Those Winter Sundays

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My grandfather, Richard Radford-Hayden

What did I know, what did I know of love’s austere and lonely offices? (Robert Hayden, 1985)

For as long as I have known anything, I have known that my paternal grandfather, Richard Radford-Hayden, lost both of his parents to the Spanish flu epidemic of 1918. Orphaned together with his little brother, Harry, at a very young age, this lethal and mysterious virus brought to our shores by ships and which – for reasons we’ll never understand – targeted the young and healthy, constituted the dark backdrop of my father’s family history. It was the reason why everything went wrong: why my grandpa drank. Why money was scarce. Why he neglected his six children; showed contempt and indifference, at times incomprehensible cruelty towards the people he should have loved. The deep trauma and loss he experienced as a small boy lived in him all his life like a cancer, festering and growing, a black stain which would colour everything he touched. 

It was the reason he could not show affection to his sensitive, intelligent, eldest son, my father. It was why he lashed out, spoke harshly, withheld love and approval. Disappeared, locked himself away, spent money he never had. In an attempt to heal the wounds inflicted on him by this damaged man my dad started writing my grandfather’s story. Teasing out the details of narratives he had heard again and again since boyhood; jotting everything down in his square, cursive hand before methodically typing it out. Therapy where the real thing was not an option for a man of his generation. When my grandpa died of a heart attack at the age of 83 – unceremoniously, in the bathroom of the tiny flat he shared with my granny while she waited in the kitchen for him to come and eat his lunch – my dad went through his affairs and found notes the old man had made for him, ‘for Errol so interested in this.’ 

From these notes and from his own, my dad – so interested in ‘this’, whatever ‘this’ may be – put it all together so that members of the next generation who happened to have an interest in our family history might know who Dick Hayden (so much less grand than the name he was christened with) was before he sat, small and shrunken in his armchair in the corner of the living-room, too old to get himself to the liquor store so he simply stopped drinking. Sometimes recalling the past caused tears to gather in his soulful brown eyes. I had never seen a grown man cry, least of all my father’s father. I would look away, at the profusion of purple violets my granny always had growing on her window-sill no matter where she lived.

 “At any rate,” she would say in her husky, cigarette-voice to break the silence as all the things unsaid hung like smoke in the Sunday air. I was too young to understand the significance of the stories. Today I would listen more closely to how, one moment – his earliest memory of himself at the age of four – he was lying between his parents in their shiny, brass bed before breakfast, his mom with her long, dark hair plaited down her back, and seemingly the next he was in a house filled with sick and dying people. He and his grandfather – being very young and very old, respectively – were immune to the flu, and therefore the only ones well enough to care for the seven family members who had contracted the deadly disease. My grandpa Hayden remembered it like this:

“I lived in Port Elizabeth at the time. I was then aged 11, the eldest of five children. I remember that people dropped dead in the streets, died in trams and trains. All schools were closed, some being used as a form of hospital or soup kitchen, when gallant ladies accepted the job of delivering jugs of soup to many hundreds of homes and the Red Cross did wonderful work. This went on for many weeks until the disease passed on. Undertakers simply could not cope, and (…) the deceased were rolled up in blankets, many (…) left in trenches. Even now I suspect that was the fate of my parents. Our mother died on Sunday the 2nd of November, father the next Tuesday. I am convinced it was Providence that shielded Grandpa and me from that dreaded flu. With the whole family a-bed at the time, numbering seven, only my garlic-smelling Grandpa and I were up and about day and night giving service to the bed-ridden. 

“But perhaps the most difficult job I had at that tender age was to keep my younger brother in his bed. We shared a small bedroom next to the lounge, opposite the women’s large four-bedded room fully occupied, with an old neighbour nurse friend in charge, who had made a quick recovery from the epidemic. I distinctly remember that we had a Dover coal stove. It was my job to light it in the mornings, and on that Sunday Grandpa, who was always up and about early, came through and sat in a chair for a while, and then said, ‘Dickie, I want to talk to you.’ As he led me out to the water tank adjacent to the kitchen window, I picked up the bucket to fill it. He put his arm around my shoulders and his warm tears fell on my upturned face as he said in a low, trembling voice: ‘Your mother is dead, God bless her soul.’ I picked the bucket up and dazedly made for the shed. ‘Where are you going?’ he called, and took the bucket from me. 

“On the day the horse-drawn hearse called to take Mother away, my brother was most restless, wanting to look out of the window when he heard the horses on the roadway outside. Sitting on his bed to keep him down, I assured him it was just the vegetable hawker on his rounds, and he quietly accepted that lying explanation, much to my relief, as I now review the incident but at the time you can imagine my worry and emotion, because it was our mother being taken away and how was I going to account for her absence?”

And so it was. A lifetime of absence begetting absence. A paucity of love and the concomitant shrivelling of the human psyche; a state which seems destined to roll over to the next generation. His dad locking himself in a room with a bottle of brandy. My dad locking his heart away some place I could never find it. But I find it now in the words he carefully recorded. The love and the longing which emanate from these remembered fragments of a small, unremarkable past. A yearning, perhaps, for the wholeness neither men knew; something I find myself searching for in the scant book of typed-out memories I keep in a cupboard together with dad’s collection of LPs. A few months before my dad died – that line still shocks me to write – he told me he was looking forward to seeing his dad again. He said, I want to tell him, I understand, putting emphasis on that word. At the age of 77 he sought to forgive, and in the forgiving, find peace. I look forward to seeing my dad again and telling him the same thing.


