Tuesday , May 28 2024

Belfast Child- Chapter 6- Dad’s Death

It was around 1976 that it first came to my attention that dad was ill and he was getting sicker and weaker by the day. He had always been a heavy drinker and smoker, but this was normal where we lived and we never really thought anything about it or the health implications these habits would have on him. One day when dad was supposed to be working I got home from school and found Margaret, Jean and some of their friend’s standing outside the front door. When I asked them what they were doing they said that had arrived home from school and on entering the house had heard a strange noise coming from upstairs and they had fled the house.

Trying to act all brave in from of my sisters I causally moved into the house, making sure I left the front door open, in case I had to make a quick getaway. After a nervous look downstairs and not finding anything, I began to make my way slowly up the stairs. As I got to the top I became aware of a deep rasping sound growing louder and louder that stopped me in my tracks. I’d seen enough of Dr. Who to know the sound I heard wasn’t coming from a human and I flew down the stairs and out of the house as fast as my legs could carry me. When the girls finally caught up with me I confirmed that I had indeed heard the sounds and I thought it might be one of those monsters from Dr.Who. The others looked rightly shocked at my analysis of the situation and it was decided that we would call the police. Christine Russell’s mum was the only neighbour we knew who had a phone and while Margaret and the other’s went to make the call, David and I made our way back to the house, making sure we kept a safe distance between us and the front door.

Word quickly spread around the estate that we had one of those monsters from Dr. Who hiding upstairs and before long large crowds began to gather, in the hope of seeing some action. When the police arrived they asked a few questions before entering the house and slowly making their way up the stairs. Whilst we were all waiting about outside to see what happened, Granny arrived and after a quick chat with a neighbour she made her way into the house with the police up stairs. After a while Granny came out with one of the policemen and explained to us that it was dad in the house, that he was sick and would have to go to hospital. In the distance we could hear the sound of an ambulance rushing towards us and suddenly it wasn’t funny or exciting anymore. I watched with the others as dad was stretchered out and placed in the ambulance and taken to the hospital. By the time everyone had cleared, Aunty Anne, dads younger sister arrived and explained to us that dad was going to be ok, but he would have to stay in hospital for a few days and she would be staying with us whilst he was away.

Being so young I don’t think I fully understood the magnitude of the situation and as usual I just ignored the situation that was going on around me and got on with my life. After that first time, dad was in and out of hospital all the time and gradually he became more and more ill. I remember many evenings at home, dad would take these horrible, agonising fits and one of us would have to run to Christine Russell’s house to call an ambulance. This became almost natural to us, but it was always distressing to see dad suffering so much and be unable to do anything to help.

Gradually we all began to realize that dad was very ill, although none of us wanted to accept or believe that he might die. I had already “lost” my mother and surely God wouldn’t take my dad away also? Once when he was in hospital Margaret decided that we would all do up the garden for dad and plant some rose bushes. We all went to work and by the time dad got out of hospital, the garden was looking great and dad was really impressed with our efforts and monitored the progress of the rose bushes with us. I remember the last time Granny took me up to the hospital to visit dad, I was really shocked and upset at how bad he looked. He was thin as a rake and I remember the watch he had worn all the time on his wrist had slide all the way up his arm to his elbow.

I’ve still got that watch, but I’ve never been able to wear it and every time I look at it I see dad in hospital, all skin and bones and at deaths door.

Although I didn’t know it at the time, I was too young to understand the seriousness of how ill dad was, this was the last time that I would see my dad alive.

I wish I had told him how much I loved him and told him how much the others and I would miss him, how much we needed him and didn’t want him to die.

When I got home I went straight to my room and begged God to save my dad and not take him away from us. But as usual God wasn’t listening and fate was once again messing with my destiny and making my young life a misery.

One day when we got home from school, Aunty Anne was waiting for us and told us that dad had been taken to hospital again, but he should be home in a few days. The day he was suppose to come home arrived and we all busied ourselves tidying up and making the place as nice as possible for him. Someone had told us that dad would be home around three o’clock and when the time came we all went down and stood on the main road watching for the car that would bring him home. Three o’clock came and went, then four and by 5 o’clock we were all getting bored waiting around. Eventually a car did approach us and pulled up, but our relief turned to panic when we realised that only Granny and Granddad were in the back. As they got out it was obvious that Granny was very upset and had been crying. Granddad told us he was taking her home and for us to wait indoors and they would come to see us in a while.

Dad never did come home.

Later that night Granny and Granddad gathered us all in the front room and through tears told us that dad wouldn’t be coming home. She explained to us that dad had died and was now in heaven watching over us. From the moment I heard the news I was distraught with grief and numb to everything going on around me. Dad had been the one stable thing in our lives since mum had left and now we were being told that he had died and we would never see him again.

The pain was almost too much to bear and I kept praying to myself that somehow there had been a terrible mistake and dad was going to walk through the door at any minute. But the brutal truth of the matter was that I wasn’t dreaming and once again fate and chance had entered my life and left a trail of misery and destruction in their wake.

The week of the funeral was the worst and longest of my live and to this day I am still trying to come to terms with dad’s death and the consequences it had on all our lives. After the autopsy dad’s body was brought home and laid to rest in Granny’s front room. Endless people came to pay their last respects and the sound of crying drifted constantly through the house, reminding me of my huge lose. Since the moments dad’s coffin was laid out in the front room, Shep curled up underneath and didn’t move the whole time it was in the house, apart from going for a pee. It was almost as if he was guarding dad’s body and at night when we were sleeping upstairs in Granny’s room, we could hear him whinging softly to himself, as he kept his 24 hour vigil. On the second night we were all brought in to see dad and as I stood over the coffin, looking into his lifeless face, I was praying and willing for him to move and for me to wake up from this horrible nightmare. I don’t know how long I stood looking down at him, but I was completely numb with pain and vaguely remember breaking down in tears and someone leading me away from the room.

