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A week in the life of James Beckett Rutherford

July 2004

July: Making plans to go over to South Africa after my sister, Anne, lets me know that dad is back in hospital. In a phone call last night she told me how they got him to the hospital. Nancy phoned Anne to say he needed to go back. Anne tried to get him into the hospice that Noel went to before he died, but they only take cancer and AIDS, then Nancy phoned again and said he was going back to the same hospital, St Augustines, that he was discharged from a week or so ago.

And apparently Nancy was having to wash and wipe him after toilet, etc. so it sounds like he is in a bad way, but I expect he is still smoking. Anyway, they had to get Bruce to carry him down the stairs and out of the flat, then there was a bit of a hitch at the hospital where no one knew where to go – and it just so happened that some black people gave them wrong directions and then, the story goes… Bruce found someone white who corrected them – I’m sure this happened but fascinating how old Suid Afrika is still there, and hard to believe that colour can be so correct… otherwise why mention it? Anne visited dad later and he had been fitted with a catheter because he had been unable to stop wetting the bed, and when she left she thought he had looked a bit better, even though he had an oxygen mask on.

A month or two ago Anne emailed me to tell me of his health deterioration, that she had visited him in the flat where he was smoking with one breath and then taking a hit from his oxygen tank the next, and being pleased with himself as if he’d found the miracle cure, and I’d remarked if it wasn’t so sad I would have burst out laughing to see such a spectacle. Both he and Nancy suffer from emphysema after years as heavy smokers, but now that Nancy had quit it was particularly thoughtless of him to smoke in front of her…

9 July: Its Wednesday, nearly seven in the morning and Sasha, one of the dogs, has come into the room, her head seeming to work the rest of her body and wagging her whole rear end – both dogs seem to have recognised me from our previous visits – unlike my dad, who maybe, just maybe, knows who I am… I remember suggesting to Callum, my grandson, that he should write all his thoughts down just after his dad, James, had suddenly died of a drugs overdose – so I am determined to write it all down, as time goes by memory can be so selective.

We eventually got a flight organised for me – and Ann, my darling wife, and I set off for Birmingham Airport on Sunday the 6th, at 10.30am. Emirates flew me to Dubai on the first leg of a very cosmopolitan and exotic flight, a plane full of what may have been every variety of human being, observing and listening was a delight. And I was one of the few not even bothered by mischievious and bored small dark children– sometimes I wonder at my reversed ‘racism’ and thought, if the children had been spoilt white would I have been the same…? Already I could pick out a few disdainful white South Africans and I took a perverse pleasure in watching their reaction at being in close proximity to Asians, Arabs and big black women!

It was the middle of the night when we landed and outside Dubai was 35° but inside the huge air-conditioned hall of the airport it just seemed warm as I wandered through the Duty Free, fake giant palm trees, truly grand opulance combined with painted reliefs of Arabian Nights and a phoney Irish Bar – well it did sell Guinness I suppose. Our stop here was a bit longer than it needed to be and after sitting on the cold marble floor, hoping to cool down but only losing some feeling in my legs, we ended up, still very cosmopolitan and being squeezed into a sparate lounge for the Dubai to Johannesburg flight, where every seat was taken, being forced to face each other.

There was me, being such a smug observer, still enjoying the obvious discomfort of some white South Africans when I faced my own dilema. An old white guy sat opposite me, staring me hard in the eye, beside him, and with him, sat an attractive black woman. This couple seemed to be shunned by both the small community of white South Africans, whose male components had even adopted me into their midst with their knowing winking and smiling, and by the groups of black South Africans. At first I just continued my observing in a detached way, taking in this variety of human sorts and letting my mind evaluate their attitudes, then I saw the hard staring guy was still staring at me, but I wanted him to know that my staring wasn’t the disapproving kind, I couldn’t care less about his relationship with a black person, my eyes looked everywhere but at him, but in the corner of my eye I could see and feel his glare – he was a hurt man. To my relief we were soon herded onto the plane, being very briefly exposed to the 35° which made the plane so cool.

