protodad

first there was dad
then me
although obviously
that’s mad
because dad had a dad
his dad a dad before that
in fact
a shit load of dads going back and back
to – WHAT, exactly?
something slimy n’straggly
finning with a screech
ever so slowly up the beach
overcome with emotion
at this unexpected locomotion
sometime around the Cambrian explosion
without the least notion
what made it think to leave the ocean
and what the fuck it was doing there
wheezing in the sultry air
bug-eyed and staring
in the brutal sunlight glaring
wondering what the hell it was facing
in the bushes bordering the river basin

and let’s say you were cruising
in that bougie time machine you’ve been using
and your cameras all zoomed in
there’d be no disputing
between the scientists in attendance
an unmistakable family resemblance

sunday bonfires

I opened my eyes
and to my surprise
there stood Dad
nodding and smiling in that way he had
plus a few added extra spectral moans
cos he was twenty years dead and mostly bones

‘Ere we are again! he said. Happy days!
scratching his pate with a coupla phalanges
How are you doin’ Jim? Tell me – how’s tricks?
Anything a stiff like me can fix?

I sat up in bed and rubbed my eyes
‘Well – Dad – I said – what a lovely surprise
but I’d be lying
if I said your visit wasn’t trying
I mean it’s hard with you flying
around the place
it hardly makes
for a restful scenario
but that being said – how the hell are you?

I’ve been worse
dying’s the curse
of the living classes
lately I’d be hard put to tell you where my arse is
added to which I’ve lost my glasses
but even if I found ‘em
I haven’t got ears to hook the frames round ‘em
[but then he turned sharply;
looked at me darkly]
Mark me!
Pity me not, but lend thy serious hearing
To what I shall unfold…

whoa! just a goddamn minute I said
quickly sitting up in bed
Why the dramatic shift in gear?
Why’ve you suddenly gone all Shakespeare?
You’ve got to wonder how it looks
You only ever read gardening books

Mark me!
My hour is almost come,
When I to sulph’rous and tormenting flames
Must render up myself
and you know that’s bad for my mental health

Dad – I hate to say this
but you know I’m an atheist?
which is awks
all this talk
of purgatory and damnation
well – it’s an interesting situation
and not that I’m calling you a liar
but …c’mon… really? … HELLFIRE?
What did YOU do that was so terrible?
your only crime was overcooking vegetables

You’re right, Jim!
This is way too grim
I’ve been hoodwinked! Hypnotised! Taken in!
This is what happens
when you die and time slackens
and you’re prey to religion and gothic fashions
Just imagine!
Surrounded forever by ghouls and ghosts
with apocalyptic monotheistic guff to promote

So – what’s it REALLY like then, I said
Tell me what it’s like being dead.

Well, Jim – d’you remember as a toddler, kneeling
quietly by the window on a Sunday evening
as I worked in the garden, shadows deepening
threads of smoke through the darkness weaving
invoking a sharp and poignant feeling?
well THAT’S what it’s like, but 24/7
and whether that’s hell or whether that’s heaven
is a completely different kinda question

And with that he vanished in a cackle of smoke
And I fell back asleep and when I awoke
completely forgot the words he spoke
(mental note: keep a pad by the bed
or shit like this goes out of your head)

reincarnation

brains
notoriously difficult to explain
funny-looking, spongy contraptions
buzzing with neuro-chemical interactions
like there’s something galactic
fizzing in the attic

quite what all this means I don’t know
I mean do YOU know where memories go?
when you’re alive it’s weird enough
your head filled with echoey stuff
but what about when you’re dead?
do the memories go somewhere else instead?

maybe they go into everything else
when you’re laid to rest and your brain slowly melts
it might explain the other day
when I went to visit dad’s grave
carnations singing invitingly
frank sinatra: come fly with me

calling time

There was derelict ground at the end of our street
where the print works social club used to be
its pavilion fallen in, everything decayed
all the best stuff robbed away
but we managed to salvage an umpire’s chair
for some reason still standing there
rusting by the tangled nets
like the last of the sunny afternoon sets
ended a hundred years ago
and now only rain passed to and fro
and the only umpiring left to make
was which kind of weed would be next to break
up through the broken tarmac surface
while the developers slowly completed their purchase

