Archive for the ‘A bit deep’ category

Losing someone

June 7, 2012

A few months ago now, a wonderful man left this life. He was an honest man, a kind, generous and loving man. He was the kind of man whom people easily befriended – to most he was ‘Tommy’ and to some; ‘Tom’. To my mum he was ‘Tony’, and to me he was… Dad.

Integrity ruled his life and so shaped my own view of the world. He hated dishonesty, reviled deception and loathed criminality. More than a good man, he was a great man, and didn’t care if nobody ever said so. But he was a great man nonetheless.

I could write for hours, days and weeks about him. He would almost certainly not approve – brevity was one of his watch words. So in his honour and after his style of being , I will follow his example and keep this as brief as my still sorrowful heart will allow. Elsewhere I will put into words the bigger story.

Dad, nobody is perfect but you were so much more than you ever allowed yourself to believe. You suffered such indignity in your final years, months and weeks of life, I am immensely relieved that you were spared the conscious knowledge of any of it. In my mind and heart you remain a strong, dignified and utterly honest man and your peaceful slipping from this world was as much as I could have wished for on your behalf.

You are gone now, but I see your face every day in my home, smiling in that very special way of yours. I remain proud to call myself your son, and shall always be so. These words are not the end of my conversation with you because your memory shall always be within me. Love, like your memory, endures.

Thank you, Dad. Thank you.

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A life slowly drawing to a close

May 31, 2011

My father, Thomas, is slowly slipping away from this life. At the age of 81 he has succumbed to the wicked onslaught of Alzheimer’s syndrome and has lost the battle for his memories and his cognitive powers. Tragically, cruelly and horribly, he has been systematically stripped of his ability to communicate and function in the everyday world. My dear dad has become what amounts to a mere husk of the man I knew, and it is too late for me to ever know him better than I do now.

He has always been a quiet man who greatly valued his privacy and who used his words sparingly unless his passion for an issue was aroused. Now he is a quiet man for an entirely different reason, one over which he has no control.

I don’t – and didn’t – know my dad very well other than as a ‘dad’. He was the kind of man who always did his duty and always did the right thing. He was brought up in a tough place and time, in a household seemingly very short on overt care or love, and as a result he found it hard to be effusive with his own children. He would usually give a wry sideways smile when a laugh was appropriate, speak softly when others would shout. Not a man for being demonstrative, my dad, but I loved him nonetheless because he was my dad and I knew he loved me.

I have never got to know him as I would wish. I would love to know about the young ‘Tommy’, as he is known outside of our family. I would dearly like to hear about the scallywag he seems to be in any photographs of his younger years that I have ever seen. The little snapshots I have had of him in those days tell me that he would have been a pleasure to have as a friend. I know, for example, that when stationed in Ceylon (as it then was) during his Royal Navy days, each week he put his hand in his pocket quite literally to help a local workmate support his family after hearing of the pitiful wage he was paid. My dad wasn’t making nearly enough money to give any away, but he did so regardless. What a man to look up to.

Despite many questions, he has never spoken freely about his life and has always – rather frustratingly I must say – seemed reluctant to share his memories. In doing so he has taught me a valuable lesson about being a father and I am very aware that my own kids must not know only the man they know as their dad – there is so much more to who I am and they deserve to know about all of that. There is no way for me to know my father any more than I do today, and I am resolved not to pass on a similar unfortunate legacy. My kids must know who I am  and who I was.

In later life Thomas has been an utterly devoted grandfather to my nephews and nieces as well as my own children. Indeed in the presence of his grandchildren he would positively light up and his true self would come to the fore. He would delight the youngsters with songs, sounds, funny faces and games. In his seventies he would still painfully ease himself onto the floor and become a silly, loving and deeply loved ‘grandad’, the man whom so many younger members of our family remember now as a kind, thoughtful, loving and playful old man.

Those are among my own favourite memories of him, together with being under the bonnet of the car on many occasions while he skinned his knuckles (my dad could accidentally break his skin performing almost any task!) and swore softly, digging up the hundreds of pounds of potatoes he was so proud of more than thirty years ago, watching him light a garden rubbish fire, or being taught to drive with barely suppressed nervousness. He was widely read despite claiming repeatedly to be ‘thick’, and in the confines of his own home was never shy to voice his opinion about topical events. A devout catholic all his life, he would exercise his wonderful tenor singing voice in church, but never considered himself worthy to join a choir.

His life changed when the angina he had been concealing from everyone for years finally caught up with him and one day brought him almost literally to his knees. The brutality of the medical intervention which followed directly affected his memory and to some extent his personality, and he was never the same person again. In his latter years this once immensely physically strong man has become both mentally and physically frail and vulnerable, and increasingly dependent upon my mother. Over the last two or three years my family has watched Thomas the man slip further and further away as Alzheimers has ravaged his personality and faculties. Living thousands of miles away I have been shielded from much of this slow decline, however seeing him only infrequently has meant that each time I visit, his inevitable deterioration has come as a shock.

