Chopped Liver – Brothers In Arms

We had just completed the ceremony of burying our father – the guests had all but departed – and last to leave the site were me and my brother. I’ll call him Ivor, on account of the fact that it is his name.

Ivor

He is Ivor and I am David (or “Ivor.. eh, David” – as my late father always called me) – so we were a couple of Jewish Welshman, born and bred in Scotland and living in England. That should be grounds enough to entitle us to play for the Republic of Ireland!

And as we stood upon the scene, prior to departing we, under his instigation, embarked on a brotherly embrace. It was a bit forced. A bit contrived. But it was a mark of respect that will grow in significance in the coming years – it showed we cared – for our father – and for each other.

In honour of Ivor he will now make a guest appearance to recount recent events from his perspective. Over to you, Ivor.

    Lament to a lost father

He came at me with a stanley knife. Funny that, as that was my dad’s name. Not knife.

Avoiding my carotid artery, he cut into my shirt and encouraged me to tear it further, and this would be the outward sign of my grief, that I would wear for every evening of sitting on a low chair for shiva.

We followed the coffin to the allotted pit, the first funeral I had ever attended where the sun had shone.
As the elder son, it was my duty to shovel the first three sods using the back of the spade, to show we were not hurrying him away, and then we sat on the low chairs whilst a procession of people commented on what a lovely man my father had been, always smiling, telling jokes, singing, whilst they wished us long life, and we resisted the urge to say thank you.

As the non-driving brother, it was my prerogative to sit in the hearse and curb the urge to look back, and say are you alright dad. The hearse driver commented on how many funerals they handled in the Liverpool Jewish community, and that if that was a barometer, then indeed the community was shrinking. He had been married 53 years, and could not contemplate life without his dear wife. My parents had been together 57.

The plan was that my mum would have her knee operation to treat the chronic arthritis, once my father had recovered from his recent knee operation, brought on by a fall in Penny Lane, so she nursed him then he would nurse her. However, whilst mum was in recovering, dad fell in the flat, fracturing his femur. That was at 1130 at night. Hadn’t thought to wear the panic button as he wasn’t used to being on his own, couldn’t reach the panic cords (this was sheltered accommodation that they had just moved into), the neighbours were deaf, the walls were thick, the warden was off duty, and he lay there thinking this is how it ends, calling for help all night long until 930 the following morning when someone in the corridor heard his call and summonsed an ambulance. It was my wife’s birthday when news of the fall filtered through and this cast a shadow over the celebratory afternoon tea at the posh cafe in Bishopsgate with daughters and their partners. The next family birthday, that of my eldest, Sophie proved to be an auspicious date, with news of my father’s demise reaching me on our return from our meal out that night.

In between those birthdays, there had been several visits to Liverpool, initially to schlep betwixt two different hospitals, conveying reports of each other’s progress, then latterly accompanying my recovering mother to visit my not-recovering father.

Initially my father’s spirits were as indomitable as ever and regaling us with tales of events which had amused him in the hospital. On one occasion, when he’d finished having a scan and been placed back in his bed, naked but for a strategically placed and operational pissing bottle, the curtain was swished open to reveal one of my mum’s friends, apparently oblivious to my dad’s state of undress, or too embarrassed to pretend to have noticed (what?), she blurted out that she wasn’t sure that as it was past visiting time, that she’d be allowed back in, but she just needed to mention that the smoked salmon sandwiches were in the fridge clearly marked with his name. I heard this story several times from my father over the course of his incapacitation, each time with the same tear-inducing joy.

But latterly he was beginning to hallucinate and I attempted to reassure him that this was an effect of the medication he was on, or else to do with the low blood count, resulting from the series of transfusions he’d been subjected to, which mysteriously led to further loss of blood. He was experiencing an auto-immune reaction to the blood and this was one of the complications which finished him off. At first he described seeing everything surrounded by an aura, an after-image he called it, like Mick Jagger’s lips surrounding every object, he pointed to the honeycombs in the ceiling, he saw two wee birds flying about in the ward and brought them to my attention, he asked me if I could see an elephant on the ceiling, and when I replied that I couldn’t, he clarified that he didn’t mean a real elephant, but the word elephant. Still I saw no elephant. He asked me what the patient across the ward was doing with that baby doll, and he commented on how powdery my skin was and how my glasses really needed a good clean as they were covered in dust. I continued to try to reassure him that this was a temporary predicament which would soon pass. He was not convinced. He genuinely thought he was losing his mind. Yet he was still able to stretch out his hand on my departure saying he felt like Tantallus, provoking me to enquire as to whom he referred, and he mentioned the character in Greek mythology whose name was the root of the verb to tantalise, to stretch out and yet not reach. And yet, each time we did reach and we clasped hands, the look in his eyes suggested to me that he thought that this would be our last meeting.

