Way To Go

There are quite a few photographs and they are good.

But words often spark more memories in me than photos do, so it’s important that I write down a few words, really just for myself, about Dad’s 80th Birthday Party which, as most of you know, we had about six weeks ago.  

I could do it privately and put the words in a drawer somewhere but this blog incites me to do my writing and to do it a little better. Besides, I like sharing my words with whoever cares to read them so this seems best, to me.

* * * *

I’m not usually the one who wants to celebrate anything. I’ll go along and I’ll generally love it but I won’t be the one pressing to organise it, to get it started. This time, though, I was right at the front of queue.  This one, I felt, was worth celebrating. Very few people, you see, had expected Dad to reach 80 years old.  There had been so much heart-trouble, so many operations, it just didn’t ever seem terribly likely. Yet here he was, smart and strong, independent and enjoying life more thoroughly than he had in many years.  It was something to celebrate for sure.

So, on the eve of his 80th birthday, we all gathered to eat.  “Let’s go to that usual place,” I said, “we all enjoy it and it will be perfectly fine.”  Some of the others wanted a bigger deal.  “That lovely place which overlooks the lake.  It’s a bit of a drive but who cares?  It’s an occasion.”  So we went there.  I’m so glad we did.  We had a private room, overlooking the lake.  The early evening was beautiful.  The fishermen in the group, Dad included, must have looked wistfully down upon the lake and the island and pictured themselves out there in their boats.  Even I did a bit of that and I was not one of the fisherman in the group.

The food was spectacularly good. If it was longer ago, you could be forgiven in thinking that I am viewing this evening now with rose-tinted spectacles but I’m not. It was only a few weeks ago and I remember it clearly.  That’s why I’m setting it down like this. So, yes, the food was very good. We had two tables in the room and there was much chatter and even photographing of each other’s dinners. That was new to me. In between courses, we went out onto the balcony to sniff the lake air and Auntie Della’s cigarette smoke, then we came back in for more.

At the end, Dad made a little speech. Can you believe the perfection of it?  He got to make a little speech. Nothing grandiose, he just thanked us all for being there and said how it meant a lot to him. Then we got pictures taken. He looks good in the pictures, happy that we’re all together and having such a nice time.  That’s what I think anyway.

We had started dinner early so, by eight thirty, we were on the road again, convoying back into town. The pub had set aside the entire rear section for Dad and his family for a few drinks and an open invitation, for anyone who cared to, to come and have a drink and say ‘Happy Birthday.’

They came in droves. People we see every day, people we hadn’t seen in years. Dad and Berney and Della set themselves up in a corner and sort-of ‘held court’ while wave upon wave of well-wishers landed, greeted, laughed and joked, remembered, then mingled among themselves and chatted and drank.

The pub laid on sausages and chips. If Jesus had them when that multitude showed up for his gig, he wouldn’t have needed any miracle. There was plenty to go around.  Soon the place was buzzing with friends and family, old work colleagues, neighbours, fellow-Rovers-fans and God knows who else.

Late in the evening, there was a big cake. It was a lovely cake. It showed Dad on his boat on his lake, wrapped up warm in his Rovers scarf, having hooked a friendly shark-like fish who was popping out of the blue water to wish him a Happy Birthday. The cake was much-admired then cut and enthusiastically demolished.  The noise levels got louder and then, eventually, quieter as the congenial evening slipped away from us. Dad enjoyed it all, his friends, the fun. I could always tell when he wasn't enjoying something, I always knew. He enjoyed this evening. He enjoyed it.

Sometime after Midnight, I had to go. I had to get back to my boys. Dad was still holding court in the corner, so I went over to see him.

“I have to go.  How are you doing?”

“Oh fine.  I’m thinking of going home myself fairly soon.”

“You should, you’ve done all you have to do now.  I’ll see you in the morning.”

It wasn’t the worst conversation to have had.

That’s all I know, first hand, until the morning.

I know he stayed a while longer. He needed to get a big black plastic bag to put all his presents in.  A bar man obliged. He brought them home and he and his daughters opened the presents and exclaimed over the thoughtfulness and kindness of people.

Then he got ready and went to bed, in fine form. He curled up and went to sleep.

And that’s how we found him in the morning. Curled up and asleep. Sometime towards morning, he had slipped away. He hadn’t been expected to ever hit 80, but, at midnight, he had. He'd done it so well we hadn't been expecting him to go.

I was glad I was there, that morning. Otherwise I never could have believed that somebody could die so peacefully. I would have thought there must inevitably have been some moment of pain or discomfort before you’d go. But I was there and there was nothing but deep sleep.  Deep sleep.

