Family & Education

When the clocks fell silent

Colin Allen's father collected and restored clocks. But one by one, as his life came to its end, the ticking stopped


Can there be such a thing as a beautiful death? I never would have believed so. However, now, maybe I have changed my mind.

Last November, my father, Stanford Allen, celebrated his 87th birthday at a family tea at my sister Liz’s home. Dad was in good spirits enjoying one of his many conversational duels with my wife Linda about art/religion/vegetarianism. These “chats” were a good spectator sport for the rest of us. We were also celebrating my mother Pat’s 86th birthday on the same day. Our parents were fit and independent, living in their north London flat. Many of our friends’ parents had sadly passed away in recent years. But Liz and I thought we were immune.

Weeks later, all that changed. During December, we noticed a change in dad’s behaviour. He became withdrawn, confused and forgetful. At first, we feared dementia. Then it was suggested these were symptoms of a chest infection. But Juliette, a doctor and a good friend of my sister’s, urged us to take him to see a specialist.

One MRI scan later, on 28 December, we discovered he had an aggressive brain tumour. Five days later, a neurosurgeon told us there was nothing that could be done. “You must let nature take its course,” was his advice. Our world had been turned upside down. So we returned to my parents’ home, which dad was never to leave again.

My father was talented in so many ways; as an artist, an engineer, a student of philosophy. Since retirement, he had studied the workings of clocks, beautiful machines for which he developed a passion. He would buy, restore and sell them. Their living room had many clocks on display. Our ears had become accustomed to the endless ticking and the hourly synchronised chimes coming from them.

As January advanced, one by one the clocks stopped ticking. The chimes stopped ringing. My dad had the will, but had lost the knowhow to keep them going.

I remember one time in those first two weeks, while he could still walk (sort of) and still talk (kind of), watching him make his way across the room. His normal upright positive gait had become a slow shuffle. He would reach for the odd piece of furniture on his way, to steady his balance, which was rapidly being affected by the condition. Then he stopped by one of his lifeless clocks and touched it for a moment and said: “I will fix that next week.” If only, I thought.

Soon, all the clocks had stopped. There was an eerie silence in the flat.

Dad’s condition worsened daily. We were lucky to have amazing support care. Soon, two carers were needed to take him to the bathroom; he could hardly walk at all. At the end of February, a hospital bed was supplied for the lounge and we had even more support. We couldn’t have asked more of the North London Hospice and Marie Curie.

The carers helped him into that bed for his first night’s sleep without my mum next to him. We didn’t realise he would never leave that bed again.

He lay there for the next five days, head to one side, mouth open, his breathing quite audible. He was peaceful, apart from occasional bouts of coughing. It was all part of the process. Was he sleeping? Could he hear us at all? We’ll never know.

The next few days we spent at the flat, with friends and family coming to visit, to drink cups of tea and chat, while Dad slept in the same position a few feet away. Their company was always welcome. How else would we have got through those days?

On Sunday March 5, Juliette visited. She stood with us by Dad’s bed and looked at him, as a friend and a doctor. She explained how it would be. She gestured with her arms and said “When it’s time he will just slip away peacefully. It will be beautiful.”

Friends and family came and went that afternoon. The carers paid their last visit of the evening around eight. Then we sat down at the dining table for some supper. At nearly nine, as we chatted together, my daughter Laura happened to look at Dad’s bed and she saw her grandfather take his last breath. Within seconds, we were all around his bed. While we didn’t want to believe it, we knew really that we didn’t need the doctor to confirm it.

It was exactly as Juliette had said it would be. It was indeed a beautiful death.

And then we had to get through the funeral and the days and nights of shiva. And that’s what we did, with overwhelming support from all around. It was clear that Dad was adored by so many people.

But, as the shiva came to an end, I felt something missing in me. I hadn’t cried. I mean really cried. I had been crying inside for two months. And there were also those odd moments, the ones where you get that feeling in the pit of your stomach, and a welling behind the eyelids but then you take a deep breath and it passes with maybe just one tear escaping down your cheek. I had plenty of those moments.

But I’d hung on because I knew I had to. I’d had to walk with my dad’s coffin. I’d had to read Kaddish several times over the next couple of days, something I had dreaded even thinking about for years.

And, as the shiva came to an end, I knew what I had to do. I had to write this. It would be cathartic. And now I’m thankful I am typing these words on to the computer screen in front of me. Had I chosen pen and paper, the ink would now be a blurry smudge beneath my tears.

So now we have to rebuild and carry on. It won’t be easy. But we can make a start by finding the keys for those clocks.

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