On the June 23rd 2018, my father, David Whittaker, passed away. He was my best friend, my idol, and it was an genuine honor to call him my father.
This episode is just me sharing my experience of losing a parent, and some of the many confusing and conflicting thoughts and emotions it’s conjured up.
As well as being somewhat cathartic for me, I hope this episode manages to be of some use to you guys as well.
UPDATE: At the time of recording and uploading this episode, due to multiple complications with the postmortem, we still hadn’t held my dad’s funeral.
We finally laid the poor fucker to rest on the 24th July, more than a month after his passing, with barely twenty people in attendance, most of whom hadn’t bothered to come and see him for years, and not to mention the half-dozen lame excuses from those who couldn’t even be arsed showing up at all.
This being the case, I’ve decided to post the eulogy that I read during the service, for no other reason than I want as many people as possible to know just how fucking awesome my father truly was!
HE WAS A LION ONCE
So, the reason I’ve decided to get up here and speak today is what you might call a sort of Pascal’s wager.
Blaise Pascal was a physicist during the enlightenment, and Pascal’s wager is the philosophical idea that even if you don’t believe in God, it’s still in your best interest to behave as if you do believe in God and live a pious life regardless, because if your atheism is misplaced and God does exist, then the payoff of getting into heaven is worth the sacrifice of earthly pleasure.
I don’t know if I believe in any sort of afterlife. I’m sort of agnostic about the whole thing to be honest. But what I’m about to say is a Pascal’s wager in the sense that the main reason I’m saying it is just in case my dad can hear me. I don’t know if he can. But on the off chance that he is up there somewhere, and able to bare witness to this, it’s worth eschewing my own scepticism and doing it anyway.
Of course, I could have done this at home on my own, in the kitchen or whatever, but in that scenario, either somebody hears it or nobody hears it. At least this way somebody is guaranteed to hear it even if he doesn’t. And I think its a message worth hearing.
Because, as presumptuous or arrogant as this might sound, with the exception of maybe my mum and his sister Joyce, whatever you’re memories of my dad, they probably don’t do him justice.
I’ve never written a eulogy before. But having done a bit of research it seems they tend to adhere to a fairly standard format.
The first thing you’re supposed to do is cobble together a bunch of hobbies or character traits of the person you’re there to remember. So, the things that, on paper at least, made my dad my dad, or made David David.
Alright, so my father loved fishing, and drinking scotch, and watching cheesy horror movies. Whoop-di-doo. So do millions of other people.
So, then what you do, to add a personal touch to those attributes, is flesh them out with a couple of humorous anecdote. The intention being to convey how quirky and unique my dad was, while at the same time conjuring up a sense of nostalgia and fondness in whoever happens to be listening.
So fine. Fishing. I remember this one time he was trying to recover his rod rest from the water and fell in the pond. “Ha-de-ha”.
Whisky. “Two fingers”. That was his slogan, his measurement, how much to pour. “Want a whisky, dad?”, “Aye, two fingers”. And me’ dad didn’t exactly have Donald Trump baby hands either, so he weren’t messing about.
Horror movies. The last one I remember watching with him was “Sharknado 2”. Which for those of you who aren’t in the know when it comes to high brow cinematic masterpieces, is a film about a tornado that spawns over the ocean, sucks up a load of rabid sharks, drifts inland and then deposits them on New York City. So, it’s basically raining sharks that eat people.
Again, fine. Fond memories. And certain aspects of them are indeed unique to my dad.
However, and this is not to denigrate the efforts of other sons who have given speeches at their father’s funeral and who might not be quite as cynical and pedantic as I am, but to reduce my father’s life and the impact he had on me to a handful of vacuous anecdotes, for me at least, would be, quite frankly, an insult.
So, I know a lot of people will remember my dad as the disabled old man that he became.
Especially new people. Like every time we’d take him to the hospital I’d see the way the doctors and nurses would speak to him, in that sort of condescending manner that people tend to address people who present as frail. Like they’re either deaf or stupid.
And then when he’d try to speak to them, because his illness meant he couldn’t enunciate properly, they couldn’t understand what he was saying, and so they’d just sort of nod at him, patronizing, like “Yeah, yeah”. Hoping that if they agree with him enough he’ll shut up.
