What can I say about Ernie? About our dad? He was a big man, built like an old fashioned centre-half. But he was also a kind and sensitive man. And, ultimately, he was a very brave man.
It was just seven months ago, on the exact anniversary of the death of our mum Doreen, that dad was diagnosed with bowel cancer, after months of complaining about a backache that his so-called doctor dismissed as osteo-arthritis.
The prognosis was never good. The cancer was already too far gone. But in the first few weeks there was talk of a clinical trial and a possible wonder drug that might give dad a year or two longer. But there were so many complications that in the end the clinical trial never happened.
I remember just a couple of months ago, after the specialists had told him he had a clear choice, I remember having one of those conversations with him that you might have in a hypothetical way in the pub. Would you rather have a short but relatively comfortable life? Or live longer but with a lot of discomfort? That was the choice dad had to make.
The specialist had said dad could undergo a course of treatment that might keep him alive for a few more months, but with some pretty grim side-effects. Or he could forego the treatment and have a shorter life with less unpleasant side-effects. Dad wanted to know what I thought. What would I do if I were in his position?
It’s easy to make hypothetical decisions, when they don’t really affect your life. Dad had to make the decision in real life. He decided not to have the treatment, and to make the most of his last few months. But even those last few months were cut short.
I went to see him a couple of weeks before he died. He looked well – better than he had looked for ages. He was planning a weekend away in Eastbourne with Brenda. He was in good spirits, looking forward to the break.
Well, dad and Brenda went to Eastbourne, but it tired him out. When he came back, his nurse decided he should be admitted to St Christopher’s Hospice for tests. We were expecting him to be in for a few days and to come back home rejuvenated. But instead he suddenly became very ill, and he died on the 26th of April, exactly seven months from the day his cancer was diagnosed.
So in a few short months, we had witnessed how his health had deteriorated, physically. But his spirit was always strong. And he continued to draw and to paint and devote himself to his art, right up to the end. He died in the hospice with a sketch pad by the side of his bed.
One of the onerous duties that fell to me and Gary and Louise, as dad’s next of kin and executors of his estate, was to write and phone people to let them know what had happened. Everyone who knew him – his neighbours Doe, Alan and Graham; his district nurse Dan, the staff at the Royal Marsden and St Christopher’s Hospice – everyone we spoke to who knew him said what a kind and lovely man he was. I think he brought something special to everyone he met.
We were going through the papers in dad’s studio earlier this week when we came across something he wrote not long ago. At first we thought it was an essay, or a personal manifesto, but it seems to be something he had copied, probably from a book by another artist. It clearly meant something to dad, or else why would he have taken the trouble to have written it all out so neatly? The gist of the piece is in this passage:
When I walk into my studio there’s no doubt I’m spending a day with a trusted friend. Because after all the periods of uncertainties and gloom, mixed with exhilaration and flashes of inspiration, I discovered that really, Art and I wanted the same thing . . .
And the next part is in capital letters, as though this is also what dad wanted.
Art and I wanted the same thing: A PERSONAL AND CREATIVE RESPONSE TO EXISTENCE.
The essay talks about how the artist – how dad – allowed his innermost spirit to perform freely and with no reservations. His paintings and drawings were driven by pure joy. The images he created on a sheet of paper were his personal imprint.
Art, the essay says, is not what is painted but how it is painted.
Dad was a commercial artist for most of his life, but it was only in later years – just recently – that he dropped the commercial side and took up painting for pleasure, and it was then I think he became a true artist.
I think Dad was genuinely happy in the last few years of his life. He found religion after mum died, and I think he got a lot of strength from his God and from the Bible. By then he had met Brenda and her family, and being with Brenda gave another dimension to his life. Then of course Chelsea won back-to-back league titles, and that made him happy. But, just as important I think, he had fallen in love again with Art, and I know that made him more than happy. I think it gave him a sense of fulfilment. It was then that his art began to be his personal and creative response to his existence.
Art is not what is painted but how it is painted. In the same way, life is not what is lived, but how it is lived.