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"My dad will walk into a room, and it will get brighter": Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody on his dad, and dementia

The Northern Irish superstar discusses his relationship with his father Jack

"My dad will walk into a room, and it will get brighter": Snow Patrol's Gary Lightbody on his dad, and dementia
17 June 2018

The earliest memory I have of my father is walking the dogs, the dogs were a constant companion for him. He trained gun dogs - hunting dogs, just to make this abundantly clear! [They were] retrieving dogs, you know they shoot the pheasants and the dogs would pick up the birds or whatever. So, we always had Labradors and springer spaniels.

When I was born, there was a yellow lab called Kim and a springer spaniel called Pip and we spoilt Pip rotten. My earliest memories are dad saying “You’re ruining my dog!” He had to stop using him in competitions because we had his head turned for tennis balls, and throwing sticks and things. So yeah, we ruined his dog but we loved that dog. Dad had an affinity with animals, it’s something we share and I’m very grateful for it. I always feel very comfortable around animals.

We were always outdoors, kicking a football, he taught me how to play football out in the park, walking the dogs, on the beach. We were always outdoors at the weekend and during the week.

My mum worked a lot of different jobs. We weren’t a well off family but when I failed my eleven plus my mum was determined not to send me to the local high school because I was a very sensitive boy and she thought I would be eaten alive. She was probably right!

They had to pay for my education for a few years, my mum worked two or three jobs at certain points and we were nearly completely broke on a number of occasions, but I didn’t know anything about it. My mum and dad told me later that there was times that they thought they were going to get evicted. It was pretty heavy stuff! But there was never any reference to it when I was growing up, it was kind of blissful in a way. 

Mum was the strict one. She ruled the roost and my dad was an “Ask your mum” kind of man. We always hoped that he’d say yes to something but very often it was just “No, ask your mum”. He wasn’t a pushover but he wasn’t the ruling force in the house. In the same sense he was always the threat - mum would go, “I’m going to tell your dad!” 

Gary and Jack go on a picnic

“I never saw him cry when I was growing up but I’ve seen him well up a few times recently. In a strange way as he becomes more detached from everything he is becoming more in-tune with his feelings.”

He never raised his hand to us once, ever. He was a pretty calm person until we were on holiday in a caravan around Ireland, that was our holiday every year. Because I went to a good school and a lot of the pupils were from rich families, they would go on foreign holidays to somewhere sunny and fancy - we would be going around in the caravan and always be miserable! We’d be sitting in the back with our headphones on and my dad in the front going, “Oh this is the…” - pointing out points of interest, knowing the country you are born in - and we were not listening to a word he said.

I’m so grateful for those holidays and I remember them even though I was pretending not to pay attention. Sometimes I kick myself a wee bit when I think about it for being so ungrateful because it was a lesson in Irish geography and history and appreciation of your country. 

He wasn’t an emotional man - he was very old school, still is to this day. [But] he has become a little bit more… well I never saw him cry when I was growing up, I’ve seen him well up a few times recently. In a strange way as he becomes more detached from everything around him he is becoming more in-tune with his feelings. Like he has an access to them that he never had before. 

He will well up when I’m leaving these days, and that was always my mum. She’d cry when I was going but he would be like, “Alright, I will see you when you get back”. Now he gets emotional when I’m heading off on tour. There have been some deeply touching moments recently that I have cherished.

He is not the “I love you, son” type. I mean, I will say, “I love you dad,” and he will say “OK”, but I know that he does. It’s not like he doesn’t have love for me or my sister or love in his heart he does, he has a lot of it. He was born before the Second World War, and I don’t think that generation has access to those kind of emotions, or to verbalise those emotions anyway.

In the band’s early days did he ever tell me to “get a proper job”? Yeah, many times. [I learned to play guitar] in the basement; a little room beside our garage and I got an amplifier that was this old battered thing made of Russian submarine parts that we found for twenty quid somewhere, and a cheap £50 guitar. My mum and my dad would bang on the floor of the kitchen with a broom handle telling me to turn it down. ‘Turn that bloody racket down’ was a common phrase in our house.

Even before we had hits my mum and dad would come to see us play in shows - they still come to the gigs; they came to the last gig in Belfast a few weeks ago.

Gary with Snow Patrol

My dad has had a bad heart for a long time, he used to smoke 80 cigarettes a day - I don’t even know how you do that. Then my dad got to 59 and had a heart attack and quit. [The doctors] said that if he didn’t get a triple or quadruple bypass he would only have a few months to live, and his friend went in for the same operation a week before dad was due. His friend died on the operating table and my dad said, “No I’m not doing that.” That was 21 years ago, he has defied the odds in many different ways.

My dad’s 80 now, if you have that bad heart and if you live that long you know that degenerative illnesses come into play. As we all live longer it’s the things that are bound to happen, it’s the virtue of living longer.

He was diagnosed with dementia three years ago, but my mum had seen signs of it eighteen months to two years prior to that. Another one of his friends has Alzheimer’s and was very bad with it, and that’s what made my dad take the test. I don’t think my dad wanted to know because he didn’t want to deal with it.