Dad was flitting in and out of my thoughts, stories told to me and Ann when we had visited Milngavie a couple of years ago, like when his favourite older brother, Davie, who was working nights got my dad up and dressed for school in the middle of the night… and dad’s favourite retold tale about his dog which hung around Milngavie and stole fish off the fishmongers slab. I had brought a video camera to record anything he wanted to pass on, and this laptop loaded with photos of his great-grandchildren, and a card from Tanya and the boys – I was even trying to think of jokey ways to talk to him, always presuming he would be compos mentis, about death and life… remembering him as he was last time I had seen him, a couple of years ago when he had visited us for a week or so and we had chatted and chatted. Then the shock as I saw him in the hospital bed, almost unrecognisable, unshaven, sunken cheeks, the palest blue eyes flitting about with only the very merest hint of recognition – and that may have been wishful thinking on my part. Oh dad, I’ve arrived too late to burdon you on your journey from this life with all my excess baggage. It soon became very apparent that all my plans were void, here was a man whose mind had left the building, he was finding it hard to breathe, he looked like he was trying to focus, but on what? He did seem to know me and did ask where Ann was, I’d like to believe he knew I was there – but his countenance was just barely recognisable as my dad. Visiting time was an hour of mumblings, abrupt ‘what!’s where he almost seemed like he was going to say something to us, and then away again, very little made any sense, some ramblings about being chairman of a club and ‘there was some monkey business going on’ and that frightened look. I remembered as children how we used to come into mom and dads’ bedroom, when we lived in Hillary, on a Sunday morning and all three of us kids climb into his bed where he would read Robert Burns to us in his strongest Scots accent, ‘Wee, sleekit, cow’rin’, tim’rous beastie, O what a panic’s in thy breastie…’ – its you dad, its you! Oh dear…

Tuesday the 8th, and the second visit, he had been moved, and it was obvious to us and probably all in his ward that he had messed his nappy. Nancy, his second wife, was with us and obviously upset and distressed to see him in this condition. He seemed aware of our presence and the fact that he had shit himself. For such a proud, sometimes distant but always independent man to be reduced to this utterly helpless state is very very sad, and were he to realise his predicament would surely kill him, so fortunately or unfortunately he is still with us, but not really there at all. He was changed to ooohs, ahs and a very happy sounding giggle, which made us all wonder what the young nurse was up to behind those screens, once clean we again circled the bed waiting for his mind to return. But other than an almost frightened look of unrecognition and whatever they had fed him continuing to fill his clean nappy, with the smell causing his bed-neighbour to have handcream rubbed into his hand by a forced-smiling woman and then shoved under his nose, nothing.

Having said all that, as we left Anne had the most wonderful smile and hand salute directed at her, where he regained the face I recognise, but only for a few seconds and then he was gone again. A mixture of envy and generousity swept me – if he had returned for that brief period, it was a wonderful recognition for her efforts – Anne is trying to arrange Frail Care at a hospice as the hospital can do no more for him, it’s just a matter of making him comfortable for the rest of his days.

Wednesday the 9th, and during a visit to dad and Nancy’s flat I see that book of poems – the one from which the Burns poem was read from all those Sundays ago – I pick it up and find the poem, I ask Nancy if I can have it and then hold it close, all those memories tumbling out… After a day of meeting a social worker who seemed unaware that dad was in hospital and flitting about with Anne and Nancy trying to get this Frail Care set up, them two inside Anne’s bucky and me in the back, trying to look all casual as I watch the traffic trailing us through the Berea – visiting Natal Settlers – an elderly people’s home just below the Cemetry which just happened to be almost opposite Clivia Court where we had lived before I left in 1964!

Mentioning that we had lived in Clivia Court to the guy in the office at Natal Settlers elicited this reply, ‘Oh yes you were lucky to live there then, I lived nearby and as our neighbours died or left THEY (knowing look) moved in and soon there were fights and bottles tumbling down the stairs, and girls about and …you know…’ Shit, this new South Africa is still riddled with a racist cancer.

