My parents were married 60 years ago today; 2012 would have been their Diamond jubilee year. This crystal was a gift from us children on their ruby wedding anniversary, 20 years ago. The swans were my idea, because swans are known to mate for life, and there was always a pair of swans nesting on the local pond when we were children. So although crystal is supposed to be for 15 years wed, they seemed delighted with their “thank you” gift from their “cygnets”.
My parents were not the kind of couple to have a big extravagant do for their ruby wedding. Instead they had a simple celebration at home, in the house where they had held their wedding reception 40 years earlier, and subsequently raised their 3 children. Their closest friends and relatives gathered for the party, some of whom they had not seen for years. It was a very happy occasion. Dad showed that he still had a romantic side by presenting Mum with this gold and ruby ring:
Their anniversary fell on the Sunday of the August bank holiday weekend, and late that night after all the guests had left, Dad tried to persuade me and my partner to stay the night. We declined, with cats to feed at home and plans for our Monday off work. As Dad said goodnight and turned to climb the stairs, it occurred to me that I had never seen him look so utterly exhausted; too tired even to stay and wave us off from the doorstep as he usually did.
The following morning, even more unusually for him, he stayed in bed, suffering from angina pains. Concerned about exceeding the recommended dose of his pills, he phoned the doctor. Being a bank holiday, the family doctor was away, so he spoke to a locum who advised him to take some more pills. Mum took him a cup of tea and the crossword and left him to recuperate. When she checked in on him half an hour later, she laid a hand on his sleeping forehead – and touched stone cold, lifeless flesh. It wasn’t angina. He had been having a heart attack, and it had taken him away from us at the age of 79.
For Mum and for us, of course, the shock and grief were terrible. 20 years on, the grief still remains. Mum was devastated. The swans metaphor didn’t seem such a happy one now: when one of a pair dies, the other often pines away. Mum was far too strong a person to let that happen, but she was never the same after his death. She followed him on the same bank holiday weekend 9 years later. A memorial bench to them both now stands overlooking the pond where the swans used to nest.
For Dad himself, though, he had the best death. I don’t think he would have wanted to go so soon, but I do know that he went in the manner he hoped for. His brother John, who at 2 years younger than Dad was the closest of his siblings to him in age, had died suddenly of a heart attack 10 years before. Dad told me at the time that he hoped to go the same way: suddenly, without warning. What he couldn’t have foreseen, though, was that he would slip off peacefully the day after enjoying a big party with all his oldest and closest friends and family around him. A committed atheist ever since his youthful rejection of Catholicism, he had no need for belief in any afterlife. He once said to me that you should do the best you can with the life you have, but when it’s over, that’s it, you simply no longer exist. And being a humble man with no ego to speak of, he was quite content with that. This epitaph by his beloved Robert Burns, which one of his surviving brothers read at his funeral, could not have been more appropriate:
An honest man here lies at rest
As e’er God with his image blest;
The friend of man, the friend of truth,
The friend of age, and guide of youth:
Few hearts like his, with virtue warm’d,
Few heads with knowledge so informed:
If there’s another world, he lives in bliss;
If there is none, he made the best of this.
Sorry to tell you this, Dad, but you do live on 20 years after your death: in the hearts and minds and memories of those of us who were lucky enough to have known you. Happy anniversary.