In Memory of John William Winterson. June 18th 1919- December 29th 2009.
I am sorry the site updates are late this month – in fact it’s not all here, but I wanted to put in the column and the poem, and to explain a few things.
Soon after I got back from Paris in December my father fell ill in the kind of way that makes it clear that there won’t be too long left. Antibiotics had limited effect, he had already come through two small strokes, and for the first time he didn’t want his medication.
He was staying at a small nursing home in Accrington where he went soon after his second wife died last year. It is a very good place, and he liked it there, and I made sure he had outings in the week, and he still got to church on Sundays. I visited him there and he came to visit me in the Cotswolds, loving the countryside, as he had always done.
For the locals, an amusing site was me pushing him around in his wheelchair, which was fine until we got to a hill, and then I was bent double, hitting heart attack land, but somehow we always managed a few miles. His favourite thing was to buy flowers from those buckets that country people leave out. My memory of him will be carrying the flowers on his lap, along with the bread for the ducks, when we went down to the river.
I wanted him to come for Christmas, and it was a difficult decision because it was felt that he was too frail. But he really wanted to get here, and so we did it, and he flopped exhausted into his chair by the log fire, the cat on his knee straightaway.
On Christmas Eve, my ex-wife Peggy, (remember I am an ex-wife too, not an ex-husband), brought her adopted little girl round, someone she has adopted just recently, called Lucy. This is strange for me, and good too, because I am adopted, and I can see so much of the emotional territory played back again through Lucy.
I think Dad thought that Lucy was me at one point, but that I was me too, which made sense to him, and made sense to me too.
They sat by the fire watching Toy Story and eating fish and chips with their fingers, (my own fish and chips!). They were the same age (6) and in the same place. I was in the kitchen with the dog, listening to Handel’s Messiah, and preparing for Christmas Day.
On Christmas Day, Peggy and Lucy came to eat goose, which I like to do after the Queen’s speech on the radio at 3pm. At the end of the speech, as the National Anthem started, we toasted the Queen, and Dad tried to stand up. He couldn’t, of course, and I stood behind him with my hand on his shoulder, and he told us about the D Day Landings, and how they had no bullets and were told to use their bayonets. He killed six men face to face that day. I’ve got his medals. But it’s no wonder that he found it hard to stop fighting when he came out of the army. He had a rough tough life, first in the Liverpool docks, then in the army, then as a man for whom there would be no opportunities. He did factory work all his life, but what he loved was to walk for miles out into the hills. He made my mother clay ornaments that he fired in the kilns in the factory.
It’s well known that I left home at sixteen. It’s well known that Mrs Winterson died in 1990, and that she and I were never reconciled. Only much later, well into his second marriage, did I begin to repair things with Dad.
But we did repair them.
I am sorry it couldn’t have been sooner. I am sorry about many things. But quite a lot of me was locked off for survival reasons, and bit by bit that damage has been unlocked, and I have been able to do things I didn’t even want to do; like love my father.
When I look at my life I realise that the mistakes I have made, the things I really regret, were not errors of judgement but failures of feeling.
So here’s the picture of Dad in the 1940’s, and here’s me, in the 1960’s. And here’s this strange one of us on the beach in Blackpool, where there aren’t any other people. It was probably February and Mrs W thought it would be character-building for me and Dad to go swimming.
What I’d like to say, without lecturing or presuming, is that if anybody reading this is estranged from, or fighting with, someone who has been significant, a parent, a lover, a child - you will know who - then try and find the emotional space, gently, gradually, without force or artifice, to start to repair the damage. No one knows when death comes – it could be you, it could be me, and no one wants to weep tears of bitter regret; tears of sorrow are enough.
If the place of love is dead or filled with anger, start there, even if you are completely justified in your anger, start there.
And if anybody has a chance to see someone they may not see again – do it. Seeing Dad at Christmas was a move of instinct over commonsense. He shouldn’t have travelled, but it was so important that he did.
At night I made him a bed in front of the fire, and the dog lay beside him and the cats on top of him and the fire burned low through the night. On Christmas night I came down about four in the morning to look at him because I didn’t think he’d last. His breathing was shallow but the animals were easy, and animals always know. I sat for a bit by the dying fire with my dying dad and cried some of the tears I should have cried a long time ago.
I don’t blame myself or reproach myself, we can only do what we can do and trust the time. But I feel like someone who has gone through a curtain into a world just like the world on the other side of the curtain except that this one isn’t black and white.
My thinking has never been black and white – it is highly differentiated, but my feelings have been black and white – love or not love, in or out, care or don’t care. Very Old Testament, Like Mrs Winterson. I freed my mind from that place, but not my emotions.
Over these last 2 years particularly, and this half year especially, I have discovered differentiated feeling, and so everything has changed.
This has been the hardest, but the most important, time of my life.