Despite the hospital staff’s efforts to continue to find positive developments, deep down my mother and I felt that there were no real signs of improvement (my brother was unable to travel up, given that he was on the waiting list for a liver transplant). I think that this really hit home when he was transferred to the Heart Emergency Centre because there was an irregularity about his heartbeat. The doctor, whom my mother knew personally, offered the two choices, medication or electrical. He decided the former and this seemed to stabilise him and he was returned to the ward.

Given this scare, I knew I had to travel up and bought a ticket at short notice to return the same day. I aimed to catch the 7.07, but foolishly assumed that heading for the bus stop at 6.20 would give me ample time to collect ticket and catch train. No bus came till 6.30, and I arrived, slightly panicky, but still slightly optimistically, at Euston at just after 7am, rush to ticket machines having clocked the platform number, trying several machines to no avail, now in a state of panic, asked for help which was offered, and the saviour stressed to make sure I collected all my tickets. I thanked her and ran and to my dismay saw that the train was no longer listed on the platform boards. For a moment I was that person that you often see on station concourses swearing, blaspheming at no-one, but out loud nonetheless. I ran to the platform, as I recalled it, to see the train just pulling out, to realise that I had only collected my outward tickets (now rendered invalid) and had neglected to pick up the returns. So I ran back trying to remember which machine I’d bought my tickets from until approached by another saviour who asked if these were my tickets, he was just about to hand them in before he travelled to Manchester, and then I approached the ticket office and explained that I had just missed my outward due to having problems with the machines. She found this hard to believe, said she’d have to issue a fresh ticket, unless I could find the operative who could vouch for me, so I scanned the station until finding said heroine, luckily her red hair shone beacon-like, in fact I think her name was Belisha, and with a wink in her eye she backed me up, because I’d spoken to her without shouting and without the usual abuse she expected as normal from the great English public. What a stramash. Could’ve cost me dearly, but by sheer compounded good luck, got away, until Ivor the ticket inspector asked to see the other part of my ticket, which I couldn’t find, but remembered that the office had stamped the back of my ticket, and this satisfied him.

Tuesday 18th promised to be an auspicious day in the Kallin calendar. I claimed back some time worked on some rather challenging evening childminding training (and possibly creating the first ever sentence with four consecutive ings) and was able to attend my daughter, Phoebe’s graduation from her MA at City University, held at the Guildhall. 30 seconds of glory as she ascended, shook hands, received certificate, descended wearing gown and mortar board, whilst we endured double and triple barrelled names being cheered for an eternity, until we headed for our evening rendezvous with other daughter, Sophie and both girls blokes, Howie and Steve, for a fine South Indian meal near Goodge Street, to celebrate the graduation and Sophie’s 27th birthday. And either because we were the first customers in that night, or because I’d mentioned Sophie’s birthday, we were ceremoniously presented with the longest Paper Dosa ever made. Given it was a fine evening, we decided to take a walk through the backstreets of Russell Square and Islington until we reached our favourite cafe for coffee and rounded off a fine evening.

Just prior to entering the cafe, my mum had phoned to say that the hospital reckon that my dad is responding to treatment, his heart is stabilising, and rehabilitation is back on the agenda. She found this perplexing yet a glimmer of hope, because she had only just returned from seeing a very weak, disorientated and demoralised husband showing real signs of deterioration.
On the 73 home, my phone rang, registering private number. I knew this was bad. It was the hospital. I’m afraid your dad has taken a turn for the worse, where was I and maybe it was worth heading to the hospital. I replied that I was on the bus in London, couldn’t hear her well, would be home in half an hour and would phone the hospital from home. As soon as I reached home, my phone rang again. Private number. I’m afraid to tell you that your dad has passed away. And that we’ve been trying to get hold of your mother but her phone is constantly engaged.