Even in the first moments of shock, I couldn’t help but think what a wonderful way it was to go. To see everybody, share a last meal untroubled by any foresight, get to tell everyone what they meant to you. Celebrate, socialise, make plans for a little trip in the days to come and then go home and go to sleep.

I’ll have it that way too, please, when my time comes.


The Yorkshire Puddings said...

yes, wonderful way to go Ken ... your Dad has such brilliant eyes, the joy of the gathering shining through..

RIP Ken's Dad xx

Ange M said...

So touching ad the way I'm sure we would all love to go...RIP

Pat said...

Hi Ken. The memory of that special birthday will last forever and will always bring you comfort. I felt honoured to read it. My mum died last year, aged 86. She was in hospital and, like your dad, just slipped away peacefully. My brother and I were with her, as well as her sister and my cousin. That helped a lot in the following weeks and months.

I have enjoyed reading all your blogs, but this one was very special. Thanks again. Best wishes.


hope said...

What a handsome, happy man I see smiling in that photo. I'm glad your family was able to enjoy such a wonderful night.

And like you, I've always thought that was the way to go...lie down for a nap and wake up somewhere spectacular.

Big hugs for you.

Anne Booth said...

What a lovely post and what a beautiful way to go. And how lovely that that last evening was so full of love - I hope that my own parents experience that feeling of being precious and cared for at the end. And, for that matter, I hope that for myself and all my family and friends.

seoirse mac enri said...

A nice gentle piece for a nice Gentleman, lost for words, hope things are good with you Ken GH

Richard T said...

Ken, I am sorry for your loss.

I'm not sure I could think of a more perfect "last night" - to have been shown so much love and friendship, to leave on a high seeing everyone smiling and having a ball, and then to go quietly in the night with no fuss.

I'd write more but the tears make the keyboard difficult to see.

Thank you so much for sharing.

Paul Carroll said...

I'm not going to lie, you made me cry a little. That was very touching Ken, and it couldn't have been more like a story if you'd tried. It's surprising how little we hear of people genuinely passing quietly in the night, and I'm glad you and your dad and every one else got that one last night to really enjoy it all.

Thank you so much for sharing that with us. Hope you're well.

Jim Murdoch said...

The romantic in me wonders if your dad didn’t just decide to go out on a high but the pragmatist won’t have any of it. I may not remember the date of my own dad’s death but, like you, I got to spend time with him a few days before his passing. He used to come a visit me in Glasgow every now and then on a Saturday. Blind though he was, he’d walk down to the train station and get the train in. I’d meet him and we’d bus it to my flat. Mum never came preferring to do the rounds of her charity shops. We never did much, just sat and talked or listened to the deaf guy from downstairs playing his electronic organ so loud you’d think he was in the room with us. The man wasn’t bad but he had a terrible habit of stopping tunes in the middle for no good reason that I could see.

I doubt there was anything extraordinary about that last visit but I do remember the last time I saw him. I escorted him to the door of the train and watched him find his seat, a side seat facing out. I waited until the train pulled away—there was no point waving—and then went home. I do remember thinking how pale he looked, sitting there, bolt upright staring into nothingness. And sad. Mostly, like me, he looked serious all of the time but in his last few years it was obvious that he had become taken over by sadness and regret. He had good reason to be—I’m not saying anything different—but if there is one thing about the man that stood out at the end was his determination to do his duty and not wallow in self-pity. It is, I’m pleased to say, a quality I’ve inherited from him. A few days later my Mum phoned me at about three in the morning to say that he’d had a fatal heart attack. “What are you going to do now?” she asked me, “Go back to bed?” “I don’t know,” I told her, “My dad’s never died before.” I didn’t go back to bed. I got dressed and was on the first train home where, as the eldest son, I did my duty, looked after my mother and made all necessary arrangements.

My mother had cancer and we were expected a prolonged—and painful—death but, as with my dad, I got an unexpected phone call telling me she was ill and I was needed. I don’t think any of us appreciated just how ill she was but as she refused to allow us to call her doctor we had little choice but to nurse her—the ‘we’ being Carrie and I (she called ‘Carrie’ her angel)—until she lost consciousness and I decided that enough was enough. I was on the phone trying to get through when Carrie called through telling me that she was going blue. Thinking back I actually saw her die but didn’t realise what was happening. So her death too was unexpected. But we were all relieved for her that it was a quick and seemingly painless end; it turned out she had pneumonia.

