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My Dad

When the call came in, not only was I the small matter of 12,000 miles away, but essentially in the middle of nowhere, on a outward bound course with a dozen 15-year-olds in the Victorian Alps; no electricity or running water, and contactable only via satellite phone.

The message, not entirely unexpected, but still nonetheless distressing and wholly unwelcome said that my Dad had had a heart attack and, with a less than positive prognosis, was in Glasgow's Southern General Hospital.

Anyone with an elderly parent will be acutely aware of the implications of any deterioration in their health. It's complicated: feelings of love, fear, responsibility, guilt and uncertainty all jumble around in your head, compounded and intensified by the fact that, in my case and of course for many other expatriates, huge distances make the act of just being getting there – being with them – a logistical nightmare as well as a protracted, anxiety-filled process.

However, despite everything, there are times when something – an instinct more than a rational consideration – tells you that, no matter how convoluted or difficult it is, you simply have to get there.

And that’s how it was for me. I had to be there. I knew I had to be there.

Incommunicado for the duration of the journey, I was met by my brother at Glasgow Airport expecting to hear the worst, but no, Dad was still fighting, desperately, gravely ill but alive, still with us, hanging on grimly, doubtless a consequence of his trademark strength, determination and sheer bloody mindedness.

In no time at all we made it to the hospital, rushing through a Glasgow I hadn’t seen for a while and one that didn’t really register except that it was sunnier than I’d expected and a whole lot busier than I remembered.

Jet lagged and grimy with travel, I was soon at the old man’s bedside. He looked old and very sick, but it was still him, his broad shoulders, tanned skin and ‘Scotland’ tattoo immediately identifiable.

My Dad. My Father. Drew.

Although I’d been warned a massive heart attack and a subsequent stroke had caused irreparable damage and that he almost certainly wouldn’t respond or even be aware of my presence, Dad turned his head and looked directly at me – or maybe I imagined he did – and then, literally within 30 seconds of me arriving, he was gone.

Peacefully, quietly and without fuss, he had slipped away. My Dad died.

But I’d seen him. He’d hung on. Maybe it was a coincidence – the likelihood of course is that it was and that's the medical, rational explanation - but I don’t believe that. He’d hung on. I saw him. He knew.

So many feelings. So many memories. Childhood trips to the swimming baths, the huge splash he made as he entered the water. Family holidays in Blackpool and then, later, Benidorm. Saturday morning school football games at the 50 Pitches. New Year sing-alongs at my Aunt’s house – Sinatra, Tony Bennett - the rat pack comes to Balornock. Two nights and a Sunday at double time just to keep his family in good shape. Made-to-measure suits from Claude Alexander or Hector Powe, shirts by Arthur Black. Frank Skerrit on the radio, Arthur Montford and Archie McPherson on telly.

A Glasgow that doesn’t exist anymore. Happy days.

Even though Dad had slowed down in recent years and had been profoundly affected by my Mum’s death - after 60 years of marriage - he nevertheless still retained his lust for life.

Three times a week he visited Renfrew swimming baths where he knew everyone and everyone knew him. An unabashed sun worshipper – (the merest hint of some rays and he was out in his tiny back garden with the Ambre Solaire) – he still loved his holidays. Spain, Portugal, Greece, Las Vegas and even Egypt where in early September this year, he’d snorkelled in the warm waters of the Red Sea.

A few years ago he’d even made the trip to Oz and had considered taking surfing lessons before deciding that – at 80 – he might be a "wee bit too auld".

The things you remember. The deep, whooping laugh as he watched – for the umpteenth time, his favourite comedy shows, chief amongst which was the brilliant Only Fools and Horses, word perfect on the dialogue he was, he’d watched it that often.

The fitba’ – a long time Bluenose, in absolutely no doubt that Big Corky Young, ‘Deedle’ Waddle and Slim Jim Baxter would have made mugs of the current crop of mediocre international mercenaries.

And, of course, the music. Sinatra, Jimmy Roselli and Jack Jones – ‘It Had to be You’, ‘I left My Heart in San Francisco’, ‘There Must Be a Way’ and his particular, quirky party piece, Hogey Carmichael's ‘Huggin and A-Chalkin’.

The love Dad had for his family was, in the classic tradition, rarely articulated, but nevertheless unambiguous. He demonstrated it by slipping you the odd fiver, supporting you in your madcap ventures, never holding grudges and by relieving family tensions with a caustic aside or a groan- inducing gag.

Even now, I can hardly believe I’ll never see him again. Never again call him up from Australia, bellowing down the line to overcome industrial deafness, a legacy of 40 years as a boilermaker. Never again will I have to remember buy his cigars from the duty free – ‘King Eddie’s – Coronas – the big wans’. My father is dead. Maybe it’s time to grow up.

My Dad, Drew Johnston, embodied humanity and integrity. And that’s not just my opinion. At his funeral purvey – now there’s another word which is surely disappearing from the Glasgow vernacular – mourner after mourner, many of whom I didn’t know, loads I hadn’t seen for many years, testified to the fact.

"Your old man, Drew, was one of the good guys. A great bloke. A privilege to have known him. He’ll be sadly missed."

It took me more than 30 hours to see him. 12,000 miles, nine different forms of transport, umpteen different time zones. One day I was in the Australian High Country dealing with Aussie teenagers suffering mobile phone withdrawal, the next I’m at the bedside of my dying Dad in a hospital in Govan.

A long, long journey. But one I’m glad I made.

See ya sometime, Dad. And thanks for everything.

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