And it’s not a perfect analogy, but that dynamic that I’d see play out all the time sort of reminded me of one of Aesops fables where there’s a lion in the jungle, laying on the ground close to death. And all the animals of the land are crowded around, taunting him and making fun of him. And then this little mouse scurried on top of the lion, and starts dancing on his nose and says, “Look, he can’t do anything to us now!”. And all the animals start laughing and carry on making fun of the lion.
Then with all the energy left in his body, the lion lifts his head and says, “Fine. Mock me now, but, I was a lion once.”
The mistake the animals are making in that fable is the same one a lot of people made about my dad. They’re addressing the form but ignoring the character.
And I reckon if my dads character could have unzipped the ramshackle flesh and blood veneer he was cloaked in, and stepped outside of it, and discarded it, the sheer size of that character could crouch on it’s heels in a midday sun and still cast a longer shadow than a thousand men standing on each others shoulders with their backs to a dawn sunset.
And you might hear that metaphor and think, “Fine, very poetic”. But the problem with poetry is it’s easy to dismiss as little more than pretence.
But it’s a claim I stand by. And not because you’re obligated to allow such a claim to go unchallenged, because this is a funeral, and I’m David’s son, but on the contrary, I think it’s a claim that stands up to scrutiny.
So, the things I’m about to say about my dad aren’t merely the sentimental platitudes of a grieving son, but are in fact the sober reflections of one man examining the character of another.
Now, to say that a guy who couldn’t even button his own shirt could somehow overshadow a thousand able-bodied men, that’s one hell of a claim. So, let’s not hide behind your obligation to take my word for it. Let’s quantify it.
How many men, at the age of 21, could meet a girl on a Saturday, be passionate enough to fall madly in love by Sunday, be decisive and daring enough to propose by Tuesday, be an attractive enough prospect for the girl to say “yes”, committed enough to spend two years scrimping and saving to bring it all to fruition, and then devoted enough to be a man of his word and honor his promise to love, honor and protect that same girl for 49 years?
How many men can say that they would dedicate their lives to raising a child that isn’t biologically their own. While too many men nowadays can’t even seem to muster the decency to honor the most basic of fatherly obligations to children born of their own flesh?
How many men, in raising their children, can honestly say that they never once raised a hand to that child, never once told them what to think or what kind of person they were expected to become, never allowed that child to witness them in a state of base drunkenness or seething anger, and not because he was good at hiding it, but because he simply didn’t conduct himself in that way?
How many men can say that their children have never once seen them treat the child’s mother with anything but affection and respect, and never given that child any reason to worry whether one day his father’s reckless behaviour might reduce the family unit from three to two?
When you’re trying to honor someone’s memory it’s easy to overstate the case of the person you’re referring to. For instance, marriage is a two way street. My dad wasn’t the only person responsible for making his marriage to my mum, Linda, a success. And she surely deserves her share of the credit.
But still, in order to be loved, you need to be loveable. How many women can claim to have wed themselves to a man who managed remain lovable for nearly half a century?
As for the way I feel about my dad, people will say, “Well, of course you idolize him, he’s your dad!”. Well, no. Not “of course”. Plenty of my friends growing up had fathers who were tyrants or deadbeats. A sons adoration is not a given, by any means.
In fact in my case, my father had even more to prove, because he faced a kind of metaphysical competition that most fathers don’t.
It’s a common thing for adopted children to fantasize about their origins. They like to romanticize that out there somewhere is this beautiful family in a beautiful mansion, pining away, just waiting for their long lost son or daughter to get in-touch so they can be reunited and live happily ever after.
I never had that fantasy. It never even crossed my mind to seek out a bunch of strangers no matter big their window cleaning bill was. And that’s got a lot less to do with my loyalty than it has to do with the fact that I knew instinctively that there was nothing better out there waiting for me.
Or let’s assume it was loyalty. Where could I have possibly learned that from?
Or maybe it was just because I had a father who somehow managed to make fishing trips to Mill Brow and driving round in a Ford Transit van delivering curtain rails during the summer holidays a more attractive prospect than pining after some imaginary billionaires.
How many dads can make that claim?
Okay, now we’re getting somewhere. Now the real uniqueness of my dads character is starting to emerge. But let’s take it one step further.
So, my dad had something called myotonic dystrophy. The normative, medical description of this illness is “a genetic disorder that causes gradually worsening muscle loss and weakness”.