Dad put the chair at the back of our house
so when he was digging he could take time out
sit with a tea, survey his work
the vegetable kingdom of the printer’s clerk

twenty years later, mum’s gone, too
and there’s an awful lot of clearing to do
at the end of the garden I find the chair
the woodwork gone, the ironwork bare
and I see Dad sitting on it, sipping his tea
quietly scrutinising me
and I wondered whether he’d approve or not
all those years of digging – for what?
a realm of brambles, nettles, shrubs
his son in a hat with croppers and gloves

but all things pass – gardens, courts
the Fens were reed beds once of course
and before that – dinosaurs called to each other
across the shining river delta
and further back, before this world,
before the formless pattern of chaos unfurled

and in my mind Dad is there
watching it all from his umpire’s chair

I stand for a while, the garden stripped
then toss the bones of the chair in a skip

ghost dad’s good advice

so there I was
relaxing in my crocs
wondering if there were biscuits in the box
when someone knocks

I thought it was Amazon
but when I opened the door
who d’ya think I saw
come to visit me once more

that’s right – GHOST DAD!
he said: how’s it going Jim
as I stood aside to let him in
accompanied by demonic violins

he said: sorry about that
I can’t do nothin’ about the music
it gets me right in the whatsit pubic
and to think they think it’s therapeutic

I have to say he looked the same
which given he’s been dead a while
is a triumph of spirit over style
but he was nothing if not versatile

he hovered in the kitchen
and said – how are tricks
his smile the fragile side of fixed
you’d expect from essentially a pile of sticks

not bad – thanks for asking
I said as he drifted
and every jar and box lid lifted
and all the contents critically snifted

and once again
I thought as I watched
our relationship had gone up quite a notch
ever since his operation was botched

so – Dad – is this a social?
an other-worldly good morning?
or are you performing
some vibey, beyond-the-grave kinda warning?

always with the drama!
he said – then suddenly twirled
screaming like a demon from the underworld
his cloak embarrassingly unfurled

impressive I said
as he slowed and stopped
and his lower jaw dropped
and I had to bend down to pick it up

I helped him slot it back
he said I’ve been working on some killer moves
but I still haven’t really found my groove
I s’pose I’ve got eternity to improve

I said no no I thought it was great
really dynamic, quite impressive
surprisingly expressive
the screaming maybe a touch excessive

thanks he said that means a lot
I remember you used to study drama
rolling around in fancy pyjamas
off yer nuts on marijuana

guilty I said that was totally me
but it’s been a few years
I never managed an acting career
it’s an awful lot harder than it first appears

he said everyone’s got regrets
(lidless wink, lipless smirk)
particularly when it comes to work
I mean – look at me – office clerk

I shoulda really been a builder
that would’ve definitely suited me better
righting ladders not writing letters
but often life brings other pressures

you’re not wrong I said
well, he said, that leads me neatly
to the message I’m to give you discreetly
which is LEARN TO TRUST YOUR HEART COMPLETELY

nice I said that’s really sweet
(to be honest, this was all a surprise
previously the closest we’d gotten as guys
was crying with laughter at Morecambe & Wise)

now he said my time is up
he held out a hand for me to take
and even though it was a gentle shake
the arm came off with a dusty break

don’t sweat it he said
using the arm to point at the ceiling
no hard feelings
these phantom limbs are all self-healing

and with that he was gone
in a cloud of fog and screech of strings
and though the visit was interesting
it didn’t help with anything

the mysterious case of the disappearing gardener

I think I was maybe nine or ten
watching Scooby Doo
I’d spent some time in the garden
tidying the lawn or trying to

I’d found Dad’s edging tool tricky to use
so the line ended up pretty scraggy
it looked like something Scooby would do
on a pogo stick chased by Shaggy

when Dad got home he was PROPERLY mad
marched in, turned the TV down low
‘Which one of you kids is responsible for THAT?’
he said, pointing out of the window

he asked us individually, one by one
there were quite a few, you know
and when in the end it came to my turn
I shook my head and said ‘No’

that was it, as far as I remember
the villain was never revealed
Dad had a flaming kind of temper
but like the lawn it healed

fifty years later mum lives alone
I’ve come to tidy the garden
everything’s wild and overgrown
the edges much less certain

dad comes back (I know, right – AGAIN?)