It has changed him a little bit, his temper, his fuse is a lot shorter. It’s symptomatic - it’s not a natural progression with age - it’s a definite symptom. He was never that stuck in his ways, now he would argue that something is orange when it’s blue. It’s very difficult, especially for my mum, she’s had it very hard. She has been the typical Irish wife, I’ll say say, “Can we get you something to help, shall we get someone in to help just three times a week?” or something and she would be like, “Oh no, no, I’m fine,” in sickness and in health, you know. She won’t take any help. She has finally agreed to take him to a Alzheimer dementia care facility once a week and he kind of enjoys and likes the social element of it.

He loves to chat to people, all my friends love him. [When I was younger] my dad used to host - I was allowed to have parties if my mum and dad were there - they would host the parties and my dad would pour drinks, and he would make sure everybody got home alright, made sure they were safe. My friends loved my mum and dad, and my dad is like a hero to them because he was always the guy to pour a cheeky whisky.

Gary and his dad, the ultimate VIP

“I wouldn’t have had that experience if it wasn’t for the illness, because I wouldn’t have written that song. Do I wish I never had to write that song? I wish that. But we don’t live in a world of wishes so I’ll take it. It was such a beautiful day”

I think my way of dealing with it is to just go with it. Whatever he is feeling or is in that day I go with it. My mum has to live with it 24/7, it’s harder for her to just go with it. For me, I can just go, “Yep, no that’s right dad” - I just agree with him. Don’t get me wrong, a lot of the time, it’s very hard to keep your patience. What they say for dementia and Alzheimer’s patients is that whatever the tangent they might be on, you have to let them carry on, because if you correct them on it they might get shocked or become unstable. Trying to go with the flow as much as possible has been my way to deal with it.

He does this thing where he will forget that he has asked you something, but then asks the same question around thirty times. It always makes me think: “How does he remember to ask the question again?” He has forgotten he has asked you a question, but he will continue to ask you the same question again and again. Somewhere in there is a mechanism that is working, but there is also a mechanism that is malfunctioning. It fascinates me but it is heartbreaking too, because I want him to have the clarity that he once had and the same quickness of wit and mind. But there is something that is working in there. I can see it in his eyes.

There is a lot of honesty on the new record, [Wildness] some things I’ve never talked about before. But a lot of the songs on that record are about my life, and what I was going through, about my fears, my demons, whatever I was feeling. But ‘Soon’ is the only song that was really about somebody else and what they were going through.

I did think twice about whether it would be a good idea to share that, because it wasn’t mine to really share but I’m very glad that I did. Because of writing the song I got to see my dad and his illness in a way that I didn’t appreciate before,

I had a day with him making the video. It’s something I will never forget, it was one of the best days I ever had with my dad - and he really enjoyed it as well, he was having a ball. He kept turning to me - and [at some points] in the video we’re laughing - and that is genuinely my dad making me laugh so hard. 

I would be singing because it was the music video and he would forget that we were shooting. He would lean over and be like, “That sounds great! What is that song? That’s a great song!” And I would be laughing and he would say, “What are we doing here again?” And I would say, “Dad, we are making a wee music video,” and he would reply “Aw, that’s great, it’s so much fun! And who’s this fella here?” And it would be one of my dear, dear friends who is directing the video, he’s directed nine of the videos we made for the album, and many videos before that, and he’s met dad lots of times.

Everybody was in such awe of my dad and it just made me feel so proud of him, that he was still this force in the world. This force of positivity is still in there. My dad will walk into a room and the room will immediately get brighter, he is one of those guys who people are always happy to see him. All the people working on the video, the producers, the camera guys, the makeup girl, our wardrobe guy, everybody was like, “Your dad is the best,” and it made me feel so good that people could see him in that light.

I wouldn’t have had that experience if it wasn’t for the illness, because I wouldn’t have written that song, but do I wish I never had to write that song? I wish that. But we don’t live in a world of wishes so I’ll take it. It was such a beautiful day and the song means a lot to me.

I don’t know if my dad really understands what the song is about but I would really love him to connect with it. That’s something he has never really been able to do. We played in Belfast and my mum and dad were there, my dad leaned over twice to my mum during the gig when I was talking about the songs and said: “Who is that? Who is that there talking?” My mum said to him, “That there is your son,” and he would be like, “Oh yes, oh yes, of course.” That was a shift in his illness that had never happened before. I have always walked into a room and he knew who I was and was happy to see me. There were other things at play, whether it may have been the lighting at the gig, the sound and the noise, and the people around. There was a lot of distracting factors but it definitely hadn’t happened before so that was a shift.

What’s my plan for Father’s Day? My plan is to spend it with him. We don’t go out that much anymore, so it would be nice to go out. We have this amazing local restaurant. The oldest bar and restaurant in Northern Ireland and it’s beautiful and we go there on special occasions, so it would be nice to head there.