when the widow’s son, eg, me, calls up to resume the conversation and help it progress, to say “yeah” in such a manner as to make him, eg, me, say, “Don’t you yeah me.”)

For on top of the immediate shock, however foreseen, you realise that although that Beckett quotation applies to the dead, it most certainly does not apply to the living, because death results in a sudden and huge cascade of organisation, all of which requires several days to be kept free, and sorted out in a hurry; and most people don’t have all or, indeed, any of the details planned beforehand. It is all rather stressful. If I have ever entertained suicidal thoughts, in the Nietzschean manner (they get one through many a dark night, and so on), I abandon them now. Only someone who truly wished inconvenience on their nearest, or was too far gone in misery to think about the act, would go through with it.

As it happened, it all went as well as could be expected. The business is wholly discombobulating, rather like, as I expressed to my friend and colleague Mr Will Self, a drug experience absolutely without any of the good bits (and he concurred). But it turns out that my father’s heirs are capable; though I did have to take my younger brother to one side, as we shared a traumatic cigarette in the garden, and confess that I considered him probably more constitutionally attuned to the logistical side of things than me.

I think he rather liked it that I admitted as much. (“Say that again,” he said. It also helps that he has a wife even more capable than both of us put together, on our best days.)

Meanwhile, there are the realignments. Early days still. My mother, alone for the first time since the Macmillan administration, will be suffering the most. She is not the kind of person who will collapse in a heap, far from it, but neither is she made of stone. As for me, and leaving to one side my feelings at the loss of this most decent, honourable and big-hearted of men, let me just say how odd – both fitting, and unfitting – it was to sit down to Sunday lunch in the dining room, and to have it affirmed, as my youngest was setting the table, that my place was now at the head of it.

I’ll leave, as I started, with Beckett. From Malone Dies.

It is right that he too should have his little chronicle, his memories, his reason, and be able to recognise the good in the bad, the bad in the worst, and so grow gently old down all the unchanging days, and die one day like any other day, only shorter. 

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 07 January 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The God issue

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