as usual he appears with fluorescent flair
yaahing & woo-hooing down the stairs
a halo of ghastly green worms for hair
waving his shroud emphatically
a little melodramatically
it seems to me
especially
as I know he was buried in a suit
but maybe he hired the shroud for the shoot
maybe there’s an undead outfitters
called Zombie & sons, or Just Jitters
I’ve really no idea
I’m getting off-point here
which is
witches
ghouls and vampires and such
none of that bothers me all that much
but ghosts have got my attention good
since dad landed back in the neighbourhood

‘Jiiiiiiiimmmmmmmmeeeeeeee’
he wails to me
waving his arms unconvincingly

Okay, okay
I say
Let’s just drop the LOOK AT ME I’M SO DEAD act
I think I can take it as a flatline fact
since I saw you unplugged in ITU
(the scariest thing I saw anyone do)
so you can save the sulphur
sit on that sofa
and rest your mouldy old bones a minute
as far as hauntings go I’ve reached my limit
rest, rest, perturbed spirit
maybe it’ll make for an easier visit

and to my surprise
he complies

so – tell me – dad
this may sound mad
but what’s it like being dead?

he scratches his shiny head
lovingly examines his
long white phalanges
then smiles at me
and carries on more conversationally

S’okay he says
it’s had a bad press
are the hours good? yes
there’s very little stress
so unless
you’re under some kinda spiritual duress
or feel the need to confess
or maybe impress
the need for vengeance on someone who’s transgressed
I’d have to say, for me at least, it’s been a success

hey!
I say
that’s nice to hear
but – to be clear
why are you here?
if death’s such a doozy
why d’ya treat the place like a goddamn jacuzzi?
jumping in and out
waving your arms and legs about
lots of steam
see what I mean?

well, the metaphor’s a mess
but I guess
I can see where you’re coming from
and judging from
your current demeanour
I think you’d be keener
if I dropped by a little less often?
but then – wouldn’t I be forgotten?

no – no, you wouldn’t
so I shouldn’t
take that as a reason for haunting
continued contact I’m fully supporting
just not with all this phonus balonus
maybe you could phone us?
or skype?
or a text if you can type?
alright?

alright! he says
yes!
you’ve made your case!
I was never any good at face-to-face
but promise me I can swing by soon
anytime there’s a blood red moon

so I say naturally dad, of course
when suddenly he rises with the force
of a Marvel special effects team
and roars off with a chilling banshee scream
and the ceiling rends and ripples
and the hissing cat’s hair bristles
and the lights all surge and pop
and dogs in the street all howl without stop
and the curtains snap and whip
and the carpets ruck and rip
and the chairs all flip
and I’m sitting trembling saying what the shit

then a moment of silence

the sound of distant sirens

then I hear dad whispering so low I almost miss it
sorry Jim – couldn’t resist it

dad’s ghost

Dad’s ghost came to me again last night
which doesn’t sound quite right
like ‘Dad’ is one kind of entity
and his ghost exists independently
gliding around silently
like those ROVs
you sometimes see
nosing around in documentaries
exploring the furthest depths of the sea
smoothly & stealthily
and maybe
in that analogy
the wreck it illuminates so spookily
is me

stressful deliveries

Ken has been sent home to die. It says so in the discharge summary, once you get past the medical terminology, acronyms and abbreviations. And if the End of Life description in the narrative isn’t clear enough, they’ve packed him a bag of ‘Just in Case’ medications, or JICs, the medicines the District Nurses will administer to ease the symptoms of Ken’s death. So really there’s no question about it.

It’s worrying that there doesn’t seem to be a ReSPECT form, though. (ReSPECT being yet another acronym, standing for: Recommended Summary Plan for Emergency Care and Treatment). The form clarifies the treatment expectations for a patient, including when they’re approaching end of life. The form gets filled in after a frank conversation with the patient and their family, exploring what they want to happen, what’s important to them, how and where they want to be treated, especially when things deteriorate. Without it, you’re left tiptoeing round the edges of an emotionally fraught subject, to no-one’s benefit, not least the patient. Good End of Life care needs clarity, honesty, stability and forward planning. Without these things it often deteriorates into last-minute fixes, stressful appeals, unnecessary hospital admissions.

In this case, not only is there no ReSPECT form, but neither Ken nor his son Simon seem to have the least clue what’s going on. And if they have been told, the best you could say was that it hadn’t sunk in.

