Today, 1 May, is my father’s birthday. He never wanted to be eighty, my mother said when I called her. And he wasn’t. He liked to stick to the plan.

I was thinking just the other day – Wednesday, in fact; April 28 – of the last time I saw him; two years ago. I was about to go off on sabbatical, first to attend the Prince of Wales Business and the Environment Programme at Cambridge, and then to Toronto, and I would only be home again in June. I flew to Cape Town to see him before I left, knowing I would not see him again.

He lay in bed, at home, a fragile tissue of bone and skin, and his eyes were abnormally large. His hand on mine was without force or weight – a leaf, about to be blown away. My mother left us to talk. I remember he said he was proud of me, I was a good son. I remember I told him not to worry about mom, she would be ok. We would look after her. It was a promise, and he could rest easy.

He could go in peace, knowing she would be all right. He need not worry.

We talked a bit more, and when I stood to go, I embraced him. ‘Don’t do anything silly,’ I said.

‘I wont,’ he smiled. ‘I’m not going anywhere.’

On April 28 I was about to board at Heathrow for Canada when my mother called. Dad was sinking fast, she said. She wasn’t sure he would make it.

My bags were already loaded. ‘I’ll call you when I get to Canada,’ I said.

For seven or eight hours I flew across the Atlantic, wondering. As soon as we landed, I turned on my phone, and there were several messages waiting. I didn’t need to hear them to know what they were about. I called my sister Laura, and then I called my mom.

Mom said he had groaned, and called her name, and then he was gone.

1 May, 1930. My father was a child of the Great Depression. He would have been fifteen, when the Second World War ended. The National Party had been in power for five years when he married; the Korean War was still on. Rhodesia, where my dad took us when I was five or six, was a British colony.

How the world changed, during his lifetime.

How it has changed, in mine.

For my dad, it was enough to outlive his father. I plan on seeing eighty; I plan on drinking a glass, with Rob, on his hundredth birthday.

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