I don’t think much about death. Neither Carrie nor I are too young—either one of us could drop dead any minute—but despite the longevity that runs in her family I do expect her to go first taking into consideration her health and the fact she’s twelve years older than me. I won’t say it’s a fear but I’m always relieved when I crawl into bed in the early hours of the morning to find she’s still breathing so it must worry me more than I think it does. I can never settle unless I’ve checked to see if she’s warm.

Ken Armstrong said...

dordognedoings: Thanks. There's a little 'red eye' in the photo that I didn't notice before. Never mind, it's a good picture and it captures him very well, I think.

Ange M: Nobody wants to think too hard about going - not yet anyway - but this was the best departure I've ever seen.

Pat: Thank you. My condolences on your Mum. My own Mum died in similar circumstances some years ago. It's always difficult to recall. Thanks for reading and commenting, I appreciate it.

Hope: Handsome like me!! :) Thanks. x

Anne: It just felt like an evening of family and neighbourliness and nostalgia and that odd thing we Irish sometimes call 'craic'. It was great.

G: Thanks. What you did for me on the day will be long remembered. You know that. k

Richard: Thanks. The 'no fuss' point is well-made and one I perhaps neglected a little. He would have hated to make a fuss. That, too, made it ideal.

Paul: Tear in the workplace, mate? It just won't do. I'm good, thsnks, and thanks as always for dropping by in your busy day.

Jim: I love that you write such vivid and striking memories here. I feel like a curator of them. Thank you. I hope you both find each other warm in the night for many long years to come.

Chanel Babe said...

Thank you for sharing. There is so much beauty in the simple aspects of life -- celebrating a life as it begins and ends with peace and love. My sympathies to you and your family.

Anonymous said...

I found this via Twitter and having lost both my parents (fourteen and five years ago respectively) in much less agreeable circumstances, I found it comforting to know that (as Paul Carroll observed) some folk do go the way that I'm certain most of would choose if we were able.

My husband of nineteen years has yet to experience the loss of his parents - I can only hope that their passing mirrors your father's.

Thank you for sharing (and for the lump in my throat!).

Anonymous said...

I found this entry via Gigi and Damien on FB. I'm sorry for the loss of your dad, and so glad you have these wonderful memories of his last hours.

This month we are going to visit for the birthday of my dad, who'll be 83 and has many health problems. He is housebound and there are days when he doesn't even make it out of bed. Most of his contemporaries - old friends, colleagues, brothers, inlaws - are long since gone. Around his birthday each year, he starts with the advice that I should think about "popping off" before I get anywhere near his age. How I wish I were in a position to do something as wonderful as your dad's party to celebrate this birthday with him.

Condolences to you and your family.

Iamamro said...

Dear Ken,

So sorry for you loss.

What a wonderful post about a lovely gentleman.

Thank you.


Galilea Galilei said...


Thank you so much for sharing that with us.
It's absolutely beautiful on so many levels.
I'm very glad you got to have such a wonderful day with your father, and such a graceful farewell for him. Even if you didn't know at the time it would be. I think that the fact that you didn't know it would be gave it the more power. I guess that he felt that too and knew he could "let go"...
I know it won't make up for the loss, but those are memories to cherish that's for sure... :)

A very huge hug to you, dudeski!
You rock... :)

Jason Arnopp said...

If such a departure could ever be said to be perfect, this was surely it.

A beautiful night, beautifully documented.

Rachel Fox said...

One of the best endings I've ever read. Sometimes real life can surprise us in good ways (as well as bad).

Bella7 said...

It was a perfect way to go and yes, I'd like to exit with such perfect ease too. He was well loved. Lovely photo Mr Ken.

Anonymous said...

Thank you for sharing :) Just lovely xxx

Fles said...

Heart-breaking but beautiful - and, you're right, utter perfection.


shinester said...

I remember reading this before Ken, and it's as great a piece now as then. My Dad went the same way in 2010, at 84 and it was the best way to go. I gave him his dinner, as Mam was unwell, chatted and left him at 9.15, he was chatting to my young son about football and in grand form. At 2.10am I got the call. His chest was still warm. I was glad for him that it was a quick departure. My mother passed, aged 95, struggling to hold onto every breath of life in late January this year. She had been slipping away since he died, to dementia and the slow agonising 7 years in between were too sad to witness. She did not go peacefully in my opinion. I has learned to grieve for who she used to be, long before her death. I had already lost my Mam long before. She was still gentle and kind though. That was the core of her goodness.
Thanks for writing this great memory. You look very like your Dad.

Ken Armstrong said...

Thanks for your kind and thoughtful response. x Yes, I'm getting more like him every day, I think. :)