Sad to say, but Reading Matters has reached the end of its 20-month run. Those of you who have taken the ride with me, as I’ve written up my reading group’s journey week by week, will know that I began documenting our adventures in reading with (and frequently returned to) the theme of dying fathers. This was swiftly followed by bad fathers, absent fathers and heavenly fathers; fathers weak and strong, fair and foul, law-giving fathers, and law-breaking ones.

All the while I’ve been posting these dispatches my own father has been ailing, slowly but surely approaching his unavoidable end. Consciously and unconsciously, then, through a process of gentle seepage,  filial duty became another theme underlying my choices of material.

By an accident of timing, my father, whose health went into a tailspin in February, died within a week of our last Reading Matters meeting, presenting me with another, more final, closure, and leaving me wondering whether I had not chosen so much father-related material as a way of sublimating my anxieties about him.

The point I want to make is not that literature offers an obvious catharsis, but that reading and life can usefully converge; like sunlight filtering through a prism, when the stuff you read smacks right up against life experience it generates a rainbow of narrative perspectives, glistening with possibility and newly refracted permutations.

In my father’s final weeks, when he could not walk and his legs grew matchstick thin, I ran like a mad thing at the gym, telling myself over and over, ‘I am a machine.’  When he could no longer take in liquid, except by sucking a spongy ‘lollipop’ saturated with water, I hit the bottle; a couple of glasses of wine  was my comfort and my friend. While my father dozed through much of the day, I was insomniac; and when he took no pleasure either in reading or being read to, I began hunting down evermore challenging poets to savour: Roberto Bolaño, Christopher Buckley, Sylvia Plath at her most truculent. Such are the strange manifestations of the will to live  as it pushes back against a fear of nothingness.

Until the end, my father did not want to go. At eighty-seven, bed-ridden, unable to eat or drink, barely able to move except for a twitching agitation in his hands, pumped with sedatives, his breathing aided by oxygen, his bladder emptied into a bag, he clung determinedly on.  He had hallucinations.  He vomited in reaction to his meds. He railed at the unfairness of it all and he could not sleep for nightmares.

Yet beyond all this he managed to prize open for himself a chink through which the sun could still shine.  He could blow a kiss at his grandchildren, squeeze a hand in confidence, and, occasionally, he managed to smile a crooked smile, fighting the slack-jawed myopathy that afflicts the dying – the dreaded ‘Q’, when the mouth attempts to slip off the side of the face.

Leading the group through this time has been an unexpectedly enriching experience. I’m reading more poetry now than at any other time in my life and feeling its uplift keenly. But more than that, my reading group has offered  me support and solace through a muddled time. Various of its members have sent supportive emails; they’ve queried me politely about my father’s health, shown me care and compassion, given me chocolate and hugs.

Mainly, however, they just kept showing up each week, whatever the weather, defying the vagaries of the transport system and moving other commitments in order to squash in a session. They have persisted in their commitment to continuity and longevity… Like my father, in his way. And together we have found meaning and laughter and compassion and camaraderie through many wonderful hours shared reading.  For that, I’m grateful.

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I hope to be back  at the end of May with something else to write on: The Walden Project  – Re-Thinking the Simple Life, so please don’t unsubscribe!

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