How My Father's Sickness Brought Back the Pain of My Childhood
After all these years and near-death experiences, I still can't have an honest conversation with my father.
Photo: Stu K Green
This article originally appeared on VICE UK.
My name is John Doran and I write about music. The young bucks who run VICE's website thought it would be amusing to employ a 47-year-old who can genuinely remember rock festivals before NOFX and Bowling for Soup were added to the bill.
In case you were wondering, or simply too lazy to use Urban Dictionary, "menk" is slang for a mentally ill or educationally subnormal person, and is a shortened version of mental.
MENK 71: End Up Like a Dog That's Been Beaten Too Much
My dad goes nearly three more times later the same week.
Despite several frantic trips up to the ICU at Whiston hospital, in between times, things settle into a weird normalcy. I go swimming in the mornings at Queens Park Health and Fitness public baths on Boundary Road in St. Helens. It's the only pool I can get to easily from my mom and dads by public transport. Every time I get in the pool, it seems to be full of ancient women, moms with infants, and young men who are either morbidly obese or look like cage fighters. There is one man my age who always seems to be there. He has very large tattoos of Padre Pio the stigmatist, Che Guevara, and Leif Erikson on his back. I spot a girl who I knew vaguely from my first ever local pub from the mid-80s. She is with a guy whom I presume is her partner—a tough-looking man in his 60s—and their young kid. Both adults in the family unit are covered in tattoos for punk bands like The Exploited and Demented Are Go. At all times there is a hits compilation from the mid-80s playing. After swimming, I wander around the big ASDA and get the food that mom and I will eat for the next 24 hours in between the two daily trips up to the hospital. Then I get the 10a bus back to Rainhill Bridge and walk through the village, curious to see how many faces from the past I'll recognize. But I never see anyone I know, having moved out of the area in the 1980s.
I'm enjoying cooking for my mom. She is delighted by everything I make for her, even when I mess it up slightly. Across Merseyside, this is a completely acceptable way of expressing your feelings for someone. No visit to your grandma's house would be complete without a plate full of freshly baked scones or some cookies. No visit to your aunty's house was really underway until the cheese straws and soda bread came out. No need to say anything, son, we all know what this means. Can’t express your feelings for family members? It's OK, just have this large plate of food. Go on, have some more cake, it's totally fine.
And now here I am, hands scrubbed, forming a little packet out of tin foil to put the two smoked salmon steaks in, blathering shit as I do it like I know what I’m talking about: "If you whack in some olive oil and a bit of rosemary from the garden, like this, and then fold it over, it forms an airtight metal envelope and the fish steams inside. Give it 14 minutes and it should come out nice and tasty. That'll give us just enough time to do some sweet potato scallops to go with it." It seems, finally, like a full decade whimpering on the couch, trying to hold it together during Saturday Morning Kitchen until the pubs opened, is finally going to pay off. My mom claps her hands together delightedly. Literally, all my dad will eat is frozen battered cod, frozen fries, and frozen peas or canned baked beans, so it must be a relief for her to occasionally eat with other people.
It's a wonder he didn’t die in the 1980s, the state of his diet, I think, but then feel guilty immediately. I can see the way he purses his lips and shakes his head saying, "Oh no. Oh no," when confronted with anything that disrupts his vision of how food should be served. Woe betide anyone in the pub who puts lettuce or coleslaw on his plate of fish and chips. You should have seen the fucking ruckus that broke out on the day I tried to take my parents to Nando's in Hackney, my dad staring at the menu like it contained a rotting shark fin, scorpions dipped in chocolate, and a plate of thousand-year-old eggs. So it's no wonder, really, that my mom treats my arrival home like she’s got a professional chef as a house guest. I try very hard not to play up to it, but it's hard, to be honest. I put my hand inside the shopping bag and pull out a pot with perhaps a little bit of a flourish.
"Oh, John! Olives!" she says, clapping her hands together again.
Today, I get the timing right and the fish is actually cooked all the way through the first time around, the salad is fresh and crisp with a light dressing, the sweet potato just right, the fresh tomato sauce I've made rich and spicy. And just temporarily, all tension and angst is banished from the house.
Later that day, back at Whiston hospital, the surgeon pops into the ward, and as we stand outside the private room he explains why my dad's not been moved to a general ward yet. Apparently, his heart stopped during the operation—not for long—but they had to get the cardiac team in. We are to expect wobbles at his age, the surgeon tells us. As soon as he walks out of the ICU, my mom starts with the spin: "It's amazing what they tell you nowadays! They really keep you in the loop. Not like when you had your eye surgery. No information beforehand! No information during! No information afterward! Just, 'He seems to be a bit distressed, we can’t have him shouting, upsetting the other children—here, have lots of morphine.' You probably don’t remember…"
Oh, I remember alright.