Third visit: Dad was a bit more agitated, he had on a blue gown with ties at the back and a matching nappy, he was soothed a bit when I held his hand, but his gaunt frightened expression, eyes darting and widening as if in shock, remained almost constant throughout our visit. I can only imagine that if he were there, facing death was scaring the shit out of him. I was transported back to Hillary, my mom was digging for a thorn in my foot and my dad was distracting me with tales of bravado – he was an observer-gunner in a Tiger Moth and he opened his shirt to show me his shrapnel wounds on his chest – a story I believed until he told me he had made it up – nearly thirty years later on one of his visits. All I wanted to do was hug the life out of him, but didn’t for fear of rejection – he was not a touchy-feely person – he was out of reach, maybe already gone.

We wondered if he slept at all, and couldn’t he be made more comfortable, morphine or something… Anne noticed something odd in his mouth which I thought were his teeth come loose, but when she scooped it out it was the remnants of a previous meal just hanging about in his mouth. He seemed in pain and in some distress and we all agreed we just wanted him free of pain and comfortable for the remaining days of his life. Both Anne and Nancy approached the nurses with this concern but were fobbed off – he’s not a priority as he is not really ill, he should not really be there, and they are just keeping an eye on him? It seems he may have a place at Natal Settlers, if the paperwork goes OK, but only from Monday, and that’s five days away…

In the evening Anne, Jade and I make a huge vegetable lasagne for Bruce and Madelaine, Ruth and Harry, Jade and Robbie, Anne and Charles, Mel, and me. Its OK. Anne mentions her plans to move to Bethulie in the Orange Free State to Ruth who, surprisingly, is dismissive of the idea to the point of being rude – I thought she would have been supportive of an adventurous idea like this, but there you go.

Ann phones like she has each night and I tell her about the day, we both end up sobbing and I really miss her.

Anne gives me a shake, it’s early Thursday the 10th, ‘dad died at about 2 last night’. I am relieved, happy and sad, he is gone.

Talking about him brings tears to my eyes, and then you realise you can’t talk for fear of just breaking down and the conversation dies in a strangled half sentence and averted watery eyes. We set off to tell Nancy, and she is very upset repeating that ‘she knew…’ We meet Trevor, Nancy’s son who is deaf, and I have a longish chat with him where I get the feeling that Nancy’s plans to have him live with her and eventually leave him the flat are not what Trevor wants – he wants to go over to England and live with his sisters…? Anne and I find that Nancy agrees with us when we say that dad would not have wanted any fuss or religion at his funeral. Then, with some documents we set off to find Doves the Undertakers. A friendly man called Dirk talked us through it and made arrangements for a service in their smallest chapel, 12 noon Friday. Dad’s ashes would be scattered in the Garden of Rememberance.

Death, a concept of sweet taboo, not to be talked about too openly, but can be written about surely – Anne, who claims to be a born again Christian, will believe dad is in heaven, with mom and Brian, and all his brothers and sisters, and so on, and that’s fine… whereas I find it very difficult, with all the inconsistencies thrown up by humans trying to explain the unexplainable, to believe in a higher being so cruel and merciless and consequently believe you live and then you die, in between you procreate like all species, giving encouragement to your offspring and making a mark in the history of some – and in that way you live on… I think dad thought the same way, but we never discussed it. I also think in life, because we humans have an ability– however feeble and narrow – to imagine and also reason methodically and intellectually, we will use whatever we need to get through this life, and if you need a crutch because you cannot face the fact that we are just a minute, and probably insignificant, part of the 4,600 million year evolution of the gaseous third planet of a minor sun in an infinite universe… then go for it! Reel me in, I’m done.

A visit to Jade and Robbies’ neat little house cements arrangements for the funeral when Jade agrees to make a sort of announcement and we would play some Frank Sinatra. A slight hiccup has risen to the top of the cup when Nancy, who agreed with the no religion bit, has now been influenced by Vivian, one of her friends, who thinks there should be a minister … or people will talk!

