When my father was diagnosed with a terminal illness two years ago, I imagined that we might start having more heart-to-heart conversations. I wasn’t quite thinking of those reconciliation scenes from American movies in which fathers and sons embrace soggily above rich string music, saying cheesy lines about how much they love each other – I knew that wasn’t my father’s style, and probably not mine either – but I pictured some kind of break with our usual English reserve.
My father was more emotional and expansive than usual that final Christmas. He talked quite a lot about his religious beliefs or lack of them; and the love of nature, intensified in his last years, which was a sort of substitute religion. Above all, though, I think he wanted to enjoy the time that was left, every minute of it, not talk about it.
In the months that followed, I spent as much time with my father as I could. Typically, though often unwell, he showed no signs of self-pity and continued to live life pretty fully.
In the spring he and my mother went on a short holiday to Brussels (he was interested in late 19th- and 20th-century Belgian art), which I secretly thought was probably a very bad idea but which turned out triumphantly successful.
Around that time, I went to spend a weekend with my father while my mother took a break. I managed to leave my overnight bag on the commuter train; my father, who had come to collect me from the station, remained much calmer and less flustered than me as I made a series of phone calls to railway staff and eventually located the bag one station down the line.
I thought I had come to look after him but the reverse had occurred. Two treasured memories of those days involve not heart-to-heart conversations but shared enjoyment of music. On the Saturday morning, we listened together to our favourite classical music radio programme, Building a Library on BBC Radio 3, on Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony; a way of celebrating, and summing up, more than 40 years of listening to Mozart together.
We also watched a DVD I had given my father of Claudio Abbado conducting his Lucerne Festival Orchestra in Mahler’s Third Symphony. I asked my father how his love of Mahler, perhaps a little surprising for such a reserved Englishman, had started; he told me he had been introduced to the Austrian symphonist by a friend he made while doing a business studies course at a London polytechnic in the early 1950s.
Here was a whole short chapter of his life he had never spoken to me about. I wondered how many others there might be.
Over the summer, when he was noticeably thinner and got tired more easily, we were busy with tasks connected with wine. There was rather a lot to do because, over his long career as a wine merchant, my father had always concentrated on the next offer or vintage, and let bin-ends of older ones accumulate in the cellar and wine stores.
My father was extremely meticulous in everything to do with the annotating, cataloguing and storing of wine. An entry in a Which? Wine Guide he was rather proud of commended him as one of the few merchants who bothered to put down the complete information for every bottle of German wine he offered. I used to find this meticulousness somewhat extreme but, in these last months, came to be more patient – though he still did not really trust me to box up cases of wine as well as he could.
We spent a lot of time cataloguing a collection of wines from the former State Domaine on the Nahe; it was also a chance to share memories of the visits we made over a number of years to that lovely German river, where we tasted the young wine with the monkish Dr Hofäcker.
But the main task was preparing a consignment of some of the most precious old bottles from the innermost part of the cellar for sale at auction. I found this rather sad – it was like uprooting the lares and penates, the Roman spirits of the hearth and home – but at the same time I enjoyed being able to help my father at this delicate task, and appreciated what would be my last glimpses of a master at work.
He had kept, maybe for decades, some special heavy-duty cardboard cases in which venerable Bordeaux and port could be transported lying on its side. Every last bin-soiled label, mid-shoulder level and chipped wax capsule was annotated.
Even at the very end, in the hospice, a year ago, there were none of the intimate exchanges I had envisaged. There were still tasks to perform – dealing with the last wine orders for Christmas. I realised it was wrong to expect his way of being in the world to change as the end approached. My father was more a doer than a talker. No doubt he believed that actions spoke louder than words.
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