100 years: a long life well lived

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My Dad died on 14th January. He was in his hundredth year. We last saw him on 3rd January, then set off on holiday to see the Pyramids. Still lucid, in possession of all his faculties, though physically frail and struggling for breath as his heart wore out, the next day saw him enter a fairly rapid decline. Three of his five children were with him at the last: we received the news of his passing, rather exotically, on the terrace of the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan, where Agatha Christie (as they never tire of telling guests) wrote Death on the Nile.

You can’t characterise this ending as a tragedy. Indeed, Dad had long wanted to join Mum, who had died in 2014, shortly after they celebrated (and it was a good party!) their 70th Wedding Anniversary. Only in his last couple of years had he become a bit gloomy, frustrated by his feebleness: “no good for anything”, he’d complain. Yet, whenever anyone visited, he was cheerful, funny, always interested in his visitors, entirely in the present and ready to laugh at himself, though reminiscences came to mind ever more swiftly.

We’re all living longer, as we’re frequently reminded. Even so, I imagine my experience of having two nonagenarian parents, one reaching 92, the other 99, is still far from common. So what did it mean for me? 

70 years married: 8th July 2014

It gave me the luxury (by which I mean the privilege of that second chance as a grown-up) to go through all those stages of life with both of them. After childhood (which involved boarding school from age 13), I went off to university, started teaching, met Katherine and we married. We settled in Wolverhampton, 100 miles from each set of parents. To be honest, we were happy to build our own independent family life.

I’m sure we didn’t write or phone as frequently as we should have. But we didn’t become distant. They came regularly to Wolverhampton, often with the excuse of one of our concerts or school events – and, as they grew up, the children’s. In time, arguably just in time, Mum and Dad got a flavour of our love of, and life in, the North East. Two visits to our cottage, one for our Silver Wedding party in 2006, for which they stayed at Milfield’s Red Lion, and one to see Newcastle and its Royal Grammar School in Jesmond in 2009, at the end of my first year there.

Finally, imperceptibly, they became the ones who needed to be cared for. Not by us, in truth: one of my sisters lived just down the road from them in the medieval city of Wells (where I used to assure Dad that, however old he got, he was pulling down the average age). 

This last phase was the one by which we feel blessed. We had time with both of them to share not just their long experience but also, by then, our own three-score-years’-worth of understanding (notwithstanding Mum’s fading faculties towards the end: as Dad said after she died, “I didn’t realise quite how knocked up your mother was!”).  

It was a grown-up time. Whenever we visited, we talked at length about life, jobs, children, joys, sorrows: all of life. And, if we thought we were just starting to get the hang of it, or some of it, Dad would sit back, smile the smile of vast experience, and understand.

The smile of vast experience

He certainly had experience, not just as a parent. Fast-track medical training in wartime: a proud new student at London’s prestigious St Thomas’s, he saw it destroyed in the first months of the Blitz. After that, the RAMC. A GP for 25 years. Then, aged 50, a career change into prison medicine: I went home for school holidays to the middle of Dartmoor. 

But that was dull medicine, and Dad swiftly qualified and moved into forensic psychiatry, running the medical side of a fleet of prisons and remand centres around Bristol, doing court reports and writing and giving learned papers in the UK and Europe. He led a delegation to the then Home Secretary, Willie Whitelaw, complaining about the terrible lack of hygiene in prisons, founded the Prison Medical Association and was warned off. Some things don’t change…

When he retired, at 65, Dad edited his father’s letters from the WW1 trenches, publishing them as a book, Love and War, which he sold in aid of the Star and Garter Homes, raising £10,000 in total. After Mum died, we took him for one last trip to the Battlefields. Hugely knowledgeable, he guided us through the geography, the terrain, the battles. 

We found High Wood (once more a wood, overgrown and fenced off for safety reasons) where his father, my Grandpa, was wounded in the first battle of the Somme in September 2016.That ended his war, lucky man, though he was dismayed at becoming a “parade-ground soldier”, actually a RSM with a formidable voice, for the rest of the war.

Typical of such veterans, Grandpa talked very little about the war. Perhaps some of his stiff upper lip rubbed off on Dad, who seemed somewhat austere when I was a child. If he was, his long life afforded us decades of adulthood in which to compensate. Meanwhile, in retirement he became deeply involved in the Royal British Legion: indeed, the single outing he made from his final care home was to the City of Wells’s parade on Remembrance Day 2019.

Dad and his brother were great sportsmen. That gene largely skipped his children’s generation, but among his grandchildren and great grandchildren are many fine sportsmen and women. Above all, he loved cricket.  Invariably, in more recent years, he would fall to reminiscing in his turn, partly about his own many years playing, but also recalling how he witnessed some of those tremendous Ashes Tests in the Thirties.  

As a schoolboy in 1930 he saw the legendary Don Bradman score 232 for Australia at the Oval. It’s worth observing that Bradman retired with a test average of 99: a connection with Dad’s lifespan, I’d like to think. 

As his stories multiplied, so did his dry observations on life. At their 70th Wedding Anniversary in 2014, he answered the much-asked question of how they managed such a long marriage. “Live a long time,” he said, “And don’t fall out.”  They were undoubtedly helped in both by their deep and shared religious faith: until their very last years there was never a time (from my earliest memories) when they were not stalwarts, mainstays of their local Roman Catholic Church, their profound devotion lived unmistakably yet humbly, and generously, in every aspect of their lives.

As for the secret of his long life, about ten years ago we visited and were treated to what was one of Mum’s last proper Granny Teas: smoked-salmon sandwiches, home-made scones and five sorts of cake. As we tucked in, Dad showed me a tub of spread. “Have you seen this stuff?” he asked. “Pro-Activ: it’s supposed to reduce cholesterol.”

“Dad,” I protested, “You’re 89. You don’t need to worry about cholesterol at your age!” Nonetheless, as we reached the scones, I offered him the Pro-Activ. 

“Oh, no, old boy,” he said. “I always have clotted cream.”

Just the thing when you’re 99: pale ale!

In his last weeks he fancied other small indulgences.  As a family we spread our visits for his 99th birthday in December over several days. To us he suggested he’d like some Pale Ale, which he hadn’t tasted for quite a while. So we took some into his room, together with fishy canapés, which he ate with gusto.

By the end, he was ready, even anxious, to go: nonetheless, we drank champagne with him when we last saw him, 11 days before his death. So an era ends. Next week, at his funeral, we’ll shed tears for sure: but laugh, too – and, above all, count ourselves privileged not just to have him as our Dad, but to have been given so long with him.

Dr Peter Trafford

12th December 1920 – 14th January 2020

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