Seven months ago I paid my most recent visit, after my dad had been admitted into full time care, my exhausted mother finally having no choice but to ask for the help she so desperately needed. Dad had rapidly declined in the prior six months and had experienced at least two strokes – maybe more. I found a man seemingly near the end, physically frail and unable to comprehend conversation, unable to form sentences. At least he recognized me and my children, the look on his face as he saw us approach being something I will treasure in  my memory always.

Seven months ago during that visit I held my dad for what was probably the last time. It was planned to be so – we all feared that his end was near and that this was our (mine and my children’s) last chance to see him before he passed away. Not knowing if he fully understood what I was doing, in the confines of a small quiet room I held my dad, told him how much I love him, and said goodbye for what I believed was the last time. I do think he understood a little of what was happening, and that is harder to bear than if he had not known.

My dad is still with us today, another stroke seemingly weakening him further last week. He is less and less responsive as time passes, but the agony (of watching him slip further away little by little) which my mum and brothers and sisters endure is not shared by me in all of its intensity. Of all the ways there are to ‘go’, being taken slowly by Alzheimers, drifting away with a decreasing awareness of reality seems like a peculiarly sedate way to do it. My dad, my brave, strong dad, has always been afraid of dying and through the progression of this disease he has been spared the terror of an approaching end, something I am very grateful for.

He has no pain to battle with, no terror to plague his dreams. Life seems to be a dream for him right now, and I am comforted that his terror has been taken away from him, even at such an expense.  He may continue to hang on to life for months or even years – we cannot guess accurately. I know he is slowly dying and I neither wish for a quick end or more time for him – I don’t know which is best. Time seems to not mean anything to him any more, and I feel that he is not experiencing a drawn-out final time of his life, in fact I doubt that he is even aware of the approach of what is inevitable. What will be, will be.

Thomas Anthony Simmons is a good man, a quietly great and lovely man to whom I look up. He is not perfect and neither am I (who can make that claim anyway?), but I dare to hope that my own loved ones will remember me as I know I will remember him – with love and a smile. One day I may try to properly put into words who I experienced him to be, but for now I will continue to wait for him to find a peace I know he fully deserves.

Thank you dad, for always trying and for doing your best. I will always remain proud to be your son.

Is the answer really 42?

May 12, 2011

Perhaps it’s my stage of life or maybe it’s just that until now I have not been able to have this kind of clarity but over the past year or so I seem to have been thinking a lot more about the spiritual side of things. I was born into a Roman Catholic family and so as part of my upbringing I was taught about God and Jesus (and as a good catholic I was taught to always bow my head in deference when I spoke the name of Jesus), the virgin Mary and of course the devil (although rather curiously details on the devil were pretty vague) and heaven, purgatory and hell. I was brought up to believe that had I not been baptised when I was a baby, I would have gone straight to hell if I had died as an infant or any time afterward (the catholic concept of ‘original sin’). I was told that priests were celibate, women could not be priests, the pope was infallible, Catholicism was the one true original christian religion, contraception was evil and many, many other things which were sins. Like every other child I committed a great deal of these ‘sins’ on a daily basis, and so I lived in genuine fear of God’s wrath. As a result of this fear I prayed every night that I would survive to awaken in the morning – because on balance I rather enjoyed being alive and dying a sinner was terrifying.

I even had a regular regimen of prayers that I would silently say every night – five ‘musts’ that I had to recite each night before sleep, and which I truly felt protected me from death or some other punishment (horrible sickness) for being someone who sinned. You may be smiling at the naivety of a child now, but consider that this very genuine fear was with me well into adulthood – in fact up to and beyond the time when I became a father. I was a child and adult who, despite my fears, found it impossible to accept what I had been told without questioning all of it.

I was morbidly terrified of offending God yet I was unable to ask some serious questions about the preachings of the priests and the devout beliefs of my parents. Of course this is a well-trodden path however everyone’s experience is different. In my case (and now with the benefit of hindsight) I had always doubted that the world was so incredibly absolute as it was being described to me. So many things were so definite and not open to being challenged (it was sinful to do so) however whenever I found the courage to ask pertinent questions, the adults seemed incapable of providing a clear or understandable answer. Their responses to my questions seemed to always drift away into language that seemed designed to confuse – “living in the spirit” for example, meant nothing to me.

