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Monday will be the first anniversary of my father’s death and as I approach it I realise what an extraordinary year it has been for me.

It is fair to say we did not get on and that throughout most of my life we had a difficult and problematical relationship, the details of which are not really important now. To go into them would not honour the last hours we spent together, and how,in those hours, my life started to change, and has changed for the better, as I have integrated the experience into my life.

In the period leading up to those hours, he had decided to refuse hospitalisation for an infection and then food, which reflected a choice he had made, that it was time to go. This was understandable in terms of the diminishing possibilities of his life, as Parkinson’s decreased his powers and pleasures. In choosing to die then, my father, if I knew him at all, was hoping for a good death, which as I understood it then and understand it now, involved being at peace.

For this, he asked me a few months before, in a period when he wished to make amends, that I come when the time came and sit and be still with him. This is something he had seen me do when my mother was dying and is a capacity which I have developed through learning and teaching the Alexander Technique. As a capacity, it involves being very present to the person you are with and attuning yourself deeply to their breathing.

When my mother was dying this was relatively simple, in that she required someone just to be there with her, witnessing her struggle within herself between good Barbara and bad Barbara, as she prepared to release herself. My father needed more holding. In many ways, this reflected a struggle I think he had within himself all his life that only resolved itself in those final hours.

That struggle was not unique to him, it was present for many men who became ministers in the Church of Scotland. He was capable of inspiring others in his work and influencing them greatly, as I was greatly privileged to hear of from someone who knew him at the weekend. What they often saw was his feminine side, his devotional side, where he was, I suspect, a lovely man. My relationship was somewhat different, as it often is for children of people with a public role. I experienced a different man, a man shackled within a system that was inherently patriarchal and authoritarian, a man systemically bound from showing himself, his beauty and finding his own ‘preciousness beyond reason’ for himself.

In that last period of time we spent together, I entered his reality which was of the physical resurrection and suggested we say the Jesus prayer from the Orthodox Christian tradition which I had recently come across in working with a client. In doing this I was very much coming from my professional standpoint of needing to enter the reality of others to understand and help them, as well as that of a man faced with a dying father in pain and not at peace, and needing to enter his reality, however much I did not share it.

I am so glad I did. The prayer has a particular breathing pattern and by leading my father through its simplicity of what to say, on which part of the breathing cycle, he gradually settled, into the pattern, and then himself as we repeated it for just over an hour and a half.  When I left he was at peace, away from the horror that had been developing that morning. His beauty was radiant, he was physically changed, in a way that I can understand and measure as an Alexander Teacher, and maintaining the pattern, when I left, of a man at peace in himself. He was on his way to the good death that he wanted and which occurred shortly afterwards.

The change was not just in him, it was in me as well, and it has taken me fully this year to realise it in myself, to find the peace and physical change in my ongoing life that I experienced then for myself,  as I ministered to him. Something I suspect he always wanted from me, playing a part in the difficulties we had and ultimately in the resolution we achieved together, where I was just a man tending to his father in dying. Now I am the boy who has lost his dad and whose life is just beginning again. I know of no better way to end this very personal blog than to quote from a poem we both loved and seems so well to sum up what happened that day:


And any action

Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat

Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start.

We die with the dying:

See, they depart and we go with them.

We are born with the dead:

See, they return, and bring us with them.

Elliot, T.S. (1944) Four Quartets London: Faber & Faber p42

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