Now that tells you what the illness is, but it doesn’t really tell you what it does. When a doctor gives you a diagnosis of myotonic dystrophy, here’s what he or she is telling you:
Here’s this disease. And it will kill you. But before it does, it’s going to ruin your life. It’s going to take away your ability to work, it’s going to take away all the things you enjoy doing, and slowly but surely it’s going to claw its way into everything you hold dear, and destroy it. Or at least try to.
You’re going to lose your ability to speak. You’re going to lose your ability to drive. You’re going to start falling over. A lot. And when you do fall over you won’t be able to break your fall because your hands are going to be useless, so you’re going to smash your face on the floor. You’re going to choke on your food. You’re going to get chest infections. You’re going to struggle to wash yourself. You’re going to struggle to dress yourself.
Every day you wake up, you’re going to be a little bit weaker and a little bit sicker than you were the day before.
And it’s going to torment you every waking moment of your life. From the moment you open your eyes and struggle to peel your head off the pillow. To the moment you go back to sleep at night exhausted by the effort it’s taken to complete tasks as simple as taking a shower and getting dressed.
But that’s not all, David. It gets worse. Because when it comes to things like diabetes, cancer, and heart disease, there are treatment options available. There’s a chance of turning things around. And even in the worse case scenario, if we can’t turn things around, we can slow it down.
But not for you, David. There’s nothing we can do for you. There are no pills for this illness. No experimental drugs trials. No genius doctor over in America if you can just somehow manage to stump up the cash. We can’t treat it, we can’t stop it, we can’t slow it down.
But don’t worry, David, this won’t affect your brain. You’re brain will be fine. In other words, you’re going to get a front row seat to your own physical demise without the dark fortune of senility to alleviate at least some of the suffering.
And if that wasn’t bad enough, should that time ever come that merely existing becomes unbearable, by that time you won’t even possess the dexterity to fashion a noose or weild a razor blade, nor the strength to pull a trigger, or even unscrew the lid from a bottle of painkillers.
In other words. The outlook is bleak. And you’re trapped. And there is nothing we or you can do about it.
So, bearing this in mind, how many people, given a fate such as this, could honestly say that it wouldn’t make them angry, or bitter? And that when they found themselves in the thick of it, that they wouldn’t give in to the temptation to indulge in self-pity or to complain about it?
It’s become a cliché to make the retrospective claim that somebody didn’t complain about their illness. It’s what everybody says about everybody who’s passed. So there’s no weight to it. But there should be.
Because for one thing it’s not always true. Plenty of people descend into anger and bitterness over lesser afflictions than the one my dad suffered. That’s not to say some people aren’t justified in doing so. But plenty of people aren’t justified in some of the objections they raise about their own circumstances. And by “plenty of people” I mean people like us.
We all like to think we’ve got the strength of character to take the process of our own demise on chin like my dad did. But then we only need to recall ourselves throwing a pathetic little hissy fit over first world problems like the WiFi not working, or Sky+ not recording the football, to realise just how weak and petulant we are in comparison.
Millions of us, everyday, moan about things that don’t matter. My dad didn’t even moan about the only things that do matter.
While some of us are having little temper tantrums because we can’t find a parking space within spitting distance of the entrance to the supermarket, my dad couldn’t even hug his grandchildren properly. But there was never any, “Why me?”, “This isn’t fair”, “I’ve had enough”. He got on with it.
In the case of hugging his grandkids he gave them a sort of clumsy huddle that was more like a pat-down from a police officer than it was a hug. But he did what he could. He always did what he could. And he didn’t moan about it.
See, now all of a sudden when we think back to this claim that seemed so ridiculous at the start, of David the frail old fella with the walking stick possessing this transcendent personality… Doesn’t seem so ridiculous now, does it?
This man who couldn’t even clench a fist, but deserved to be called a fighter. This man who could barely even speak, but somehow managed to say so much. This man who could barely even stand up, but somehow managed to tower over everybody around him.
That’s character. And as I think I’ve just demonstrated fairly conclusively, my dad had that in spades.
So, if you’re here to pay your respects to David Whittaker the poor old disabled fella with the walking stick, who couldn’t talk properly, because he had that terrible illness. I don’t know which David Whittaker you’re talking about, but you ain’t talking about my dad.
Because my dad was so much more than that. And if I can grow to be half the man that he was, that’ll still make me twice the man that most are.
In other words, when I grow, I want to be just like my dad. And so should you. In fact, so should everybody. Because the world would be a better place for it.
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