I then had the job of having to break the news to my mother, who had only two hours previous, told me that the hospital were making encouraging noises. Words cannot describe the horror of having to transmit such news, whilst 200 miles away and knowing that my mother was on her own. I managed to track down a near neighbour, whom she had met recently and asked if she could comfort my grieving mother. This neighbour, by coincidence, also a Gertie, had lost her husband only two months before, and stayed with my mum until she calmed. Then I had to phone my brother, and the rest of my family. I couldn’t get hold of my son, Hamish, so left messages to contact me asap. He came out of the cinema at 12 and was distraught on hearing the news. I managed to glean that he had company who could walk him home, but he was in a bad way, having been especially close to my father.

David phoned the Royal Free, explained he needed to come off the transplant list temporarily, and they fully backed him and promised not to tell him if a liver came up in his absence.
We travelled up first thing in the morning, arriving at the flat as my mum handed me the phone. Please deal with this, it’s the coroner and I can’t cope with this, and then we learned that there was to be an inquest, which we could attend if we got our skates on. Little did we know that we would both be sat in the coroner’s court hearing the inquest as it happened, detailing the myriad complex complications and medical history which had led to a verdict of accidental death, brought on by the fall. (The fact that my brother’s favourite band, the Fall, were playing in Liverpool, on the night of our arrival, did not go unmentioned.)
My father died on the Tuesday night, but the following two days coincided with the festival Shavuos, which meant that the offices which would deal with the funeral would all be shut until Friday morning. Luckily, my mother knew the people involved and wheels were set in motion, so that the inquest and the festival did not delay the burial beyond Friday.

For years, my parents had been unsure where they would end up. The Glasgow Hebrew Burial Society, where they had been paying into during their formative years, had no reciprocal arrangement with Liverpool. But Manchester did. So, the options were to schlep my father up to Glasgow, or to hold the funeral in Manchester, where there was no real connection, or to do the sensible thing, and hold the ceremony in the community where they spent their last 30 years. We await the invoice, because all the monies paid out so far, following tentative advice, have counted for nought.

Anyway, hurdles aside, the funeral went ahead that Friday, in glorious incongruous sunshine. We grieved in shirt sleeves, where only the week before we shivered at a stonesetting in our winter coats. It would not be appropriate to draw out the bad pun comparing the shivering to sitting shiva, but I only refer to it, as I am certain my dad would have.

My dad had been a dispensing optician all his life, well all his working life. He wasn’t an optician whilst still at school. Throughout most of my childhood and youngish adulthood, I had never had to pay for my glasses, he always picked up complimentary frames form conventions and insisted on paying for the lenses himself. So when it came to buying my last pair of glasses at an extortionate price, because the ones I liked just happened to be the most expensive in the shop, I sort of tried to justify it to myself by thinking of all the gratis frames I’d had over the years, and that I felt a debt of gratitude to the profession which had been my father’s and had nourished and clothed and housed us etc. And so it came to pass, that on the morning of my dad’s funeral, I found to my horror, that the nylon cord holding the most expensive lens in Stoke Newington in place, had snapped and that I had come away without spare glasses, and that I faced the prospect of several days sitting shiva in a myopic haze.

Renouncing despair (or as I’m sure dad would’ve said, renouncing despair, of glasses. I am now gratuitously taking the name of my father in vain, just to eke out dreadful puns. Dad would definitely approve. I will not desist. In his honour.) Hamish led me up Smithdown Road (or was it down Smithup Road?) in search of an optician. In my stupor, I would probably have wandered into a butcher’s, but my trusty son found an optician within minutes. I explained the problem, he replied that he might be able to manage something, give him half an hour. I explained the irony of the conjunction of my father’s and my spectacles’ demise and elaborated that he practised just up the road in Allerton, to which he asked his name. His shocked response revealed that my father had often passed the shop and waved and in fact that they had worked together years ago, and occasion had covered for my dad when he was away somewhere, and here in fact he was, covering for my dad again. Fixing my glasses. I texted my friend and Youtube merry-japes collaborator John, about the predicament, to which he replied that he was sure my dad would have a screwdriver in his pocket. To those who have seen any of these juvenile sketches, you would appreciate the significance of this advice. It was a relief to be able to laugh on the day of my dad’s funeral. My dad was well known for his jokes and always to be seen smiling and laughing. So many people remarked on this over the coming days.

