For my fa­ther, who never let go

Sunday Times - - Opinion - PETER BRUCE

Ihave to write this, even though I know I’ll be in tears be­fore I fin­ish. My fa­ther, Harold Bruce, died last month. He was 93. I am 65. It is a priv­i­lege, I now re­alise, to be my age and still have had some­one to call Dad. While he was Dad, I could still be a son, a kid. Now, out of nowhere, I sud­denly have to grow up and not just grow old. My dad’s fa­ther was born in But­ter­worth. His fa­ther was a car­pen­ter. My grand­fa­ther be­came a car­pen­ter too and moved to Mthatha and be­gan a small con­tract­ing busi­ness. It is where my dad was born and where I was born. We both went to the same school, Um­tata High.

I grew up more or less an only child. The huge fig­ure in our home was Harold. I only re­cently learnt he never ma­tric­u­lated. He failed Afrikaans, and in­stead of go­ing back he joined the Royal Navy and went to war in the Pa­cific.

When he came back there was no work, so he learnt car­pen­try from his dad. One of his first jobs was to build a steeple on a small church near Eng­cobo. He would tell me how his fa­ther had built him a model of the scaf­fold­ing he would need to erect to even get started.

I have lit­tle mem­o­ries like this all the time now. A year ago I never thought of them. I was too busy, wrapped up in the com­plex­i­ties of my own life. I had, any­way, spent much of my early life try­ing to get away from him. Par­ents!

But the thing I most re­mem­ber now is how he never let go. From East Lon­don he would call me con­stantly, in Lon­don or Bonn or Madrid, where I was learn­ing my trade as a jour­nal­ist. How are you? What’s hap­pen­ing? When will we see you again? He loved life and he loved to chat. No stranger was safe from his in­quiry. He’d bring al­most any­one home and play the pi­ano for them.

The day my wife and I left for an an­nual hol­i­day in Greece last month, Harold was taken to hos­pi­tal in Cape Town from Mon­tagu, where he lived. He’d had a very painful leg, the re­sult, it turned out, of a clot be­hind his knee. Eas­ily fixed.

When we landed in Lon­don the next morn­ing I got a call to say he’d had a brain haem­or­rhage and was in a deep coma. He wasn’t go­ing to make it. I took the first flight back to Cape Town. The man I saw in the ICU was un­recog­nis­able. His cheeks had hol­lowed and his breath­ing was des­per­ate. It was un­bear­able.

I held his hand. I kissed his fore­head. I tried to get my face as close to his as the tubes and ma­chines would al­low, so that some­how he might know I was there. I whis­pered to him. Thank you. I love you. This to some­one who had not once, not ever, let me go. I tried to thank him, but for what? For ev­ery­thing. Even now I can’t find the words. He died two days later.

I re­mem­ber think­ing, as I lay my head next to his, what a catas­tro­phe hu­man life is. Old age is hor­rific. Death is a mon­ster. I know most adults and way too many chil­dren al­ready know all of this. But when it’s your turn it still makes it hard to breathe.

A month later the gap in my life seems wider than ever. I think about him all the time. But the phone has stopped ring­ing. We should have talked about Kevin An­der­son, Cyril Ramaphosa, Harold’s knee. He’d call to re­mind me of ev­ery birth­day in the fam­ily. We grew closer the older he and I be­came. And the older we got, the louder we spoke on the phone, both his and my hear­ing be­gin­ning to fade.

I know other peo­ple cope with worse. I’ve had friends bury their own chil­dren. And my dad had a long life af­ter all. But how, now, to hold on to him, for all his faults? They say it gets eas­ier. Re­ally? Re­grets tear at me. For not mak­ing more time for him. For not lis­ten­ing more. I don’t want to for­get him for a mo­ment, not his mu­sic or his jokes or sto­ries, and least of all the sound of his breath­ing and the warm feel of his fore­head on my lips when I kissed him good­bye.

As a fa­ther my­self, how do I tell my boys how in­tensely I love them? I hope this doesn’t sound self-pity­ing. For your own good, try to be with your par­ents when they are pass­ing. I was so lucky to have been able to hold Harold in Cape Town. He had found God and I know he gen­uinely wasn’t afraid of death. But I am. I’m fright­ened the peo­ple I love won’t know it when I’m gone.

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