Adults in white coats opening the door to Hell ajar by a few inches and saying, "Take a quick peek in there. You like what you see?"
"It’s very lucky it happened in the hospital!" says my mom, pointing through the reinforced glass window of the door at dad, who is still attached to tons of machines. There is no end to the things she will regard as being lucky.
Once inside the room she rushes over to the bed: "Oh Kevin!"
I walk quickly past the pair of them as they form a bundle and stare intently out of the fourth story window at Merseyside laid out in all of its finery, trying to ignore the choked one-way conversation happening directly behind me. In the foreground is Dragon Lane where my girlfriend Caroline lived when I was 17. In the middle distance, the leafy and not-so-leafy suburbs of Huyton, Belle Vale, and Wavertree. Along the distinctive Liverpool skyline are the Alpha and Omega of northern Modernism. Giles Gilbert Scott’s Cathedral Church of Christ in Liverpool and Frederick Gibberd’s Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King, situated at either end of Hope Street. And behind that, obscured by the curvature of the Earth, Birkenhead, the Irish Sea, God's own country and the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, things seem to settle down behind me a little so I turn around to face them.
My dad starts to stir, his teeth gritting, voice gurgling, a noise like distant tiers on gravel feebly attempting to escape his throat.
"Lie back, Kevin! Lie back, Kevin!" shouts my mom. "You're alright! You're alright!" She starts fussing around him, plumping pillows and dabbing water onto his lips.
He couldn't have been conscious for longer than an hour, but—despite being warned that the worst might happen, and despite the fact that apparently the worst actually did happen momentarily last night—already, for him at least, the joy one might feel at still being alive seems to have worn off a little. He's getting agitated, trying to say something to my mom, but not managing to get the words out.
For what feels like forever, the sound of loose pebbles rattling around the bottom of an otherwise empty cement mixer eventually coalesces into the following whispered words: “Kill the fly.”
Bug-eyed, he’s staring at the blank hospital wall in front of him, index finger on his right hand, jabbing into the space in front of him while the index finger on his left hand beats a useless tattoo on his morphine button: “Kill the fly.”
My mom answers peering at the empty wall: “Eh? What?”
Dad sighs audibly before girding his loins for another painful attempt to express himself verbally: “Kill the fly.”
My mom is starting to flap a little, staring up and down the blank Magnolia-painted expanse in front of her: "What fly, Kevin? What fly?"
There is no fly, of course, just morphinous visual distortion. There are tendons of fury sticking out of dad’s neck like cables stretched between pylons, as he gargles through gritted teeth: “Kill. The. Fly.”
I remember the first time I had morphine, I was 14. My bedspread was covered in writhing luminous starfish, arcing rainbow-colored nematode worms, and there were neon skeletons walking through the walls, whistling merry tunes to themselves.
I take a copy of The Wire magazine out of my tote bag—it has the rock group Royal Trux on the cover—and roll it up tightly before thwacking it randomly against the wall with a loud slap, saying, "Here you are."
He seems to be temporarily satisfied by the way I’ve resolved the situation, and there is a hiss of air released from his mouth like a tire deflating. He sinks back into the bed and his eyes close.
Later that night, his heart stops again and the cardiac team are called back in. When his heart restarts, it does so at twice the speed. It’s going to take a lot of drugs to get him back to normal, apparently. Mom once more points out how lucky it is that this all is happening in a hospital.
The next few days roll past uneasily for me on a subsistence of modafinil, swimming, smoked salmon steaks from the fishmonger's counter at ASDA grocery store, and trips to the hospital, but eventually, somehow, he’s well enough to come home.
I have to admit that he is amazing, my dad. In his stoicism for the really big traumatic events that life throws at you he is amazing, at least. He gets through the whole experience of nearly dying three times in a week without complaining about it or even mentioning it once. I know when my time comes, if I have the misfortune of prior notice, I’ll be like a cross between Morrissey playing Hamlet and Willem Defoe at the end of Platoon. (Even my mom comments archly on his almost blithe acceptance of the last few weeks: “If someone he didn’t know had parked their car in front of our house he’d have a breakdown about it and I would be hearing about it for months afterward, but this? Surgery? Heart stopping? No problem… If it had been anything else… people walking too slowly in front of him in St. Helens, drivers not signaling for long enough before turning onto a main road, news reporters wearing brightly colored clothes, people in shops not being polite enough, people putting coleslaw on his fish and chips... but him nearly dying three times? No problem, let’s just get on with it shall we...")
