A father, turned 80, is propped up on pillows, vascular dementia stealing the blood from his brain. The light from his eyes.
A young nurse from the Hospice at Home holds his hands, listens to his stories. Learns the art of Bonsai.
“You have to keep pruning,” he whispers, miming the precise, tender shearing of the secateurs he can no longer hold.
“It takes months. Years. People always want to see results straight away, but you have to be patient…”
His hand reaches to a trunk coiling skywards on his bedside table, next to his oxygen tank. In the halflight it’s hard to tell where frail hand becomes sinewy tree. Hard not see the tree’s tiny red leaves as a splatter of blood, frozen in time.
Caught between what is, and what could have been, it could be a sapling, or it could be fifty years old.
In another possible future, it might have been as tall as the tree in his garden by now. The parent tree, whose leaves stain the patio every autumn.
“Japanese red maple,” he says, as he shuts his eyes and falls silent.
Untethered, he drifts through feverish dreams as the nurse secures his nebuliser.
He is well again. It is another April. He takes a cutting from a spring shoot, while his older son, Chris, prepares a hole in a flower pot. His younger son, Kevin, has a boxer’s hands, but there is tenderness also.
Years later, his sister tells a hushed room in Warrington of her brother’s love of building tree houses. Of his sense of adventure. Of how he never got to have his first fight for his boxing club.
“He would have had a future in the sport,” his boxing club says.
“He would have had a future…” is what lingers in the air.
The nurse places tiny pills in pill-box, like a promise. A week’s supply. More an act of hope than preparation.
“It’s a waiting game,” the doctors at the hospice say.
He knows all about that, we think. He lost his wife ten years ago. Two sons at Hillsborough, a quarter of a century ago.
These are the stories I know; of brothers grafted together at a moment in time.
And there are 94 others.
What would they be doing now? Raising kids? Kicking a ball around on a Spanish beach? Planning their retirement? Wondering what next season will bring?
In his garden, the father’s diminutive thicket of trees capture, in miniature, a perfect reproduction of what might have been. But his hands, now, arc out shapes of imaginary trees. The shapes of sleep.
Some say the rules have changed in the past 25 years. In his game-changing study, psychologist George Bonanno says it’s our ability to rebound that allows us to ride the rollercoaster ITV calls emotional.
In his book, The Other Side Of Sadness, Bonanno offers salutary case histories of brisk business woman, striding back into the office a couple of weeks after the loss of a daughter.
He quotes their steely remarks: “They needed me at work. This is where I had to be,” and makes a point of saying how impressed he is at such inspirational determination to carry on.
As Tony Blair said, what’s the point in raking over stoney ground? What is the point of paying heed?
Paying heed is like a prayer. Is like saying we have all the time in the world for justice.
I think of this, as I think of the old man, caught between this life and the next. Paying heed is pruning away the lies and deception. Is a promise.
Some say the deepest pain is reserved for parents who outlive their children. Others know that it’s loved ones who die before justice.
The act of observance is a secret ritual shared only by those who share a terrible burden.
The Hillsborough story isn’t about then. It’s not about 3:06pm, or 3.15pm. It’s about now.
It’s not a chapter isolated in our city’s turbulent history. It’s about today – families without dads, brothers without sisters, cousins without cousins. Every Saturday, every season.
Because when justice is won, the only freedom it really delivers is the freedom to start the clocks again, not turn them back. The freedom to carry on, in a world where loved ones have been taken before their time.
Who’d want to be in the position to have to fight for such a prize?
“Ah, Liverpool, they’re jammy gets,” the Blue side of our family used to say, “They always score a winner in extra time.”
We couldn’t wish for anything more. And, wrapped into that wish, is the hope that the living, and those who’ve gone ahead, will both know.
Reposted with love to the family today, Dave