We’ve had a fraught relationship over the years, my father-in-law and I. Many of his crappiest remarks have stayed with me.
Like the time he made the observation about my big backside while I was bent over, painting his pantry. Or when he made that hil-arious "What’s this muck?" joke when he was sat down at my table to a carbonara meal. Or his criticism of my 'strange' son who was reading. Or the quip about me being pregnant after I'd put on a few kilos. Or the ‘Big Deb’ nickname that allowed him to distinguish me from someone else of the same name. Or, after getting upset about it, him telling everyone that I couldn't take a joke.
But then he was diagnosed with cancer.
Parkinson's Disease had already laid waste to his muscular bricklayer’s frame. For a man who’d always been light on his feet and loved to waterski and ride bikes, not being able to command his feet to go in the right direction frustrated the hell out of him. He’d become locked in a battleship husk, requiring numerous small tugboats to steer him into port.
He decided not to treat the cancer.
It was the grace with which he made the decision that struck me the most. This was a man I would never have previously applied the term 'gracious' to.
During our visits, things gradually started to change. While the cancer slowly diminished his stocky body, we spent lots of time just sitting, talking or watching telly.
One day, he asked if I could help him identify a hymn that he was trying to remember from when he was about 19. He hummed the melody and whisper-sang a few of the lyrics. What is it about an old man with a farawar look in his eyes, humming so softly?
And then there was the laughter. Not knowing the right way to ask a dying man how he was going, we tried some awkward variations: “Are you having any symptoms today, Gramps?” Quick as anything, he’d come back with: “No, but I’m having cigarettes.” So we tried: “Hi Dad, how do you feel today?” and he’d say: “I feel with my hands.” Corny, yes, but we laughed, and clung to those moments like survivors on a life raft.
He killed me one day. We were alone and it was the last time we had a real conversation before he went into an eyes wide open, unseeing state half a week or so before his death. His voice was whispery and it was hard to hear him so I leant in close.
“When I’m alone, I sometimes howl over the regrets in my life. I could have been a nicer person.”
I sensed what he was saying but tried to be practical, "Would you like to speak to a minister?"
"No. They don't do me much good. But if every minister was like you, I would."
It was a moment I won't forget in a hurry. I kissed him on the forehead.
Choked up, I said, “I have to go now, Gramps. I’ll see you soon.” I didn’t expect what he said next and had to ask him to repeat it.
“I’ll race you.”
It wasn’t a bad attempt at lightening the mood and I was grateful to play along. Good luck escaping over those bed rails!
“Ready, set, go!”
Mere moments after the most emotional discussion I’d possibly ever had with anyone, he faked his own death just to get a laugh. He rolled his eyes into the back of his head and let his mouth sag dramatically open.
When a snort of laughter erupted from me, he opened his eyes and said: “Oh, you mean to the door?”
He passed away a bit under two weeks ago. With perspective, I think he wanted to play the clown and say unexpected things that would make people snort with his audacity and irreverence.
Like the time he was 18 and thrown out of the cinemas by management after asking their patrons whether he might assist them by de-bugging their seats with his trusty pump-action pest spray--Madam? Sir? He may have missed the movie but he got a few good laughs and made his point about the state of the theatre.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying he was a sensitive bastard but I like to think that we’d both learnt a thing or two about relationships by then.
He was a funny guy, but his jokes had often been at the expense of others and he had a way of alienating people. Maybe I’d react differently too now, if I could do it all over again…. And perhaps I’d throw him out on his ear when he crossed the line or laugh it off and not take myself so seriously.
In the end, he turned that humour on himself and salvaged the relationships that mattered to him while he still had the time. It’s all good now.