I should have known it was time to go back to London the second he stopped heeding the hospital’s advice about resting. A few days of sitting around at home and he can’t stand the inaction anymore. I get up a few days later and he insists on driving me to the pool. I think it must be the proximity to him nearly dying that makes me forget my cardinal rule when it comes to my dad: Never get in a car with him under any circumstances.
I’d made this firm rule several years beforehand, after a particularly fraught 20-minute journey between Tottenham and Stamford Hill. I was left shaken by a series of completely unnecessary emergency stops that tested the functional integrity of my seatbelt and the strength of my clavicle; there was a tense and completely unnecessary stand-off with a car full of young black guys over who was going to reverse back up the street to give the others the right of way, then later a little bit of casual racism (literally no one knows how to drive in Stamford Hill—there's no need to bring the ability to read or speak English into it); quite a bit of casual misogyny; and me having to calm down my son, who was strapped loosely into one of the rear seats, mute but eyes widened with fear. (I was so angry that I didn’t even think about the race stuff for a couple of days later. I mean, where did it come from? He was—given when and where we grew up—what I would call remarkably anti-racist when I was a kid. My mom now has firmer ideas on the subject, though: "He used to be fine until he retired and started listening to talk radio.")
But I forget and get into the car with him, and the head-wrecking nonsense starts almost immediately.
“Look at this idiot” says my dad, nodding furiously at a man walking down our street wearing a green shirt.
We turn out of our estate and he sees a car turning onto the road at the other end and immediately slams on the breaks. I look at him, and without waiting for me to speak he hisses: “I have to be ready to react.”
At an intersection on Warrington Road he notices a driver waiting, indicating. He slows right down to about three miles an hour and immediately starts flashing his lights and beeping his horn: “Come on, missus! Come on, missus! COME ON YOU DOZY COW!"
The driver looks mortified and pulls out, and my dad tuts and starts speeding up again behind her. Less than a minute later we're in Rainhill village and the traffic lights on the pedestrian crossing outside the Victoria pub change to amber, so he performs another violent emergency stop. I already have whiplash and we’re only a fifth of the way to the swimming pool.
Ahead of us, at Rainhill Bridge, is a white van idling outside of a shop. The driver has his elbow resting on the wound down window. "Look at this idiot!" shouts my dad. "Waving his arm out of the window—HE’S GOING TO GET HIS ARM RIPPED OFF!"
As we drive past the van he shouts out of the window at the mystified looking driver: "DO YOU WANT YOUR ARM RIPPING OFF?"
By the time we get to the former grounds of Rainhill Psychiatric Hospital—which isn’t even the halfway point of the extremely short car journey—I’ve lost count of the number of emergency stops he’s performed and the number of people he’s had to shout at. I am in full on fight or flight mode. Dunkirk levels of adrenaline are preparing me for a huge fight.
It’s a direct conduit to my childhood. Constant agitation. Constant shouting. Wallowing victimhood. Indiscriminate blame apportion. Never a moment of happiness or relaxation. Howling fucking anxiety. Teeth shattering bursts of adrenaline. I remember the incident from when I was 17 that happened not far from here. It was a very similar situation—him driving, me as the passenger, just three decades earlier. He was irritating me so relentlessly that I simply got out of the car while it was still moving in an attempt to get away from his overpowering and uncontainable existential irritation. (He, of course, executed a perfect and instantaneous emergency stop and I wasn’t hurt.) Seventeen continuous years of throbbing anxiety, rage, and swivel-eyed chaos had led up to that moment—and it didn’t change anything. He did such a fucking massive number on me when I was a child, it was no wonder I ended up a drug-addled drunken head case.
I've come to the conclusion that it's time for me to put an end to this. I should have done it years ago, but I was always too much of a coward. I will do it now, though. The next time he does anything unreasonable I’m going to make him stop and I’m going to say this to him. "Pull over, you mad old cunt. You need your license taking away from you. You are the reason why I am not happy, why I’ve never been happy, and why I will never be happy. You are the reason why I can’t have a normal relationship with anyone, you fucking lunatic. Couldn’t you at least have kept a tiny bit of this fucking madness to yourself? Did you have to expose me to the full width, height, and depth of it? Can’t you see this was no way to behave in front of a seven-year-old child? I don’t even understand where you get the fucking energy from, you absolute fucking asshole. How are you still like this 40 years later? Can’t you see that the only dangerous idiot out on the road today is you? When are you going to fucking learn?"
Less than five seconds later, he sees someone one-fifth of a mile up the road step out onto a pedestrian crossing and performs a particularly vigorous emergency stop. I look at him, but all I can manage to say, weakly, is: "I'll get out here, thanks. It’s a nice day. I can walk from here. I need to buy some stamps. Thanks for the lift."
