The Year of My Father’s Dying
On 18 October 2010 my father, Peter Campbell, was diagnosed with the cancer of which he would die exactly one year and one week later. I do not know precisely how he lived with the knowledge of his approaching death, what denials he practised or accommodations he reached, because he chose – once the oncologist at the Royal Marsden had handed down the death sentence – to live as much as possible as he had before. He continued to write pieces for the LRB and to paint its covers; he walked round London and spent time with his friends. He did not go on the internet to seek out miracle cures; that would have been out of character, and his character did not change.
My mother, my brother and I took our cue from him, and tried to do the same; to live as much as possible as we had before. Work took on new meaning; it guaranteed eight hours spent on tasks that had nothing to do with my father’s dying. But some time around six I would leave the office and the knowledge that had been kept at bay all day would be there again. I would walk, not to the tube station at High Street Kensington, a hundred metres away, but down through Kensington Square, with its tall, elegant townhouses, past the Builders Arms pub, where people smoked under hanging baskets of pink and yellow flowers, past the villas of Launceston Place with their ironwork balconies, to Gloucester Road station.
In this part of London, Filipino maids walk tiny dogs, the paintwork is fresh and the gardens are well tended, though not by their owners. Spick and span, these streets made me think of Mary Poppins, who, if she were to alight, would find nothing to complain of. Nothing except me, that is, because as I walked – it took 15 minutes – I often sobbed. In this interregnum between work and home, I was engulfed by the horror that was always there, but too dreadful to engage with more than glancingly. I walked briskly and purposefully, and so, though I cried with abandon, no one ever accosted me to ask why or to offer comfort. A middle-aged woman weeping is never an appealing sight, but I don’t know whether anyone noticed. If they did they may have guessed the truth, which is that even for the fortunate grief comes, and there is not much anyone else can do about it.
Living in the world I had entered on 18 October, I understood how pampered and oblivious I had been before; perhaps the most shocking thing about the emotional torture of the year of my father’s dying was how ordinary I now realised it must be. I sat on buses and walked down high streets, wondering how many others like me there were. Not only was this anguish normal, but my particular circumstances – I was in my late forties, and losing a beloved father who had exceeded his biblical span was beyond all measure the worst thing that had ever happened to me – were further evidence of my good fortune. This was what happened to lucky people. This was not just standard – this was the plan! What family wouldn’t opt to have its members die in the correct generational order having lived at least three score years and ten?
It was unbearable, but it had to be borne. So it was helpful to have the role to play of a functioning human who could still correct proofs, make a tomato sauce, nag a child about homework. Even when I was with my father, this odd sense of acting continued. We barely discussed his illness, and instead diligently impersonated the foolishly innocent people we had been just a few weeks earlier, and talked about books, politics, what was for dinner.
But there were times when this too seemed impossible and then I sought to block out the facts in any way I could. Sometimes reading worked, but at others words on a page seemed inadequate. Screens were better. I watched The Killing and after each episode tried to unravel the intricacies of the plot with a friend. Then there was the cinema, a whole industry built on the promise of escape, both literal and metaphorical. When I lived in New York, under a tar roof in a sixth-floor walk-up with no air conditioning, my roommate and I would spend August Sundays in chilled multiplexes, slipping from film to film, waiting for the weekend to be over. Another time, broken-hearted after the man I loved ditched me for a dancer called Virginia, I went to see what were then all three Star Wars films in one day. I wasn’t a fan, I just wanted, for a few merciful hours, to be in a galaxy far, far away.
There were also the art galleries my father wrote about. I saw the British Art Show at the Hayward in the spring of 2011. Christian Marclay’s The Clock was part of the exhibition.[*] After I left the show I immediately paid for gallery membership. Then, when I could, I went back, turning right at the entrance and heading straight for The Clock, the last piece in the show. I went ten times in all, seeing every moment from 10 a.m., when the gallery opened, until 11.10 p.m. during extended hours one weekend.
Described, The Clock could sound gimmicky: a 24-hour montage of film and television clips in which the time is spoken or seen, mostly on clocks or watches, but also on TV sets, microwaves, faxes, pagers, notebook jottings, on sundials and computers. Some scenes are intercut, the soundtrack from one carrying through into the next, so the effect is less fractured than you might expect. It is shown in real time: you will never see the 3 a.m. segments unless you find a 24-hour showing and are awake at 3 a.m.
A huge research project and an astonishing technical feat, The Clock is absorbing in a way quite different from most films. In place of plot and resolution, it offers constant, destabilising, mesmerising flux. Silent classics, TV miniseries, black and white films, foreign language films (unsubtitled) and mainstream Technicolor cinema rub promiscuously against one another. Sometimes the films are immediately identifiable; others you may be on the cusp of naming when the clip ends and you are in another scene, fifty years earlier, with different actors. Or you recognise actors, and their clothing offers clues, but before you can put it all together, The Clock moves on, and you are left feeling tantalised, vaguely on edge, alert. You try to pay attention and make sense of what is happening, but sense refuses to be made.
