The one in which Neil returns to the UK and finds he has a lot on his plate; and then even more on his mind…
Distance versus Closeness.
This visit back to the UK always was going to be an emotional journey; how for instance would my elderly parents be after me being away for more than a year? Whilst we spoke every other day on the telephone – which was more than we did when we were living in the UK – it was no substitute for being in each other’s company. I was desperate to see my three adult children, too, spread to the north from my parents: in Runcorn, Edinburgh and Warrington. But what I didn’t anticipate was saying goodbye to my dad for the last time, quite so quickly after arriving.
Home and Away.
Ostensibly, this trip was for me to fulfill an engagement as a Sound Supervisor at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games, but as well as spending as much time as possible with my parents, I needed an Excel spreadsheet to deal with my packed itinerary of people to see and things to do either side of my two weeks of working at the Commonwealth Games; and high on that list of priorities was to get our house refurbished and back on the market, following a disastrous first year of renting it out to disgracefully uncaring tenants. Not to put too fine a point on it, we depend on this income to cover our rental costs in Australia and we needed it back on the market pretty pronto.
It was also essential to catch-up with Marcus who is running operations brilliantly on behalf of The Audio Suite in the UK, in the Jewellery Quarter; as well as to see a dear friend, taking on with his and his wife’s usual mix of positivity and determination, his steadily advancing Multiple Sclerosis. On top of these calls on my time away from my parents, just four days after my arrival, my dear friend Robin Valk – the much-loved music broadcaster who was terminally ill – died before I could say goodbye to him. But with an example of the very strange synergy that the universe frequently delivers, it turned out that Robin’s committal was the one immediately before my Dad’s service at the local crematorium.
Whilst not quite on a par with the return of the biblical prodigal son (my Mother is still displeased with me for moving to Australia and it’s not something she hides well, so you’ll be relieved to learn that no fatted calf was killed in the making of this story) it felt joyous that the morning after arriving in the UK, my dad had made it under his own steam, with the aid of a walking frame, to greet me at the front door of my parent’s house. Dad and I embraced and patted each other’s backs as we’d come to do since Heather forbade us to shake hands anymore, and we did so in that awkward way that men who don’t hug, hug. Rather less awkwardly, I kissed my mum.
Dad’s stroke coming just two days after I arrived home was unexpected, but his passing 16 days later was a moment that was arrived at calmly, carefully and thoughtfully.
Death and Taxes.
For 12 nights after Dad’s stroke, I slept on the lounge floor on sofa cushions with a blanket over me, keeping an ear open for Dad in the next room, so my Mum could for the first time in a couple of years have an undisturbed night’s sleep. It was actually more comfortable than it sounds; and me staying with Dad obviously helped Mum to start to claw back some desperately needed rest. After a few days, she was noticeably brighter, notwithstanding Dad’s deterioration by the day. Happily though, he was still able to sit up and respond to conversation on July 13th; which was Mum and Dad’s 65th wedding anniversary. Mum had been anxious that Dad might die on this day.
Dad was by now confined to bed, and although at first during the day we would get him up into a standing position, thanks to a strange but brilliantly designed frame with a folding seat, to support him as Mum and I washed, shaved and changed him, within a few days, he remained in bed whilst we washed him and changed his clothes, and even changed his sheets. The Carers from the wonderful Early Intervention Team showed us how to more effectively change Dad’s bed sheet whilst he was still in bed, and how to change him if he was wet at night.
Throughout the night, Dad was often restless and agitated and I would wake pretty much on the hour to check him and to settle him in a more comfortable position. One night he was soaked, but I managed to change his clothes and replace the bed sheet on my own. I talked to him all the time, of course. ‘This is just like ‘It’s A Knock Out’, I should be playing my joker on this’ I said one night, rather proudly. Another night I said, ‘I remember that when I was little I used to come to your side of the bed if I was sick in the night. So it’s only fair that I return the favour, you know.’ Dad didn’t outwardly respond, but it’s well documented that our hearing is the last sense that leaves us when our other systems are shutting down.
Dad’s younger – and only – sister is Meg, and as it happens she lives quite close to us in Australia, and she had made me promise that I would let her know if Dad deteriorated significantly. I made the call a few days after he had the stroke and Meg arranged to come over as soon as she could arrange a flight; not an easy task due to high demand these days. She was due to arrive in Birmingham the following Tuesday – on the same Emirates flight from Brisbane that I had taken exactly two weeks earlier – and we kept Dad informed of her progress as we chatted around him.
Early on the Sunday morning before Meg arrived, we thought we were losing him and my eldest son came down at short notice to see his grandad; but weak as he was, Dad rallied. We realised then that he was waiting for Meg to arrive. In between times, second born and third born visited, which meant that all three grandchildren had spent time talking with their grandad and holding his hand as he lay there.
Dad stayed with us until Meg arrived, and that first night of her arrival I packed her and Mum off to bed at a reasonable time and took my evening shift as usual on the lounge floor. For some reason I had got into a routine of waking every hour on the hour, like a new parent does, and when I woke, I would check on Dad. That night, as he lay peacefully in the arms of Morpheus, and conscious that my VAT return was due, I decided to stay up and sit next to Dad’s bed, inputting the figures through the night. It was no huge leap of the imagination to bring to mind Benjamin Franklin and his words to Jean Baptiste Leroy: ‘…in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes’. Dad would have liked that symbolism, I think.
Uber and Out.
I wasn’t there on the morning when Dad died. Meg was with him though and awoke Mum at a suitable time. I suspected that I wouldn’t be around when Dad left us, as I departed my parents’ house the previous night. Earlier that day, when I was alone with Dad, I’d read a Buddhist text to him entitled ‘the Jewels discourse’, saying that I appreciated he’d probably think it was a load of old tosh, but it was going to make me feel better to read it to him, especially as I said I knew he could still hear my voice. I’d read it once before to a person as they embarked on their journey from this world to the next, and it begins:
‘Whatever beings are assembled here, whether terrestrial or celestial, let all such beings be happy; let them, moreover, attentively listen to what is being said.’
And on I went with the passage for about five minutes until I arrived at the pay-off:
‘We beings here assembled, whether terrestrial or celestial, salute the Accomplished Buddha, honoured by gods and men. May there be happiness!’
For good measure I finished by adding ‘Sadhu, sadhu, sadhu’ which is a common way that Buddhists express their happiness or approval of something related to the teaching of the Buddha, known as the Dhamma. I don’t know if it was coincidental, but when I’d finally shut up, and with his eyes still closed, Dad reached out with both arms. I wasn’t sure if he wanted a hug, but one thing was for sure: he didn’t want a handshake.
That night was my first time off in almost two weeks, and I’d gone back to stay at Heather and my old school friend Sandra’s house, which was close-by, as there wasn’t a spare room available at my parents’ house. After one of Sandra’s excellent home-cooked meals, some of her splendid red wine and her caring conversation, of course I slept deeply. The call from Meg came at about 7:15 am next morning to say that Dad had died, at a few minutes to 7. I was already awake when the phone rang, and when we called off, I didn’t rush, but called an Uber as soon as I’d showered. It was Thursday, July 21st and three days until I needed to be at the NEC, to start my job for the Commonwealth Games Channel.
In my line of work, timing is everything: in live broadcasting we obviously need to be on time and we work to the second. After Dad died, I happened to look at his watch on his bedroom dressing table; it’s actually the watch he’s bequeathed to me, so I picked it up to have a closer look. He wasn’t wearing it when he died, but the watch had stopped at a few minutes to 7; and the date window showed the 21st.
Dad’s timing was pretty perfect. He’d asked me many times when I was coming back for the Commonwealth Games, getting me to tell him the dates repeatedly, which I’d taken as his short-term memory loss at work; but now I think differently. I think Dad was timing his exit to cause the least inconvenience to me as possible: he died three days before I needed to start work, and we arranged to hold his funeral three days after I’d finished my work, which was well before my departure date back to Australia.
The day of the funeral went really well. We’d asked people to consider it a day of celebration for Dad’s life rather than an acutely sad day, but nonetheless I found it to be an exhausting and suffocatingly emotional affair, attended by about 100 friends and family; but Mum coped remarkably. (I think that generation is definitely made of sterner stuff.) I wrote my eulogy for Dad, and practised it dozens of times alone to ensure I would get through it without dissolving into an embarrassing, sobbing mess; yet still when I stood at the lectern and saw the upturned faces of supportive uncles and aunts, the kids and our family friends, it took quite a few deep breaths for me to compose myself. I didn’t dare to look up after that until I was finished. And that’s where I think this edition should finish: with what I read as Dad’s eulogy.
‘I’m an only child, and Dad and I have a history that goes back, and I know some of you will find this difficult to believe, 62 and a half years. For Mum, it’s 67 years.
Which is a measure of how lucky we both are to have had all that time in his company.
Dad’s passing was a moment that was arrived at so carefully, and so thoughtfully, it brought comfort to us all. With love for him, we adhered to his, and Mum’s, wishes faithfully: to die at home, at peace, pain-free and surrounded by those who loved him.
We were gifted extra time to say our goodbyes to Dad and believe me, we used it to its fullest extent: his three grandchildren came to his bedside and gave their love and thanks to him, as did his youngest brother David; and Dad decided to hold on for my Auntie Meg, Dad’s only sister, to arrive from Australia.
And of course, I got to spend the time with Dad that I thought I might lose when Heather and I moved to Brisbane.
Aneurin George Hillman – Nye – Dad – was born on June 24th, 1929 in Abertillery, South Wales – the second child and second son to Violet and Arthur Hillman, a younger brother for Keith who was born in 1927, and an older brother to Bryan, born in 1935, Megan, born in 1943 and David, born in 1945.
It’s fair to say that it was an inauspicious start… This was the year that ended the period known in America as The Roaring Twenties, and ushered in the Great Economic Depression that continued well into the mid-1930s.
And significantly for me, given the work that I do, Dad was born the year that the talkies arrived in Britain.
Dad had more than his fair share of health problems in his early years; but someone, somewhere had decreed – no doubt in a Darth Vader voice – that ‘the force is strong with this one’. That, and his resilience, paid dividends and ensured that he had a full life, and one that could truly be said to have been well-lived. Even his forgivable stubbornness was a characteristic that stood him in good stead.
Dad always credited the family’s move from South Wales to Birmingham in the early 1930s for his survival, through several serious childhood illnesses – Rheumatic Fever, Diphtheria and a virulent Streptococcal infection. Such was the severity of his condition that he spent more than 2 years in a Birmingham hospital, and in line with hospital policy at the time, without any schooling or contact with his parents, who were only allowed to visit when he was asleep.
It was quite bizarre to realise that those 2 years were spent inside Moseley Hall hospital; because by a quirk of fate, those hospital grounds were opposite my house, and the old main hospital building was visible from my bedroom window, when I moved to Moseley in the late 1990s, with a young family of my own.
Dad proudly joined the Royal Air Force in 1948 as a National Serviceman, primarily working on RAF bases in Norfolk as a Leading Aircraftsman in Fighter Command, servicing iconic aircraft such as Spitfires and Hurricanes, as well as the first jet-engined fighter aircraft that the RAF was beginning to operate.
This was the year of ‘The Berlin Airlift’ and Dad was part of the allied operational crew that flew essential food and medical supplies into a newly annexed West Berlin.
When he left school, Dad had had dreams of being a commercial artist, and attending a college of Art; but his father had different views of the world, and on what his son could pursue as a career – known more simply as getting a job in those days – which was perhaps understandable, even if it wasn’t forgivable, given the extreme hardship and abject poverty the family had endured in South Wales, after the coal mines closed, and my grandfather – a coal-face miner – was left without work.
As children, before the move to Birmingham as economic migrants, brother Keith and Dad’s one square meal a day came courtesy of a charity soup kitchen.
Despite this disappointment at not attending an Art School, Dad continued to draw and paint, and he became a prolific artist once he retired. Enjoying all mediums, but particularly challenging himself with water colours, his time as an Engineering draughtsman was evident in the precise lines his works often took; although to me, his pencil portraits were always his forte.
Back in 1951 or so, on leaving the RAF, Dad resumed work with his old employer; and given the precision engineering war-work that the firm had been involved with, Dad’s career became centred around the aerospace industry.
It was a source of great pride that years later this same company was involved with machining highly complex components for the supersonic Concorde aircraft, as well as military planes such as the Harrier jump-jet, and a range of helicopters built by Westland Aircraft.
Dad rose through the ranks and became the firm’s Engineering Quality Manager, and given the rigorous standards demanded to safeguard military pilots and civilian passengers, he achieved and remained proud of an impressive and unblemished safety record. He gained the confidence and respect of his fellow workers by being able to skilfully operate any of the machines on the factory floor; and because of this, he could appreciate from experience what challenges a particular machinist might be facing, or what salvage work might be safely carried out, given the expensive and exotic raw materials the components were fashioned from; and of course, the obligatory safety margins that had to be maintained.
For design engineers at companies like Rolls Royce, Lucas Aerospace and Dowty Fuel Systems, Dad’s position as the Quality Manager of a key component subcontractor made their life just that little bit easier.
I can remember Dad reaching the ‘watershed’ age of 40 – the age when it’s considered that a man truly starts to become a man, yet still possesses youthful exuberance… When the right opportunity presents itself, anyway.
I was 9 when Dad was 40, and I was totally obsessed with playing football; and most nights when the weather was fine, and even when it wasn’t, Dad would play football with me when he came home from work. All I ever dreamed of was being a footballer. He must have been exhausted, I know I was at 40 when I came home from work, but to the best of my memory, Dad never ever said to me ‘let’s do it another night son, I’m too tired’.
Although, when I think about it now, it was surely this enforced fitness training provided by me – and undertaken each night – that delivered him into his later years as the toned, athletic and conditioned man that we all remember him as.
What a funny-old time the 1970’s were. Even my Dad ended up wearing flares and large-check sports coats, with huge lapels. Thankfully, he resisted platform soled shoes.
Although we’d flown to Italy for our first foreign holiday in 1966, (I remember we watched England win the World Cup in a room full of German football fans) the 1970s was when Mum and Dad really started to travel abroad, and did so at every opportunity; and I was lucky to have some wonderful holidays with them in Spain, in my early teens.
By the late 1970s I was at work – and college – although still living at home, and I had my first car, so I was much more mobile than when I relied on Dad to take me every Saturday… and every Sunday… to play football. Back then, both Mum and Dad would faithfully come to each game, and Mum became known as our ‘12th man’ – such was her level of enthusiasm for our team… And so full of suggestions for the opposition. And the Referee.
By the time he was in his 60’s, Dad was enjoying being a Grandad – first to Toby; then 3 years later to Sam, and then 3 years after that, to Caity.
And that lead to many Nanny and Grandad holidays in and around Saundersfoot, which were obviously memorable for all of them… Because both the children’s and Nanny and Grandad’s tales of what went on, are hilarious. But all 5 of them forgot that well-known Welsh saying – ‘What happens in Tenby, stays in Tenby’.
Just like nothing can prepare you for the birth of your first child, nothing can quite prepare you for the loss of a parent.
So how to sum up such a rich life, lived with purpose and enthusiasm, as Dad’s?
Nye Hillman made me the man that I am. Literally and figuratively. My love of sport, my love of motorcycles, my love of aeroplanes, my love of paintings and music.
He was caring and courageous, he was talented and sensitive, he was precise and accurate. And he was funny. We laughed a lot together.
My abiding memory will be of laughing with Dad, again and again, at the stories he would tell about some misfortune or other that had befallen him as a younger man: forgetting that there was a traffic island on Monmouth Drive for instance, and hitting it at speed on his motorbike in the fog; or of missing his footing on one of the old hop-on buses on Corporation Street, but still doggedly hanging on to the bottom of the hand pole, and being dragged along behind the bus until it came to rest at its next stop, in New Street, in the centre of Birmingham.
It’s a wonder to me that he made it to 23, let alone 93. But we’re here today to celebrate that he did. Because, he most certainly did.
A much-loved son, brother, husband, brother-in-law, uncle, great uncle and grandfather – Nye Hillman was my Dad.’
Still to come…
Scepticism abounds about whether Birmingham can pull off the Commonwealth Games with aplomb – certainly the press coverage, even locally, has been less than kind in the preparation stages. From a broadcasting point of view, I’m confident that the television coverage will be nothing less than excellent. Let’s see what transpires.
Cover picture: Mum and Dad walking from their home towards the Newhall Nature Reserve in 2020. [All pictures © Neil Hillman 2022, with the exception of RAF, wedding and graduation images.]
I live and work on the lands of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples and I recognise them as the Traditional Custodians of this country.