Saturday, December 24, 2016

A few words about my father

My father, Robert Jeffery, died on the morning of 21st December. It wasn't unexpected; he had spent the year in a slow deterioration, with lymphoma coursing through his body. In the end, it felt like a kind of deliverance; the last couple of weeks were really painful and hard to witness. But typically his mind was whirring almost until the last few days, working things out, dredging up hymns, poems, limericks and jokes from his huge reserves of knowledge and language. He entertained visitors and medical staff, joked about doing conjuring tricks with pills and cups, and we had to keep telling him to slow down, to rest, to conserve what little energy he had left. I'm not sure he quite realised how very ill he was until the final couple of weeks, and then there was something of a psychic battle in his mind as he faced the abyss and the great unknown of death. A few weeks ago he wrote a piece about dying which expressed equanimity and acceptance; but in the end that relinquishing of life is a tough thing to accede to, especially a life lived so full of people, meetings, conversations, writings, histories and places as my dad's.

Growing up in an ecclesiastical family, you're always aware of the wider community of churchgoers, parishioners and just endless people of all sorts coming through your life and in and out of your home. I leaned much about networks, power and hierarchies more generally by observing ministers and priests and bishops and all their apparatus of symbolism, ceremony and tradition which surrounded us, and the way in which Bob dealt with them. Bob had a huge respect for all those traditions but never gave into forms of saccharine piety, oversimplified doctrine, easy answers or smug pomposity which has so alienated so many people (myself included) from the church's work. And the end of his life is taking us on a tour of our childhood; the hospice where he died is in the parish of Headington, where he was the vicar from 1971-1978 ; the funeral will be in the rather more grandiose surroundings of Christ Church in Oxford, where he ended his career as the Sub-Dean; there will be a burial at Tong, where we lived while he was Archdeacon of Salop in the 1980s, and there will be a memorial service later in 2017 in Worcester Cathedral, where he was the Dean from 1987 -1996.  He was part of a post-war generation of radical, liberal clerics who focused more on making an almost secular, humanist, outward facing Christianity - of the idea of God's work, service and care for others in this world - than on any idea of the next. When we asked him "what happens after you die?", he would say "nothing". But there's something very profound about a deep, eternal, total 'nothing' - which also points to the sanctity of everyday life and the importance of deeply valuing and caring for other people.

As well as having all these titles, publications, services and sermons to his name he was also our dad. Everything changed for the family when my mother died very suddenly in 1995, followed by the swift passing of Bob's sister Clare - and in the middle of all this my son was born. We are now at the end of another 21 year cycle. Over the next few months as my brothers and sister sort out his belongings and affairs we will have to sift through all the remnants and fragments of our own lives, and all the artefacts of the generations before accumulated in his little flat in Cowley. We owe everything, in a way, to our parents. There is still much to do, plenty more to say and lots to celebrate.

Once we have all the details of the funeral arrangements I'll share them. In the meantime we are trying to have what will hopefully be a quiet and peaceful Christmas.