Those Winter Sundays

Sundays too my father got up early

and put his clothes on in the blueblack cold,

then with cracked hands that ached

from labour in the weekday weather made

blanked fires blaze. No one ever thanked him.

I’d wake and hear the cold splintering, breaking

When the rooms were warm, he’d call,

and slowly I would rise and dress,

fearing the chronic angers of that house,

Speaking indifferently to him,

who had driven out the cold

and polished my good shoes as well.

What did I know, what did I know

of love’s austere and lonely offices?

Robert Hayden, 1985 (no relation)

5 Things I Learnt From My Dad’s Death 


1. People Die

Even dads. With clear eyes and strong voices saying lucid, dad-like things. In retrospect, what’s really crazy is that we didn’t see it. Or saw it but refused to believe it. In truth, my dad had been dying for a long time, his chronic arteriosclerosis making walking increasingly difficult as the years went by. We saw him grow pale. We watched him get tired and lose interest in food and TV and just about everything, but he was my dad and therefore immortal. The power of denial is immense. Even when he told us, a few days before he passed, about the white feather that landed out of nowhere at his feet, we refused to listen to what he was saying and accept the inevitable – that he was old and sick and his body was finished. And because we pretend to ourselves and each other that we’re all going to live forever, when that doesn’t happen it comes as quite a shock. And I realise, as I speak to people around me, that making it all the way to 45 without having suffered a big loss makes me pretty lucky. Because people die all the time, every day, every minute. So we must love our people a lot.

2. There is No Such Thing as Death

I always kind of knew this, but the ways in which my dad has made his presence known to us and how, in the early days, he never left my mom’s side have banished my last remaining doubt, and my feeling around this whole issue is that it takes a very determined type of closed-mindedness to believe that what we see in front of us – this table, that cup of coffee – is all there is. It’s not my job to preach or judge or to convert anybody, but I can say emphatically that when people leave their bodies they do not cease to be. You hear this time and again, and I’ll say it once more for emphasis. When you look at the deceased body of a loved one it is not them you’re seeing. It might have been his face and his feet and his familiar white beard, but the body lying lifeless on that hospital bed was not Errol Hayden. The spark, the energy, the individuality that makes up the human spirit had left. This was the vessel that had housed his soul during his 77 years on earth and now it was empty and ready to be disposed of. Without question my dad was in that room that day, but he was standing beside us with his arms around us.

3. Grief is a Lonely Journey

I understood, in those first weeks, why couples who lose a child often end up divorcing. You would think grief, especially shared, would be a unifying experience which ultimately cements your bond. In reality, it is a road you walk alone. The path is different for everyone, and maybe this is why it’s impossible to explain what you’re going through and truly share it with the people who love you. Sometimes you get impatient with their well-intentioned probing. Sometimes you can’t believe the level of insensitivity. But it’s not their fault; they aren’t mind-readers. At times I would be fine and making spaghetti and then, out of nowhere, I’d be hit with the reality that I no longer had a dad and barely managing to hold it together and my husband would choose that exact second to ask if we had ice. And I’d want to say, DO YOU UNDERSTAND HOW FEW FUCKS I GIVE ABOUT ICE AT THIS MOMENT IN TIME? Instead I would just cry and he’d apologise and put his arms around me and I’d apologise back and that’s the nature of this beast. For a while living is profoundly kak and nothing can make it better.

4. We Don’t Know How to Mourn

My parents are (and I speak in the present tense because my dad is more alive and well than he’s been in years) deeply spiritual but not religious people, so the idea of having a funeral in a strange church and someone who didn’t know my dad talking about him felt wrong. So we opted for cremation and a memorial of some sort. The cremation has happened but the memorial hasn’t, and I don’t really know why. Maybe we just aren’t ready. But I was made aware of the fact that having no ritual for death makes things difficult. You simply don’t know what to do, and no-one else does, either. In despair, I googled rituals of mourning in Judaism. I’ve always had Jewish envy, but now it’s really a thing. They have such beautiful, humane guidelines about what to do during this time. It’s discouraged for the mourner to leave his or her house, for example. Loved ones and members of the community are welcome to visit, but it is stressed that the mourner cannot be expected to play host and it is unthinkable that they would go out into the world and behave like nothing has happened. People bring food, they enter and leave the house quietly and pay their respects in the gentlest, most practical way possible. I found – other than a handful of dear friends who did everything right – I was having to make people feel better about my loss. I was expected to ‘get on’ with things long before I was ready. I’m still not ready. We are all different, but for me – and this holds true 6 weeks later – I want to be left alone. Don’t call me, don’t try to make arrangements, don’t ask me why I haven’t answered your messages. Just leave me under my rock.

5. The Sadness Never Ends

It is early days, but I think I can say with certainty that I’ll never ‘get over’ my dad’s death. For the rest of my life I will hear songs, taste food, see things that remind me of him and feel the deepest sadness that I’ll never see his face, hear his voice or feel his hugs again in the way one does with the humans of this earth. I know we’ll be together at some point down the line but it will be in a long time and in a different way. For now, I must adapt to the strange, new reality of not having a father. I don’t have a choice. I worry that my mom will be okay, alone for the first time in 54 years. I worry about what I’ll do when I lose her, too. I regret that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye to him in words. It all happened so quickly. We thought we’d be bringing him home to watch the cricket. I thought I’d have lots of time to say what I needed to say – that nothing in the past matters, that he was a wonderful man, that I felt his love even when he didn’t know how to show it to me. A while back I said all of these things to my friend Emily and she answered with four simple words that have brought me great comfort: he knew your heart. He did. Bye for now, Dad.