Fourteen years ago today, my father-in-law Joe suffered a painful and sudden death and left a hole in our lives that has never quite been filled. Kind and generous, with a wicked Liverpool sense of fun, he is still much missed. Dying before he was even old enough to get his OAP bus pass, he wasn’t there at the birth of his two grandsons. By the time I got pregnant with my eldest, we’d scattered his ashes three months previously. Every time they have a birthday, I feel a twinge of sadness that he isn’t there to celebrate with us.
The youngest of five children from a poor Irish Catholic family, Joe grew up in Cherry Tree Lane in Liverpool and followed his elder brothers into the Fire Brigade. A Union man and a Labour Party member all his adult life, Joe rose to become Assistant Deputy Chief of Merseyside Fire Brigade and was well liked among his colleagues. His natural intelligence and quick thinking more than made up for the poor education he’d received and there were many who appreciated his loyalty, straight talking and refusal to engage in underhand tactics to advance his career.
He welcomed me wholeheartedly into the Killoran family from the very first time I came over to his house for Sunday lunch nearly 25 years ago and we quickly became close. I spent most weekends at Joe and Betty’s house before I got married and we’d sit and talk for hours about all sorts of things. He rapidly became the person I asked first whenever I needed any advice.
In the beginning, I was bewildered by the Liverpool humour of my prospective parents-in-law and would just sit quietly listening to them banter with John, not knowing how to respond and often not appreciating being the target of their good-natured jokes. But after a while I began to enjoy their unique black humour and learned how to dish it out too. I spent many an evening laughing with them over a glass of wine; now those days are sadly long gone.
Joe was always generous with his time and really went out of his way to help people, a quality he demonstrated time and time again in the 11 years I knew him. After I’d finally finished my Masters course at Liverpool University in 1993, I started looking around for jobs and happened to apply for one in Nantwich. At the time I had an ancient red VW Beetle and decided to take myself to the interview along the M6, the first time I’d ever taken that route since passing my driving test. Dressed in a light green suit and thoroughly enjoying my independence, I set off one sunny spring morning, excited at the new direction my life might take.
The motorway was crowded with lorries as is often the case. Feeling impatient as two of them tried ineptly to overtake one another, slowing down all the traffic behind, I boldly moved out into the outside line, determined to get past the moving roadblock. Just as I was getting up speed, thick, black smoke began pouring out of the engine and the car sounded very sick.
Reacting quickly, I moved over into the inside lane and tried not to panic when I realised that the car wasn’t going to go much further. Looking at the road signs I saw that Sandbach Services at junction 17 was coming up.
“Good, if I can get there, I can phone for help” I thought relieved. The car came to a halt on the hard shoulder about 100 yards from the slip road and refused to move any more. I got out and walked the rest of the way.
I called Joe from a payphone at Sandbach and explained what had happened; he’d taken early retirement at 55 and I was counting on him being at home. “I’ll come and get you and take you to your interview,” he said without a moment’s hesitation “then we’ll work out what to do about the car.” He broke the speed limit all the way, even through the roadworks, as he was worried about me being stranded and alone.
I walked back to the Beetle thankful that it was a warm day and sat up high on the bank out of the way of the traffic, waiting for my rescuer. Lorry drivers beeped me and some made lewd gestures; I ignored them and hoped Joe was making good time, for it was a good hour’s drive from his home to Sandbach. When I told him later about the horn blowing he was incensed: “I bet some of them have daughters your age at home” he fumed.
Eventually he arrived and we managed to drive the Beetle very slowly up to the services. We left it in the car park, jumped into Joe’s Passat and set off for Nantwich. In the end, I didn’t get the job but it was the most relaxed interview I’ve ever done. After breaking down on my own on a busy M6, I felt that nothing else could possibly go wrong and talking to a few people seemed easy in comparison.
Joe was the person who helped me organise our wedding too. He drove me around to look at different venues and helped me choose flowers, stationery and dinner menus. Together we discussed the guest list and what John and I might like as presents. All of this took up a great deal of his time but he never once complained or asked if anyone else could step in.
In April 2002, we received a phone call from Betty to say that Joe was ill and had been admitted to hospital. John immediately took the week off work and went to Whiston Hospital in Liverpool to see him. I’d started my first course of IVF treatment a couple of weeks previously, which meant frequent visits to London, so I didn’t go with him. Neither of us realised the seriousness of the situation, believing John would be back home in a couple of days.
A few days later John phoned me: “My Dad only has a short time to live, you better get up here quick” he said. Joe had been diagnosed with advanced pulmonary fibrosis, probably as a consequence of asbestos exposure when he was a fireman, and there was nothing they could do for him.
I was stunned by the news. You don’t expect to lose one of your parents-in-law in your mid-thirties just when your life is becoming successful and you have hopes of starting your own family. What on earth would I say to John? How would I comfort him and his mum? I had no idea.
I spent a painful two days with Joe in the hospital watching his life ebb away and making small talk with various relatives; all of us feeling helpless but wanting to be there. He was unable to breath on his own by that stage and had a machine to do it for him. It was hard to see a once strong, vibrant man reduced to such a state.
Eventually one of the doctors decided that Joe’s suffering had to end and came to speak to John and Betty about turning the machine off. They agreed with the doctor and followed him to Joe’s bed, both in tears. I sat in the waiting room listening to their distress, sad that I couldn’t be there at the end but understanding their need for privacy.
A short while later, needing to say goodbye to Joe, I told his relatives that I was going to his bedside. John’s Aunty Pat, said gently, “It’s not very nice you know Becky”.
“I’ll be OK”, I said and got up and walked down the ward nervously.
The ghostly white man that lay in the bed, his faced bruised where the mask had been, looked so unlike Joe that I was shocked. I think it’s important to say goodbye to people though, and although that sight cost me a lot of sleepless nights, I’m glad I had my private moment with him.
The funeral a few weeks later was very emotional. The crematorium was packed with family and friends and many of Joe’s work colleagues stood at the back when the seats ran out. The Fire Brigade become your family and Joe had earned the respect of everyone he worked with over his 40 year career and they all wanted to wish him farewell. John gave a warm tribute to his dad, making us laugh despite our sorrow and we sang a couple of hymns and listened to other people remembering him.
At the end of the service John, Betty and I filed out first, as is the custom, accepting the condolences of the guests as we walked down the aisle. As the doors opened an unexpected sight greeted us: parked outside was a fire engine and a full honour guard. This was the ultimate tribute to a man who’d given his life (and his health) to the service. Emotions that had carefully been kept in check ran over.
It’s very easy to eulogize the dead; we are reluctant to say bad things about them because it seems disrespectful. Joe was a husband, a father, a friend and a fireman. He could be quick tempered and bloody minded and wasn’t always the easiest person to live with but he was also funny, very generous and straight as an arrow.
Looking back, I can see that in our early relationship he was also my mentor. I was only 22 when I met him; very young for my age and unsure what I wanted to do with my life. I wasn’t very street wise still, had far less self confidence than I do now and struggled with making decisions. As he was very easy to talk to and always had time to listen, we naturally fell into the role of teacher/student and we both enjoyed it and benefited from it. If he was alive now, I know that we’d still be close because we had a great deal of respect for one another, despite our very different backgrounds and experience.
Not long ago we were sitting at the table having dinner and discussing what the boys were learning in maths class.
Daniel looked at Joe and asked “What’s 500 x 3?”
Without a second’s hesitation Joe quipped, “the limit to your intelligence.”
We all erupted into laughter and I smiled to myself and thought “Grandpa Joe, you live on”.