Ann phones after Anne and Charles have had an early night, the phone is in their room, so my end of the conversation is a bit subdued as two people stare at my back from their beds, Ann is very upset – more than I ever was and I wish I was there to console her. She is going to phone Ian in Milngavie. I miss her very much and cannot wait to get back. It’s been a long week and tomorrow concludes ‘my dad’. I think I might read out the ‘Vapour Trails’ story, well it depends…

Friday the 11th, I go with my nephew Bruce to visit his workplace, Bramprint, and get shown around – meeting Mervyn an Indian Hindu and ‘his brother’ (sorry the name eludes me), a muslim, who works on the printing press next to him. As I’m waiting for Bruce, who has to get a delivery together, Mervyn explains the sign ‘Lower your gaze’ above his machine – flirting with women is OK, but infidelity is wrong, so lower your gaze – refreshingly succinct. Bruce takes me to Doves, with CD player, Frank and my laptop with a couple of pics of dad.

We go in at about ten to twelve and set up laptop and CD player, we are not expecting many, if any, but about seven or so bowls club people turn up. I am surprised that there doesn’t seem to be a coffin, and that there are not any ‘mates’ that Nancy could have contacted, but then I remember he never was one for mates, and that I suppose the bowls club bunch were his pals – although none speak to me or Anne. Jade does her welcome chat and explains about no minister and that we would just like to play some music dad liked and those present should take a moment to celebrate and remember the life of James Beckett Rutherford. I’m trying desperately to think of dad but end up thinking of mom, and Brian, both I never got to say goodbye to either.

Added to a long list of serious illnesses Brian had to contend with my sibling teasing, I sometimes teased him until he cried… what an awful shit brother I must have been. Pulling myself back from the welling tears… Dad… yes he would come home from work, sit in his chair reading the paper with us all huddled around the radio, and as the evening wore on the shuffling turning of the pages of the Daily News would be replaced by a jerk-collapsing of the broadsheet as it crumpled over his face… and then that magnificent snoring.

Funny, I don’t ever remember him having a bath – and never saw him naked – even when we went swimming. In the changing rooms, he would change around a corner. Oh yes… swimming in the Municipal Baths in the centre of Durban was an early memory, where he could swim underwater from one end to the other – something I tried to copy… and that, I conclude, really sums it all up – my whole life has been about trying to please him, almost all achievements have been done with one eye looking for that spoken approval which never came, or to be fair, only seemed to come rarely and was muted to a whisper… oh well, goodbye dad.

Nancy just hangs her head and Anne smiles a bit. Frank croons Blue Moon, Always, When you’re smiling and Anything goes – Jade switches it off and thanks everyone for coming. Some, well all, of the bowls club crowd look a bit puzzled, but that’s it. Nancy mentioned that no one actually enquired about dad while he was in hospital and that they were only here now that the club had been told he was dead – also that they would be flying the flag at half-mast!

It’s almost like, after my mother died in 1969, I knew very little of his life with Nancy, and now here we were reclaiming our dad, but not really, as Nancy was married to dad for longer than my mom, but it kind of felt like that – anyway I think dad would have liked the brevity and respect of the occasion.

All during this visit I’ve had a wad of British pounds in my pocket, I wanted to change them into Rands but by design, I think, Anne has not taken me anywhere near an exchange – so I have not really paid my way… I leave £60 and a small lantern (gift) to light their way and maybe buy some knickknacks for their move to Bethulie.

The flights home are separated with a mind-numbing, middle of the night, seven and a half hour stop in Dubai, where all manner of humanity come and go, leaving me sat on one of the few seats, tired and dazed… and then I’m in Birmingham, Ann and home.


A letter to Thorpe & Hands about dad’s will

Dear Mr Phillips

Thank you for your letter dated 25 July, and your condolences.