Like my life then. How can a person who has always been there be there no longer? The myriad versions of your father will continue to be housed in your memory, but his reality will be reduced to virtual. Human minds range over decades in fractions of seconds, but human bodies are trapped in time that moves inexorably in one direction.
The Clock bears witness to time’s perplexing elasticity. Bank heists requiring perfect synchronicity feature heavily, but so too do waiting rooms and diners where nothing is happening, and the minutes being marked by the hands of the clock on the wall take aeons to pass. It is egalitarian: there is probably as much Bruce Willis as there is Ingmar Bergman. One morning as I sat on a hard chair in the dark, Harriet Andersson, lying in bed, turned to look at the camera, agony written on her face in a way that struck me deeply, the more so once I had worked out that the film was Cries and Whispers, and she was dying of cancer. Actors recur. Here is Maggie Smith, youthful and copper-haired in The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1969), and here she is again, wrinkled and aged – the film may be Keeping Mum (2005) – not by make-up but by time itself. Other actors come and go, flashing past in their youth, their maturity, their grizzled age, just as images of my own father at different times and places flickered in and out of my head.
The man confined to the hospital bed in the room at the top of the wooden stairs used to skitter down those stairs in his stockinged feet; even falling now and then didn’t cure him of the habit. He is the young man from New Zealand in the photo taken on Wellington quay, with a pack on his back about to take the ferry to Picton to go tramping in the Southern Alps. He is the father saying ‘I think the children want a bun,’ meaning that he wants one, on a rainy-day trip to a stately home in Devon, in 1972 perhaps. He is incurring my mother’s irritation by getting marmalade in the butter, again. He is the little boy in the browning snapshot, wearing a one-piece swimming costume with shoulder straps, on the beach near the family bach at Raumati. He is the usually rational man who, pressed for the reason he will not let my 14-year-old brother and me watch Bonnie and Clyde, astonishingly says: ‘Because I don’t like it.’ He is in his forties, bashing croquet balls all over the pitch in a display of temper never seen before or after. He is going to a wedding with my mother, wearing absurd flares, and what hair he has long, in the 1970s when that was mandatory, even for balding men. He is the father I telephone in 1983, adrift in Australia, hoping he will urge me home to London, but who actually, bracingly, says: ‘I think you’re old enough to make up your own mind.’
The Clock is about time and its relentless passage, but paradoxically watching it felt like a way of halting it. Minutes in the real world are mirrored exactly by minutes on the screen. It is always now. There is no story arc, no sense of progress or closure, you are in a continual present, always just on the cusp of something happening.
As March turned into April, I would duck in for an hour and find myself staying a little longer, ten minutes, and then another ten. But always, when I stepped back out on the South Bank, the change in the light surprised me, because where I had been no time had passed: it had always been the present.
Here is Meryl Streep in Silkwood (1983), and here she is in The Bridges of Madison County (1995) and It’s Complicated (2009); the blue-collar whistleblower becomes the farmer’s wife becomes the sexy bourgeois divorcée. In my head, jostling with the images of the man my father had been, were images of the man he would not become. At 74 he still seemed young. His mental faculties were intact (Brains for Dementia Research, the recipient of his, confirmed that it showed minimal age-related deterioration). He would never be a confused old man, spots of tinned rice pudding on his jersey. Nor would he be the widower my mother had envisaged, when she – the one with the heart condition – engaged a cleaner for the first time at the age of seventy, so that when she died, he would not live in squalor and would make a viable candidate for remarriage.
Hopes and fears generate stories, but with death the stories end. In July, my father was invited to an art show in Sweden. ‘In another life,’ he said sadly, turning it down.
That was seven years ago. It’s a fairytale span of time, sufficient to complete a fantastical labour, win a princess, throw off a curse. Perhaps that accounts for the persistence of the myth that cell replacement means we become a whole new person every seven years. We don’t of course. I am not a new person, and it turns out that seven years is not very long at all when it comes to mourning a father.
Two months before he died we attended a friend’s book launch. Someone who had heard he was seriously ill came to me to say she was surprised to see him. What was the prognosis? I might have done the same before the lessons of that year, but now I’d know better. Don’t ask people with cancer or their children what the plan is, what the future holds. Not at parties anyway.
He’s here now. The past is a montage of moments in no sensible order, a jumble of images both vivid and banal; there is no future. As in The Clock there is only now, and now, and now, and now – one moment endlessly giving way to another.
[*] Now back in London, The Clock is showing at Tate Modern until 20 January.