As I grew older I drifted away from church worship, and instead of attending every Sunday and on feast days (with special effort throughout lent) I kept my worship increasingly private, with more and more infrequent visits to the house of God. My inner wonderings grew louder and the reasoning of my childhood and youth forced its way to the forefront of my consciousness. One day in the late 1990s and for the first time in a very long time, I took my young son to a morning weekday church service (ostensibly because it was the right thing to do) while my wife stayed at home with our baby daughter (oh and yes both our children had been baptised!). As I sat in that tiny church in a small English town I was suddenly struck by how none of the rituals and beliefs really made any sense to me any more. The umbrella principle which applied to my feelings and which now governs my position was – and is – that religion is entirely a construction of human intellect. I’m not just talking about christianity either – my beliefs apply to theism in general.

The theist/atheist debate is enormous and potentially exhausting, but is in my opinion dominated by one word: evidence. There is quite simply, no evidence for the existence of any supernatural divine creator or other deities.  Now please hear me – I completely understand that followers of all kinds of religions neither require nor seek proof of their god or gods – I do get that and I respect that their position is one of faith. ‘Faith’ is sometimes described as belief without the need for proof, a quality which is usually regarded by the same people who express it as being something aspirational. Again, I understand that a very great number of people feel this way and that’s OK. I understand that many, many people find comfort in the thought that their god is protecting them. That’s great and I am happy for those who find their lives fulfilled by their faith and their perceived blessings. It just doesn’t make intellectual sense to me.

The simple truth for me is that there is no evidence of God. My christian upbringing taught me many rules for living in society, and it was very useful that way since I still live in a predominantly christian country whose laws were based upon christian values. I’m familiar with the rules and have no difficulty with almost every one of them, and I am happy to acknowledge that in that respect (organisation and control of society)religion works. For me, that’s where it ends – as an example christianity (or judaism) provides a very useful structure for an ordered society in my experience. In that respect, a good job has been done. On the other hand, I believe that religion as a worship device is built upon a false premise (that there is a divine being or multitude of divinities), and so I don’t agree with any religion’s theological doctrine. And that’s OK too – except I don’t get the impression that it is for anyone who is ‘religious’.

Atheism seems to be looked upon as a dark, evil and malevolent force, when in fact in its purest form it is, for me, simply an absence of belief in a god or gods. I present no threat to anyone’s faith and I have a right to put across my point of view in theological debates. I have a right to say what I believe, and I will not try to convert anyone. Those who therefore fear and attack my position are perhaps less solid in their faith than they would admit to themselves. And guess what? That’s OK too (apart from the attacking my position part)! I am very happy for everyone to believe in their gods but I will defend my right to not share in those beliefs and to be able to talk about that without being insulted, reviled or shunned for doing so. There seems to be a very strong ‘be like me or go away’ kind of approach both in the media and on the internet these days, and I happen to think that it’s very unhealthy and a great shame that such an attitude has prospered.

I am lucky to have the choice of living in a country where I can say that I believe that there is no god, and not fear any repression or punishment for doing so. I am also, in my opinion and experience, lucky in another way. I have experienced religion as having been woven very tightly into my life, and I was a guilt – ridden, fearful child and man. I have left those fears behind, and I am very much happier for that. For example, I no longer fear that ‘God’ will make me ill for saying blasphemous things, or that I will die in my sleep for not saying my prayers. I don’t pretend to know everything about the universe or what (if anything) influences our lives, I simply know that there is no evidence to convince ME that any god exists. I believe that when I die, the lights will effectively go out and that will be that. I won’t meet my family and friends in any kind of heaven or hell because neither exists in my life. I don’t have to worry about committing sins that will condemn me to eternal suffering, however I know that I live in a structured society that has rules, and I will obey them because it is a very successful survival strategy to do so. I am therefore very lucky because I live in my world where the rule of law works and I and the overwhelming majority of people respect it, while for my mental well-being I do not have the dark cloud of judgment for eternal life hovering over me. Maybe, as Douglas Adams wrote; the answer to the ultimate question – life the universe and everything – really is 42, but I don’t believe that because there is no evidence for it either. The courage and audacity of the idea still makes me smile though.

Leaving behind religion has released me from a great deal of unfocused fear and unwarranted guilt. Becoming atheist has taken me to this place of acceptance, although there may be other routes (I hope that there are because if there is only one way to get here that would be rather sad and depressing!) and I wish this personal peace of mind for everyone.

I don’t need religious dogma to rule my life; I do good things because I enjoy doing so and I avoid doing bad things because to do so is negative and not productive as well as being a very destructive route to go down very quickly. I believe in loving and I believe hating is a destructive and wasteful practice with no positive outcomes. I believe in the human intellect and the amazing talent for invention and innovation that has taken our species to the point of being the dominant one on the planet (even if we have made some terrible mistakes getting here). I believe I am here on this planet to make the most of my life but beyond that I have no way of knowing if there is more than this life.

I believe I am free to believe these things, and you are free to hold your own beliefs. Enjoy!