Saturday 16 January 2016

In the name of the Father?

My dearly departed Dad
This has been a very bad week. We've seen the deaths of Bowie and Alan Rickman, for many of us iconic figures. We also saw the funeral of Brad, the drummer of The Specials. 2016 has started in devastating fashion. Bowie, predicting his death, released his final single Lazarus. In light of what happened, many people wondered if there was a message in the title. In the new testament, Lazarus was raised from the dead by Jesus, after a period of several days. Folklore tells us that Lazarus ended up fleeing to Cyprus, as his neighbours were scared of him. Given his unique position in history, it is not really surprising. Bowie starts the song with the line "Look up here, I'm in heaven". I had a trawl through the twitter feed of the Archbishop of Atheism, Richard Dawkins twitter feed to see what he had to say about Bowies sentiments. Strangely he had no comment. I suppose when Bowie dies, with that being the opening to his recently released single, it can be taken as a difficult day at the office if you are Dawkins.

It makes many of us think "what really happens when we die to our soul". It seems to me that there are four distinct positions. The first is the hard line atheist line "Thats your lot pal, you simply cease to exist and your body becomes food for the worms". The second, which I suspect is the prevalent position in the UK, is "I really don't know and no one has convinced me either way". For many of us this is a quite logical position. How can we really be sure? The third line is "I believe that the soul survives, but I don't believe in religion or God". Many are put off by the rituals, behaviours and ceremonies of the various faiths we have. Some of us have had experiences, which lead us to conclude the sou survives, but none of the recognised faiths really give us the confidence that they are right. The final group are those with strong religious faith and a certainty that our brand of religion is correct. Which of these positions is the most logical and sensible? Well that is a question each of us as an individual has to decide.

For me personally, I've subscribed to all four positions in my life. I started life in a Roman Catholic family, an alter server and a regular church goer. By the time I was 14, this no longer worked. I then fell into the "I don't know and no one has convinced me either way".  By the time I was 18, I'd moved into the staunch atheist camp. I saw no evidence to support any form of continuity of life and I was fairly convinced by the the writings of some promenant atheists of the time. I can remember seeing Julian Lennon being interviewed and saying that John Lennon had told him that if he survived, he'd send a signal in the form of a white feather falling from the sky. No feather had fallen so clearly Lennon was gone. The famous escape artist, Harry Houdini had also said that he'd escape from heaven and prove that there was life after death, if such a place existed. clearly Houdini didn't come back. At the time the "live life for today" and a hedonistic lifestyle worked for me.

My views were radically changed when I was 24. The reason for this is largely down to my father. He was a war hero, an RAF pilot and someone who I revered, although I didn't always get on with him. I thought he was superman. He'd been in the RAF, flown 40 active missions in Wellington bombers. He'd been shot down in flames on the 40th mission, been taken prisoner of war and escaped and made it back to the UK. In 1986, he had his gall bladder removed and for the first time ever, I realised he may die. This shook me to the core. All of a sudden, I needed some sort of help from somewhere. I put my atheism to one side and I prayed. Sadly for me, I ignored the advice my mother had given me. She said "be careful what you pray for, as God will answer your prayers, but what you ask for may not be what you really want". So seeing my magnificent Dad lying at deaths door, I prayed that he'd make a full recovery and I could take him out for one last curry". Seemingly miraculously,  in a few short days, he'd made a full recovery. He was proud of the washers and metal they'd inserted to hold him together. He decided to go on a cruise with my mum around the Med. When they returned, they planned a trip for the winter to the USA to see mys sister, who lived in Florida. I remembered my prayer. My mum went to Bournemouth to visit her sister, leaving my Dad at a loose end, for a weekend before his trip. We fixed up a curry. I was overjoyed that he was better.

We went to the Mill Hill Tandoori. He loved this, because my mum hated curry. We had a good few pints and then went home and washed it down with half a bottle of scotch. I told him of my prayer. He said "never underestimate the power of prayer". He was a staunch Roman Catholic and he told me how during the war, his faith had susteained him. I asked him why he was so certain. He told me the story of when he was shot down. His plane was flying from Foggia in Italy to Ploesti in Romania to bomb an oil refinery. His mind was on what happened when he got back. It would be the end of his tour and he'd be sent back for leave to the UK. His crew had defied the odds and survived. He was just making the final checks as they approached for their bombing run, when he looked and to his amazement, another member of his squadron, a Jack Scheider, who had been shot down the previous week was sitting in the co-pilot seat of the Wellington. Scheider gave my father a mournful look and said "It's a killer the way these Wimpys go down". Before my father could sya anything, Scheider disappeared and at that moment all hell broke loose. A volley of machine gun fire from a Messerschmidt night fighter took out his rear gunner, the fighter then shot out his engine and he lost control of the plane. All of the crew, apart from his rear gunner F/O Andrew Murphy, who was already dead baled out. As pilot, my father was the last one out.  He told me that in the panic, he had a moment of calm. He said a prayer, as was his want to the Virgin Mary. He prayed that he would see out his Three Score and Ten years, as promised in the bible. He said that in return he'd try and bring up any family he had as best he could. He survived and we are here today. He said that if you ever have a crisis, there is always time for a quiet prayer and it will always help.