Your letter included several sheets showing a copy of my fathers’ Will, an Inventory: Immovable and Movable Property, and on page 4 – Claims in Favour of the Estate…? This page 4, which I have been told by my sister, was included by mistake by you, and obviously refers to someone else’s Will… someone who had considerably more to leave than my father… caused some initial confusion and could easily have led to some embarrassing confrontations within the family. It would have, or has, further compounded a very sad time where my father died in a rather distressed state, taking a week or so to deteriorate from a very proud and independent man into someone almost unrecognisable, uncomfortable, incontinent, helpless, fearfully agitated and seemingly unable to recognise us when we visited him in a hospital which barely tolerated his presence… All in all, your letter, containing its still uncorrected inclusion, seems to me to complement the rather shoddy way my father was treated as he died – with no respect! I was also told by my sister that you would be sending another letter, which would have the correct details – neither she, nor I, have received this letter… As a matter of courtesy, an attempt at belated respect and just common decency… or just to earn your fee with some dignity…, please send me, and my sister, the correct details and let us sign whatever we have to sign.

Of course, if page 4 actually refers to my father and his estate, I appologise for the tone of this communique, but please explain, in layman’s terms, the discrepancy between R314000 mentioned in the meat of your letter and the R1074308 totalled up at the end of page 4?

Best wishes

Alan Rutherford


A beautiful concluding email from my sister, Anne, after sending her the whole story above…


Thanks fot the letter, and it was quite somthing to read about dad again. I had a little cry (of course). You are lucky to have some nice memories of dad when we were young, I don’t remember him reading to us, I only remember him playing cricket with us at Hillary and that not too clearly. Slight memory of me going down the hill on that little cart thing he used to slide under his car when he worked on it, and coming off face first and him rubbing my hair… and then the only thing in Bellair was him sitting on a chair on the verander with his legs up on the wall and his balls were sticking out squashed on the side of his pants, I went and told mom and she woke him up (what a memory!). Not much else and when we stayed in the flat in Park Street nothing much of dad, more of mom with her tablets and walking around looking drunk and not wanting people to know she was my mom, terrible! Then in Clivia Court – not much about dad at all – only when I met Noel and he wouldn’t say hello to him so we used to meet outside! and the most important thing – he used to take me out and drop me off and pick me up every weekend, but we never spoke? Maybe a hello, that was it (so different with our kids ) – and you and Apples (Hedley Appleby) bunking and the most awful time at the Umbilo flat when I was going out with Noel (still) and mom tried to be polite, but the three of us sitting in the dining room whispering (not to disturb dad) and she always brought out pictures of you and Ann to show (anyone who came to visit, which was hardly anyone), and was Joanna born before mom died? sorry I don’t remember dates at all. Mom was usually always sick or zonked on her tablets and I can remember how awful I felt coming home every day because I never knew if she was going to be OK or funny (I really wish I could have that time again and be me now, not the stupid inconsiderate impatient daughter as I was then) how I long for mom …

And Brian as well, he was such a lost soul, not too many friends, couldn’t get on with dad, didn’t like Nancy. He came to stay with Noel, Paul and I and then we couldn’t handle his moods (smoking dagga). He used to read romsam lumpa (something like that) and throw coins which told him things? can’t remember what now, but he used to climb out and in the window at night, instead of using the door, and do you know what I did Alan, you will hate me … Noel said we couldn’t have Brian staying with us when we moved to Tongaat, so I told him and just left him with his little pile of belongings … and thats when he went to Guys’ to stay – he had nowhere else. When he died I felt so guilty … and mom, why didn’t I get her help … what was wrong with me?

Anyway I have cried this whole time – reading your note and writing this one, now I have a headache … I really don’t deserve three wonderful children who think I’m the best mom alive.

What a bladdy letter, I was going to tell you about the ducks, ect … don’t know what happened, Old guilt that I can’t get rid of maybe … can’t even remember what mom looked like.

Hope this letter doesn’t upset you but I am sending it. Will send you a cheerful one later after I write to Paul … going to watch a bit of tv now to get my mind clear of these dreary thoughts ….


Published in Writing Some Wrongs
Hand Over Fist Press, 2007