Five-minute memoir: Charlie Mortimer gives his father a suitable equine send-off

 

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The Independent Culture

It's September 1991 and my dad is in decline. His last horse racing article sits half-finished in the rollers of his ancient typewriter. My mother finds the whole situation completely overwhelming. She calls me one morning in pieces. I respond: "Mother... really hate to say this... but you must prepare yourself as things are not going to get any better."

My dad had always been the one constant for my mother – my two sisters and myself and his sudden and very marked deterioration sends the family dynamic into a tailspin. For each one of us the spectacle of seeing the world-class intellect of my father disintegrate is a very personal, shocking and ultimately depressing experience.

One night things spiral out of control and dad leaves home for the last time. You might think that the arrival of an ambulance would bring a sense of relief, whereas instead it was the beginning of a whole new world of problems.

I go to see dad the next day at the Battle Hospital in Reading. I find him just dumped in a ward and largely forgotten – as I guess in the eyes of a very busy hospital he was just old and on his way out.

A male nurse appears to check his mental state. He asks dad if he knows where he is. There is a slight pause before my father responds, "In the bloody black hole of bloody Calcutta".

Two days later, still no doctor has seen dad and I announce to the hospital that he is leaving. They say this is not possible for a range of ridiculous reasons.

Emboldened by my mother's anguish at what is happening I tell the hospital they have 30 minutes to get my dad ready to go, in a wheelchair with his medication, or else I am carrying him out over my shoulder there and then.

All dad wants is to go home, but there is no way in a million years that my mother can cope with nursing him at home only supported periodically by us siblings. So I take him to a care home 10 minutes from my parents' house.

It seems like the miracle solution, whereas in reality the standard of care is dire, the place has an overwhelming reek of urine and my father is miserable.

The last time I see him is on the Sunday when I promise him that I will always look after my mother.

He dies two days later with my mother and his best friend thankfully at his side. She never forgives herself that he was not able to die in his room at home.

Despite the fact it was expected, I am shattered when my mother rings to tell me how my father has died as she held his hand. This is a sobering experience like no other. Dealing with technicalities such as death certificates is frankly a walk in the park in comparison to my heartbreak at the obvious distress of my poor mother. I am thinking nothing really prepares you for this.

 

We have a small service at the crematorium followed by a thanksgiving service in Lambourn. In the afternoon my mother, my two sisters and I drive to the church to collect the ashes.

I remember vividly my mother, who has had several drinks, wig slightly askew, appearing from the church as we wait in the car.

Believing, mistakenly, that the ashes urn is very fragile, I watch with my heart in my mouth as my mother totters (in only the way that my mother can totter) while clutching the urn to her breast as she weaves her way precariously between the gravestones.

The act of spreading ashes itself is a strangely amateur affair, particularly if you have never done it before. With my mother quoting (or rather misquoting) a poem, we throw my dad to the universe up on the Lambourn gallops.

Unfortunately, there is quite a strong wind and I get a substantial amount of my father in the eye and for a while think that I may have to go to A&E, and have to explain, "I've got some of my dad in my eye".

Several days later, after taking my mother on a tour of friends and relatives (I'm driving and mother's drinking), I return to London. Unpacking, I find the urn is still in the car boot. Casually I chuck the now virtually empty container in a dustbin – when suddenly I think "You can't do that there's still some of my dear old dad in there". In panic, I retrieve it and eventually drop it off Wandsworth Bridge in a one-man ceremony.

Three months later, one of Nick Gaselee's horses, Party Politics, wins the Grand National having been trained on the very gallops where we scattered dad. We all like to think that dad had a bit of a hand in it.

'Dear Lupin: Letters to a Wayward Son' by Roger and Charlie Mortimer is published by Constable in hardback

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