‘What are these?’ says Simon, shuffling through the JIC boxes like a poker player with a bad hand. ‘What are they for, then?’
‘Those? They’re …erm… for a little bit further on. If things change. The District Nurses will talk to you about those. They’re the ones who’ll be giving them, so you don’t have to worry. I’d put them in a cupboard out of the way or something.’
‘Nah. I’ll put them up here,’ he says, stacking them up in the middle of the mantelpiece. A grim talking point. ‘So what d’you need to know? Only I’ve gotta get back…’

You’d know they were father and son without being told. It’s not just they’re both bald, with the same roughly-chiselled head, the same pinched nose and beak-like mouth. It’s something else they share, a startled watchfulness. But if they have the same essential character, Ken is the one you can see is mortally ill. His lips are dry, his eyes sunken, and there’s a dull, liverish pallor to his skin, like someone tried to sculpt a rough copy of the younger man in clay before it dried out.

Encouragingly, the house is roomy and clear, with plenty of space to make the necessary adaptations. There’s a large room immediately adjoining the living room that would be perfect for a hospital bed. All it needs is to clear away the card table and six chairs currently taking up the middle.
‘No. No way,’ says Simon, folding his arms. ‘He won’t want that. He’s got his own bed upstairs.’
‘The thing is, though, Simon, as your Dad’s illness progresses, he’s going to find it harder to use the stair lift. It’ll be much better and safer for him to stay on one level. Also, the hospital bed means he can be cared for more effectively than on his own bed. It goes up and down to the right height, so it’s easier for the carers to do what they need to do. And it’s got a pressure mattress to help stop him getting pressure ulcers.’
‘No,’ says Simon. ‘He won’t have it. He wants to have his friends round to play cards. How’re they going to do that with a bloody great bed in the way?’
‘They’ll think of something.’
‘No. It’s not going to happen. We’ll leave things as they are for the time being, thank you very much.’
He takes me upstairs to look at his Dad’s current bed. It’s a standard divan, standard height. Once Ken lands in it, the risk is he’ll be stuck there and then the carers will struggle to do personal care and change his pads in a safe way.

It’s a common problem. For each patient, of course, their situation is unique, a once in a lifetime event. They can only think about how it affects them; everything else is secondary. For the carers, though, it’s part of their working day. They see a lot of end of life patients. If the carers are to avoid a back injury, they need to be able to adjust the bed to a sensible working height – not to mention the facility to change the patient’s position, to sit them up or lie them flat as required. But it’s awkward to insist on this without making the conversation sound more about the carers than the patient. The trick is to have these discussions before the patient is discharged home.

As a nursing assistant I don’t feel I have the seniority to push the subject with Ken and Simon. Instead I make a mental note to escalate things when I get back to the office.

‘I can’t stay long,’ says Simon, showing me back downstairs. ‘I’ve got to get back to work.’
‘Oh? What do you do?’
‘I’m a delivery driver for a supermarket,’ he says.
‘How’s that going?’
‘Terrible!’ he says. ‘I thought it’d be a breeze but it isn’t.’
‘Why? What’s the problem?’
‘They know everything about you. They know exactly how fast you’re driving, how hard you step on the brakes. They know how fast you go round a roundabout. It’s all monitored by a computer, every second of the day. And if you make the slightest mistake they know about it. If you accelerate just a few miles an hour over the odds, ‘cos maybe someone’s coming up too fast, or maybe you’re overtaking and need to get past, or maybe you’re waiting for a gap to get out and you have to pull away a bit sharpish, because otherwise you’ll be waiting there till Christmas, and you’ve got all these jokers flashing their lights and leaning out of their windows calling you every name under the sun… I don’t know. I don’t think I’ll do it much longer. But the trouble is, there’s not much around. What else am I going to do?’
‘I don’t know. It’s difficult.’
‘Difficult? It’s impossible! The whole day you’re monitored. Like they’re sitting right there in the cab. With a clipboard. Saying Ah-hah!…TICK! …. Yep – Er Hmmm … TICK!… every time you do something they don’t like. And for what? Minimum wage? I don’t think so.’

He stares at me, unblinking, hyperattentive, a holographic version of the onboard computer.
‘Why can’t people just be reasonable?’ he says.
And I tell him I don’t know, but wouldn’t it be great if they were.

*

Later that week Ken deteriorates, and there’s the inevitable scramble to set up all those things it was obvious he needed from the start.
‘Where did they put the bed? I ask the carer.
‘Where the card table was,’ she says. ‘Which is great, ‘cos there’s plenty of room…’