I've got to confess that I didn't really take any of this in at the time. I just had a great evening. I returned back to my flat in the morning and I felt good with the world. I didn't give the conversation any more thought. In fact the only thing I realy thought about was arranging another curry with my Dad when he returned from Florida. Sadly, as my mother had cautioned me, I had said the wrong prayer. I got just what I asked for. Even more ironically, so had my father. He was sixty nine (coincidentally the age of Bowie), in his 70th year. He returned from Florida in late January and died of heart attack the next day. I was dumbstruck. This was the last thing I was expecting. I was angry and confused. I was most angry at myself. As soon as I heard the news, I felt great guilt for my poory constructed prayer. Us Roman Catholics are great at beating ourselves up with guilt. How I envy Dawkins and his certainty that all superstition is nonsense.

Lazarus. The man who rose from the dead. Oh if it were true. If only such things happened. Now at this point in the tale from woe, a very strange thing happened. Sometimes you have experiences that call your own sanity into question. I had just such an experience two days after my Father passed away. I've only ever shared this with friends previously, but I feel that now is the right time to mention it here. I awoke to find my father (in a very strange form) standing at the end of my bed. This was not a dream. My then girlfriend (now wife) confirms that I was not dreaming. She realised but didn't open her eyes as, in her words "it was a private moment". Even more strange was the fact that we shared a moment of psychic communication. He simply gave me a message that he wanted me to pass on to my mother. What was the message "Tell your mother, I am so sorry I left her, I promised her I wouldn't but I simply couldn't stay". And that was it. he was gone. I have not had a similar experience before or since. When my mum died, I simply felt she'd gone. I was probably closer to my Mum than my Dad, so try as I may, I couldn't rationally explain it.

The stranger thing was that I thought the message was complete nonsense. Why would someone who died of a heart attack need to apologise for going? Several weeks later, I was up the pub with my sisters and I mentioned the experience. They seemed a bit put out that they'd not had such a visit. Especially Caro, who shared a birthday with my Dad and was always his favourite. Of all my siblings, I had the most difficult relationship with my father. Once I hit puberty, I simply rubbed him up the worng way all of the time. We had several physicl fights. He thought I was a lazy good for nothing slob through most of my teens. We had long periods of not speaking, months on end. The last of these only finished six months before he died. It wasn't that we didn't love each other, I just think we were both strong characters. When we got on, we got on absolutely brilliantly. My father always got my sense of of humour. He got my cheeky manner. He was a co-conspiritor in many shenangians. One time when I was facing down a gang of skinheads in Mill Hill Broadway with a broken bottle, he appeared behind them with an iron bar. He seemed quite disappointed when they ran away. He took me to the Mill Hill Services club afterwards to celebrate our routing of the forces of evil. I asked him what he was doing there. He simply said "I'd felt compelled to go for a drive and I saw you and thought "That looks like a bit of fun". I'll never forget the sight of my Dad waiving an iron bar, shouting "Look at them running away from a pensioner!". For my father, it was the icing on the cake. Personally I could think of no pensioner I'd less rather face down, if they were waiving an iron Bar.

My father what can only really be discribed as a hardnut. He'd been a boxer in the RAF and won medals. When he was sixty six, he'd been robbed by two thugs with an iron bar in Mill Hill Broadway, as he collected the wages for his business. Despite being outnumbered 2 to 1 and being unarmed, he'd fought them off. My mother had asked what he'd have done if they'd had guns. His response "I'd have thrown the money on the floor and when they'd bent down to pick it up, I'd have kicked them in the head, taken their gun and shot them. He wasn't joking. Around the same time, he was putting up a spray booth at his business. He'd had a scaffold pole dropped on his head. He had to sit down for half an hour and have a cup of tea. Six months later, complaining of neck pain, an X-ray revealed a fractured vertibrae in the neck.

After his death, my Mum was devastated. She simply wasn't prepared for such a thing. She was a fighter, but she was deeply unhappy. I didn't mention the message my father had given me to her. I thought it was simply too stupid. I didn't want what was most likely a figment of my over fertile imagination to upset her any more. What possible purpose was there in simpy raking up such a thing. About eighteen months after his death, I was sitting with my mum having a beer. I would visit most nights and share a Guinness, right up to her death. We were chatting away. Then she said "Caroline tells me that you saw an apparition of your father after he passed away". I said "Yes". Then she said "I had a dream that your father was sitting here having a beer. We were having a lovely time, then I remembered he was dead. I became quite cross and said 'why didn't you send me a message' and he said to ask you". This really put me on the spot. I said "Well I got a message, but it really didn't make any sense at all". She said "look, it was a message for me. Just tell me". So I had no choice. The reaction was the total opposite to what I expected. She exploded into a flood of tears. This was very unlike my mother. She berated me "Why didn't you tell me this before?". I weakly responded that I didn't think it made sense. She then said "I've been furious at your father since he died. He always promised that he'd never leave me. I'd started to hate him for this and you have known all of this time".  I felt absolutely awful and left in a terrible state.

I didn't see my mum for a few days. I thought she was too cross with me to see me. Then she rang and said "Why haven't you come around for a Guinness". I lied and said that I'd been too busy, but promised to visit that night. When I got around, she said "I'm not cross with you. I realised that I was not ready for the message before. Your father had told you because he knew you'd tell  me at the right time". I was really relieved. She said that she was now ready to move on and had booked up to go on a cruise.

Coincidence? Superstition? Who knows. I'm not seeking to change anyone elses mind. There are probably a thousand rational explanations for what happened. But I would be being totally dishonest if I didn't state that I 100% believe that my Father sent that message and that for me it was proof enough that something persists after we depart this mortal coil. I am not sure if that was an important part of what my Dad was trying to tell me or not, but its good enough for me. Next January it will be 30 years since he left us. I miss him.

No comments: