It is a year ago today since my beloved dad died in the West Suffolk Hospital. At his funeral my sister and I both delivered eulogies for dad, Gunnar Jensen Romer but the most moving thing was delivered by mum. We sang “Yours” by Vera Lynn, but the funeral director cut it short. Mum remained standing when we all sat, and just carried on singing quite alone till the end of the sing, in a voice cracked and broken but oh so brave. We spontaneously applauded her as she finished it…
Yours ’til the stars lose their glory
Yours ’til the birds fail to sing
Yours to the end of life’s story
This pledge to you dear, I bring
Yours in the grey of December
Here or on far distant shore
I’ve never loved anyone the way I love you
How could I, when I was born to be
After that it was hard to say anything. These are the words I managed to find; it has taken me a whole year to feel I can cope with putting them up.
“I am going to say a few words about dad; I was his youngest child, and lived the furthest away, but the time I spent with him was always precious. I am not going to tell the story of his life – we would be here for a week and barely begin to tell of his adventures – I am just going to say what he means to me. And I say means, not meant, because I believe dad is, and always will be, very much present with us.
Dad was, as we all know, born in Denmark; yet he lived longer in the UK than many of us might expect to live at all. There is a paradox here: someone who left their country to fight for it, and never went home. A man who loved England as dearly as any one I know; loved the flowers, the weather, the birds and the bookies – yet whose heart was forever in Denmark. Dad never really got to grips with the internet, but he always loved new things, new technologies When I came home to visit he and I would scurry off to sit in his room, and put on the computer. What would we look at? Denmark of course!
The Falster Nyheder, going through the headlines, translating the stories, and the best bit of all the weekly “round up” – reader’s photos from Falster & Lolland! Mum used to get quite annoyed sometimes when it got late, she had long gone to bed and dad was looking at house prices in Marielyst or watching an hour long Youtube video of a sugar beet lorry driving from Nykobing to the far side of Lolland. I remember one night she came downstairs, and told us it was time for bed; and dad said with laugh “I am only 91 now; next year when I am 92 will I be allowed to stay up late?”
On the computer screen there is a picture of Pouss, dad’s cat who died a couple of years ago. He was one in a long line of animals – Tinker, Wogan, Nibs, Pippi & Peppi and doubtless more, back to Nippe dad’s first dog. Dad loved animals, and had a great sense of empathy with the natural world. I recall a night when mum was trying to kill a fly that had been buzzing around the living room all day – in the end dad tempted it with sugar onto a piece of paper and ushered it out of the window to safety. He was a kind and gentle soul, who animals loved, and even wild creatures came to him. I remember us sitting surrounded by wildfowl once, while dad clucked and cooed at them. In the garden the robin used to hop around after him, and the pigeons would greet his appearance but not fly away. In the evening as the sun went down he would watch the vast flocks of rooks fly across the sky to the woods up here; tonight dad you will fly free with them. (Edit: As we left the funeral a vast flight of rooks came flying overhead, and we all laughed).
And dad loved freedom; he joined the army to fight for it, and as soon as he was free of the army he never wanted to work for anyone else again. He chose to work for himself, at his own pace, and he told me that when he worked with his hands his mind was free, free to let him think and dream about things that mattered to him. He was stubborn, hated being told what to do, and hated bullies. Dad was never too worried about what others though, and many of his ideas and ways were wonderfully eccentric; but he was oh so free. In the last few weeks of his life he lost more and more of his freedom, and at times grew desperately angry at being confined in hospital; now his spirit runs as free as the wind, all cares lost.
Dad was effortlessly athletic, strong and hardworking, and utterly fearless. His incredible pain threshold and remarkable endurance left lesser mortals in awe, and he worked long hours fuelled by bread and butter with sugar and tomatoes, his favourite meal. He told me he worked like that because he had a family to support, and to buy mum nice things. His generosity was like many aspects of his character — far beyond the norm; he would absolutely give me his last pound, and I would have to hide money he tried to press in to my hand in his room for him to discover after had gone back to Cheltenham. I soon learned that was pointless – he would send a cheque as soon as he discovered it! And this was why dad loved to gamble on the horses, the football pools, or the lottery -but mainly the horses. If you lost, he explained, the sums were too small to notice. If we ever won big, we would buy a house in Denmark. For the last ten years of his life every visit would involve looking at 4800 region houses in Denmark til salg; he would talk about how when he won he would buy me one, and help me do it up. We both knew I would never have the money, but we would sit and look and chat about places and people from the past.
Dad loved his kids, and he tried to provide for us all. And Dad loved his grandkids too, and his great grandkids; one of the most touching things was when he was in hospital dying he would ask me often about how little Charlie was doing in Addenbrookes and he so wanted Charlie home safe. Whenever he saw Molly or Jake his face lit up – and he adored little Mabel.
Dad loved the world, and the world seemed to love him back. He was quiet, shy at times — unwilling to put himself forward. And yet he had the most incredible charisma, and a smile that absolutely transfigured his face – when he smiled he really did seem to bless everyone around him with a tangible joy. Through the dark hours we sat with him in the hospital, so many staff come up to us to say how they loved Gunnar. “His smile!” they would proclaim. I met one young nurse who cared for him when I went to collect the death certificate, and when she learned he has been readmitted and died she broke in to floods of tears. I know every death effects us, but even those who knew him at his weakest and most vulnerable often grew to love him. “He smiles like an angel! He is just so happy!” said another nurse who treated him on his death bed. She never heard him speak a word she understood, because for the last two weeks he could only speak Danish; but she told me he made her day better with his smile. We all loved Gun Gun, which is why we are here today: but he touched many more in his life, and left this world a better place.
Finally, and most of all, dad loved June, my mother. He said as a small boy in Denmark he had some kind of revelation he would marry an English girl; then years later in England he was working when he saw a pair of girls walk by, and announced to the person he was working with he would marry that girl, throwing down his trowel. Soon after mum approached him at a dance in Risbygate Street, and soon they were off to Denmark, a fairyland where rationing, still much in force in the UK, did not exist. They married in Vaegerlose Church, and mum went on to take Danish citizenship; 68 years of marriage followed, a marriage blessed in so many ways. Mum and dad were inseparable, and truly loved “till death do us part”
Yet I believe death is not the end; Dad certainly believed God had a plan for the world. On his 21st birthday he was assigned guard duty in the Garden of Gethsemane, the place where Jesus prayed and was betrayed the night before his arrest and crucifixion. He moaned to the other young Danish peacekeeper that this was where he got to spend his birthday – and it turned out it was his 21st as well! The story ends happily – they were relieved and went to a party – but there in Palestine, caught in the middle of a conflict between Jew and Arab that forged Israel and so much of the modern world, dad had a real sense of being in the places he has read about in the Bible, and that something apocalyptic was at hand. Yet he would toast to Thor and Odin, and has now ascended to Valhalla – but he lives on, within all our hearts, and in our tales of him.
And this is Gunnar Jensen Romer: a man who loved, and was loved, and we will love until we join him ourselves. This is not goodbye: some things are stronger then death. We bless you Gunnar, as you blessed us; and may we be heroes to our children as you were a hero to us. Love you.
I end with the words I wrote on hearing the news that day to announce dad’s death.
Half eight this morning the wintry sun shone bright here in Suffolk; far away in Denmark clouds blew across the sky, until suddenly light broke through, and the sea sparkled like jewels.
Down at Hasselø things are much as they have been for decades; a horsewoman trots by the long line of cottages fronting the sea; the wind stirs the reed beds, a tractor roars in the distance followed by hungry gulls clamouring for food. Across the island Væggerĺøse church stands proud, before the sprawl of Marielyst and the beautiful white sandy beaches, thronged in the summer with holiday makers but now empty but for a dog playing with his stick.
At the bottom of the garden in a little house in Hasselø a young boy stands, staring at the eels as they skulk in the seagrass beneath the crystal waters of the Guldborgsund. His dog Nippe quietly joins him, raising a head to be nuzzled in his hand. A small sparrow sings out happily in greeting, and then in the house Hansine shouts that breakast is ready and Dolly is laying the plates.
Looking out over the sea, the boy thinks of distant lands for a moment, and then turns and runs happily to the house.
He has come home.