I must admit that, although being a person without religious conviction, I found the service in the shul on Shabbos morning profoundly moving, especially feeling the tears welling up at Eitz Chaim He. Knowing that my dad had attended these services every week, had derived much pleasure from singing in unison, or not, with the rest of the congregation, knowing that he would not be able to do this again, and that my mum would have to attend on her own, form the upstairs gallery, knowing that he’s not just out of sight, he’s not actually there any more. This was probably the most emotionally charged occasion I can associate with shul. Only to compare with when my dad had tears in his eyes at Hamish’s barmitzvah, tears of pride, having tutored him over the phone, with my strained and incompetent assistance. Not for the only time did dad describe this as one of the happiest days of his life.

And then the visitors came to pay respects. Each one bearing a different cake (actually some the same cake), each bearing plums. (Not sure of the symbolism of these foodstuffs, but no doubt the rabbinate one.)
Long lost cousins from Manchester, the family genealogist who knew exactly which Lithuanian village our great grandparents originated from, the Orthodox Jewish women who only talked horses, and who was only stopped in her tracks by the protruding belly of an almost naked retired research chemist, a child evacuee from Nazi Germany, trying to find an obscure means to beg for a laundry coin. You had to be there. We were and still can’t quite comprehend the surreality of this conjuncture.

The low chairs and siddurim were brought by a man who stepped out of the bible to relate the truth of its tales. He appeared like an angel, although he called himself prince and regaled us with the meaning of the story of Ephraim and Manasseh, whereby brothers must get on and not squabble, where Abraham’s holding back from the slaying of his son suggested that life was more important than obedience, and where the story of the Golden Calf resembled B. Traven’s Treasure of the Sierra Madre, where capitalist greed destroyed human relations. In essence, this princely visitation preached the meaning of the Torah, and by that what he had in mind was a non-materialist individualist brotherhood. If ever an argument for socialism, for anarchism, there it was.

I am struck by the irony that my parents decided to make the bold move to sheltered accommodation to guard against the eventuality of one outliving the other, and in fact it could be said that the stress of the move was a factor in my father’s demise. It could also be argued that my father sensed that there was as much wrong with him as we were only to discover from the coroner’s report, and that perhaps this was his way of paving the way for mum to be cared for. The paperwork was all in order and filed to an impressive efficiency. The ultimate altruistic sacrifice, so typical of my father.

How do you begin to function on your own when you have been entwined with a partner for 57 years, engaging in joint endeavours all those years. So much of a gulf and hollow is left behind in my mum’s life.
I was touched by how many people attending the shivas commented on what a wonderful man my father was, and my brother and I lament how dismissive we were at times. My mum talks of his endless inferiority complex, and would have been so moved to have heard all those glowing tributes, in fact he would not have believed them if he had heard them when alive.
Liverpool was not the city of my dad’s birth, but of the last 30 years of his life. Spending his last few months living in sheltered accommodation next door to the derelict shul where they had attended every Saturday until it closed 2 years ago, attending many social functions there. When he first arrived in Liverpool, he camped out in the hotel across the road in Greenbank Drive, until he bought the house in Childwall, in a rush. Full circle.

And as I left my mum to return to London, my phone rings. It’s the estate agent to say that an offer has been placed on the house. Full circle. Like a beigel.

Another of my dad’s happiest days of his life was his second barmitzvah. I had never heard of this misheggas before, but the idea was that when you reach 70 years on top of the 13, you can do another one. So he did. We all gathered, and at the Kiddush meal afterwards, my dad made a toast and fondly recalled the rabbi’s late father visiting him in hospital when my dad had his quadruple heart bypass. My dad was informed swiftly by the rabbi that he’d made a little faux pas as his father was in fact still alive. To compound matters, my father later apologised profusely about the mistake he had made about the rabbi’s father oluvasholem (may he rest in peace). So in what felt like revenge for this double faux pas (faux faux pas or faux passes?), the rabbi’s father did indeed die on the same day as my father, had the funeral on the same day, in Manchester, but had the last night of Shiva in Liverpool, meaning that we struggled to make a minyan of ten on that last night.

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