Saturday 23 August 2014

On the Passing of a Gentleman

When I asked Barry Smith for his daughter's hand in marriage, he offered me all three as a job lot. Tempting though the offer undoubtedly was (they're a good-looking bunch), I have always been known more for my discretion than my valour, so I made do with just the one.

Today, we mourn his passing at the age of 75, a former Flying Officer in the RAF, schoolmaster (in the truest and best sense of the word), and family man, who became a great-grandfather just four months ago. A man 'whose strong hands were skilled at the plane and the lathe', as the hymnwriter would have it.

The phrase 'father-in-law' so inadequately describes such a relationship in so many cases. To be truthful, I was something of a usurper of said daughter's previous suitor, and my arrival on the scene could have been awkward, were it not for the loving and open welcome afforded to me by Barry and Jan. I was worried that we had little in common - I knew nothing of aeroplanes, model-making or John Wayne - but he was thrilled about this. They were his toys, and he was happy not to have to share them with me. I still don't get John Wayne, and he always knew it. One of the few things on which we consistently disagreed.

It was enough that I was in love with his daughter, and I jolly well knew I was expected to take good care of her. He even gave the father of the bride's speech with his shotgun slung over his shoulder.

How many homes do you imagine there are in Folkestone and Dover with cupboards and shelves built by young husbands and fathers, taught their practical skills by Mr Smith at Harvey Grammar School and Astor Secondary (as it was then)? Hundreds, I would wager.

Barry was an incredibly athletic young man, who survived a serious motorcycle accident at the age of 18 in which he suffered a triple skull fracture, which contributed to dark episodes of depression later in life. He took early retirement through ill-health at the age of 53, and I think if you had told him then that he would live to 75 he would have accepted it gladly. This week, we learned that the heart condition which was diagnosed 15 years ago had an average life expectancy of 5 years. Add in chronic and crippling arthritis, and you might suggest that we've been lucky to have his company for so long, as indeed we have.

That, of course, doesn't ease the pain of loss one iota. And yet, if there can be such a thing as a good death, I believe this was it. Having spent several weeks in hospital, he came home to be with his family. The care he received from Dr Wright and her colleagues at Lydden Surgery, from District Nurses, and from Pilgrims' Hospice nurses in the last few days absolutely gives the lie to the notion that the medical profession has somehow lost its caring touch. We could not have asked for more.

The greater devotion, though, was shown by his wife of 52 years, my beloved mother-in-law Jan, whose care and attention shone as a beacon in our darkest hours, proving (as we already knew) that she is the most loving, giving, and Christian lady on Planet Earth.

Well, all three of those daughters were with him today, and it was an honour and a privilege to be there too as Barry slipped peacefully from this world to the next. Can the passing of a loved one be both painful and achingly beautiful? I'm not sure it can, but the wonders of modern medicine meant that he was not in pain. We knew the end was near, and read him extracts from his favourite book, Watership Down.

In the final paragraph, leaving his friends and 'no-longer needed body' behind, Hazel departs Watership Down with the spirit-guide, "running easily down through the wood, where the first primroses were beginning to bloom."

Barry Arthur Smith, 1938-2014
"May he rest in peace, and rise in glory."