He looks genuinely confused by this, but shrugs as I get out of the car, then pulls a U-turn and starts driving back away from Thatto Heath and back toward Rainhill. I lean in a daze against a lamppost and watch him go. After 90 seconds he performs an emergency stop and then, eventually, drives off to disappear around the corner.
I am flooded with remorse almost immediately. I feel sick with myself for not being strong enough to laugh this stuff off. The poet Larkin was totally right ("They fuck you up your mum and dad, they may not mean to but they do"), but it's not the whole picture. You’ll never really be able to assess how much impact your parents protect you from. It’s easier to quantify the damage than it is the protection. This is exactly the stretch of road where he ran over a kid, while I was still at school. It wasn’t his fault. It was the classic thing of an excitable youngster running out from behind an ice cream van. The kid, who was only about eight, went flying over the roof of the family car to land on the pavement behind us. But if anything, my dad’s dogged insistence on driving at 20mph in all residential areas probably saved the kid's life. There are always going to be situations that you can’t be prepared for. The nature of life means it’s not always possible to perform an emergency stop. The kid made a full recovery but dad didn’t. He already had severe depression and full blown PTSD (before anyone really understood what these things were) and this didn’t improve matters.
I made the mistake, once, of opening up to him about depression when I was 16. He told me that when he was that age he was bent out of shape with religious mania. He couldn’t leave the house without crossing himself 20 times. He made the sign of the cross before climbing the stairs, before crossing the road, before getting on the bus, before eating, before drinking, after waking, before sleeping. Had to say prayers 20 times a day. He couldn’t do anything without rosary beads in his left hand, so he nearly ended up in hospital after threatening to cut his own throat with a straight-edged razor. So we didn’t talk about it ever again and I left home not long afterward.
Even on a hot day, St. Helens wheezes like the book lungs of an old spider. Most of the factories are gone, but a few candy-striped smokestack legs still scratch desperately at the sky.
At the pool, I cut the foil on a modafinil packet carefully with my thumbnail into a neat slit. I fold the foil flap I've created back carefully and remove a lozenge-shaped tablet, snap it in half, place one half in my mouth, put the other half back in the strip and carefully fold the foil flap back over it, before placing it in my tote bag and securing it in a locker.
I’ve been going swimming every day for months now, and to be honest, I don’t need to suck in my massive gut anymore. The truth is I don’t have a massive gut anymore; it seems to be dispersing of its own accord. It turns out that if you want to lose weight, all you have to do is exercise more, eat less food, and eat healthier. Maybe I should write a book on it and become rich.
In the pool, the guy with the Leif Erikson and Padre Pio back tattoo is laughing with a friend about something. A group of young men with learning difficulties are having a whale of a time singing lustily along to "Let’s Hear It for the Boy" by Deniece Williams. A column of sunshine streaming down from a skylight turns a trapezoidal section of the pool’s water into waxy, light-green fire. I start tanning lengths one after another. After ten, the rage subsides. After 20, I hit neutral. After 30, I start feeling good. After 40, it's Häagen-Dazs Salted Caramel all the way. The huge poolside speaker starts blasting out Springsteen's "Born in the USA." Holy shit, listen to the gated reverb on that snare drum! I'm cutting water like a machete now. Slipping from end to end like a bullet caught in cetacean aspect. This song is amazing—why don’t I listen to it every single day! "I’m a cool-rocking daddy in the USA now!" Holy fucking Christ above, listen to Max Weinberg’s drum rolls… it’s like the Predator wrestling with bag of moray eels. Why have I never noticed how sublime this song is before?
Later, at the grocery store, I walk up and down the aisles, throwing food into a cart as I speak to Maria on my phone: "I'm going to come home later today. No. No… he’s fine. It’s incredible. He’s back to normal already. He’s too fucking insane and angry to die. Good on him, I guess. No, she’s fine. mum’s just happy he’s back home, y’know? I got in the car with him earlier. I know! I know… I just forgot… Never again! No, I’ll be back later on tonight, probably after John's asleep —I’m going to cook lunch for them before I go. Smoked salmon and pasta salad for my mom. I’ll get some frozen cod out of the freezer for my dad. Get some frozen fries out of the freezer for him. Make him some baked beans or some frozen peas—need to decide which. Coleslaw? Ha, ha, ha, no. No coleslaw today. I’ll buy them a big cake, I think. Get dad a couple of cans of Guinness in as well.
"Well, it’s just a relief, I guess. Things back to normal. For however long that lasts for. Yeah. Yep. Uh-huh. Yeah... Yes. For fuck’s sake, I said yes! Sorry! I’m sorry! Fucking hell, baby, my head’s kippered. Sorry about that outburst. I’m losing the plot up here! I’ve really missed both of you. I can’t wait to see you and John. I’ll call you from the train. Love you. See you later."