When the day of the funeral finally arrived Granny got us all up early and dressed us in new clothes she had brought us for the funeral. I still remember the green and silver dogtooth blazer I wore that day as if it was yesterday and how I hated that jacket. After the coffin had been removed from the house we made our way to the church and I remember being surprised that there were so many people making their way to the church and the main road to see dad off. In the church we took our seats in front of the coffin and suddenly Granny absolutely lost it and threw herself over the coffin, screaming and crying for her baby son. It was really heartbreaking to see Granny suffer like that, but I was so numb with grief that it hardly registered at the time. It had been decided that dad’s band would all attend the funeral and when they stood up and played Amazing Grace it seemed as if everyone in the church was crying. When the service ended dad’s brothers and close family and friends lifted the coffin onto their shoulders and carried dad out of the church and unto the main road, for his final journey. Dads younger, Uncle Sam had been let out of jail for the funeral and his guards respectively give him the freedom to carry dad’s coffin. As the cortege made its way down the Glencairn Road, David and I fell in behind it and we followed the coffin down the Forthriver Road.

Dad had been such an integral part of the community that the whole of Glencairn came out that day to see him off and people lined the whole route all the way out of the estate. I don’t remember much about the graveyard, apart from the fact that it was a beautiful day and I could hear birds singing against the background of people crying. After the burial everyone headed back to Granny’s house for the wake and I remember wishing that I was at home in bed and alone with my broken heart, instead of being surrounded by people talking about dad and the happy memories he had left behind. It was the longest night of my life, with various people coming and going all the time and although they might have been trying to be kind to us, I just wished they would all go home and leave me alone, so I could go to bed and try to begin and comprehend dad’s death and life without him.

Eventually Aunty Anne gathered us all up and brought us home, to our own empty house and eventually got us into bed. I still remember lying there in the dark and thinking over and over again:


Why you dad?

Why, why, why?

Surely if there really was a God, what possible reason would he have to let this happen to us.

Why would he let this happen to us, after everything else we had been through? I lay awake for hours tortured by the reality of what had happened and what the future now held for us without dad to protect us and mum being a distant memory.

Eventually I feel asleep from exhaustion and had a dream about dad that I was to have for many years after his death .In the dream I’m asleep in my bed and am woken up by the sound of dad gently calling my name. I begin searching the whole house for him and finally I realise that the voice is coming from the attic. When I get half way up the ladder, dads arm reaches down and helps me the rest of the way up. In the loft I notice that dads got a camp bed, a gas oven, kettle and it looks as if he has been here for some time. I ask him what he’s doing and tell him that I thought he was dead and I feel really happy now I know that he’s alive and well and still with us. Dad sits and talks to me for ages and when I ask him to come down and see the others he says he’s hiding and I have to keep it a secret from the others. The dream always ends with me crying hysterically for dad to come down from the loft with me and him reassuring me that everything would be ok. I would always wake up crying and upset and glace through the darkness towards the loft in the hallway, wishing the dream had been real.

The day after the funeral the reality of the situation hit all and we all dealt with our grief privately. Now that dad was dead there was the immediate problem of what was going to happen to us and where we were going to live. Aunty Ann had moved into the house and we all waited apprehensively to see what would happen to us. I remember thinking about mum and wishing she was there to pick up the piece and sooth our agony over dads death. Due to the fact that we were now orphans the social services got involved with the case and there was talk of us all going into a home. When we heard this we all prayed that it would never happen and in our childish innocence we hoped that they would let Margaret look after us, so we could all stay together.

This was never a realistic options as Margaret was only thirteen at the time and legally too young to look after us. Although we were all grief stricken at dad’s death, we really wanted to remain together as a family and we let Granny know this. Granny and the family pulled together and fought tooth and nail for the social services not to take us away from them and finally our future was decided. We were to be split up among the family in Glencairn. At least this meant we would still be living close together. Because Margaret was the oldest and closer to Granny and Granddad, she and David would go to live with them. Jean would go to live with dad’s brother Uncle Jim, his wife Maureen and my cousin’s Denise, Karen and Stephen, otherwise known as Pickle, at the top of the estate. I was going to live with Uncle Sam, Aunt Gerry (who was Maureen’s younger sister) and their children Wee Sam, Linda, Mandy and Joanne, on the Forthriver road. It was not a perfect solution and although we were all really upset that we were to be split up, at least we would all be living with members of the family and would see each other on a daily basis.

I was only 11 years old at the time and like the others had suffered a terrible life at the hands of fate and destiny, but there was one more tragedy just around the corner for me to deal with. Because I was so close to Shep, it was decided that he would come and live with me in Uncle Sam’s house. Since dad’s death Shep had refused to eat or drink and two weeks after the funeral he died one night in his sleep. The vet said that he had died of a broken heart and no one doubted this. There was so much misery in my life that I was almost to numb to mourn Shep’s death at the time. Beside’s I felt like I was also dying from a broken heart and I didn’t care whether I lived or died. I was 11 years old and I had lost the will to live.

About John Chambers

John Chambers is from Belfast , but now lives in the North West of England. He is the author of Belfast Child, which is about his life growing up within the heartlands of Loyalist West Belfast and his life long search for my missing Catholic mother. He also blogs and posts articles mainly on Current Affairs, War & History and posts daily on key events in the Troubles and Deaths due to the conflict in N.I. You can follow him at https://belfastchildis.wordpress.com/

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