At 3:39 a.m. on Nov. 28, as daybreak prepared to be born, my father, Harry Leslie Smith, at the age of 95, died in my arms.
Politicians, journalists and ordinary folk knew him as “the world’s oldest rebel.” But he was much more than that to me — not only my father but my friend, my political comrade and my mentor, who I had the great fortune to accompany on a spiritual and political odyssey that spanned the last nine years of his life.
Harry, a survivor of the Great Depression and veteran of the Second World War, was on a mission to warn younger generations not to make his past — one filled with politically driven austerity, private health care and raging, intemperate populism — our future.
Driven by the poverty of his childhood that had seen him scavenge through rubbish bins in Depression-ravaged Britain, we travelled the world, much of it at our own expense, so he could speak to both the ordinary and the mighty, to make a last stand for a return to a decent society in the 21st century.
Now, at 55, I am alone, faced with rebuilding my life and preserving the legacy of Harry Leslie Smith. It is why I will resume his refugee tour and complete his Last Stand. This holiday season, I will travel across America by bus to the Mexican border in San Diego to document — on Harry’s enormous social media platform — the injustice, the cruelty, the inhumanity that is being shown to the caravan of migrants by a Trump government intent on ruling by fear and intimidation rather than by compassion, pragmatism and good governance.
Harry feared that humanity was at a juncture in history just as dangerous as Hitler’s rise to power and if we didn’t change course we would spiral into war and economic mayhem.
Over these last years, as he approached the eventide of his life, his intellectual and emotional vitality never seemed to tire, despite many health issues. It’s why it didn’t seem possible to me, even at his deathbed, that he could die.
When I kissed his hands and cheek while telling him how much I loved him, I thought this must be a nightmare, because I felt he had so much left to do and contribute.
But Harry knew. I am sure he knew that only the briefest of moments were left to him because days before his death, Canada’s immigration minister, Ahmed Hussen, came like a pilgrim to his bedside in the ICU of the Belleville hospital to thank him for his advocacy to help stop the refugee crisis.
With a machine pumping compressed air into his lungs, a PICC line in his right arm and bags of IV fluids dripping into his left arm, my dad, in a weak but prophetic voice, told the minister that time was running out for him and for a compassionate solution to the refugee crisis.
Still, it just didn’t seem conceivable to me that since we had set out on this journey together nearly a decade before, covering tens of thousands of miles so my dad could thunder like a warning from history, that he would not complete his Last Stand.
But he didn’t. He couldn’t because his body was just too damaged by age and the strain of our travels and advocacy.
My dad’s body, nearing 100 years, didn’t stand a chance against the pneumonia, sepsis, congestive heart failure and weakened kidneys that were killing him. It’s why he gave permission to his doctor and nursing staff to discontinue the medical treatment that was prolonging his life but stripping it of all quality and dignity.
He did it with the words “no more” and a final demand that he be given a beer as he’d been starved of food and fluids for a week because doctors were afraid he’d aspirate.
And with a smile and a joke that it was best to enjoy yourself because it’s later than you think, my dad, who had protected and loved me as child, teenager and adult, lost consciousness and never returned.
Harry held on to life for 12 hours after medical supports were removed, and I did not leave his side for one moment of it. I sat by his bedside in the ICU and played for him his speech to the Labour party conference in 2014, where he galvanized Britain with his reminiscence of the brutal, short and cruel life the working class endured before public health care was introduced.
I read to him from the books he’d written and I’d helped research, five in total — 1923: A Memoir; Love Among the Ruins; The Empress of Australia; Harry’s Last Stand; Don’t Let My Past Be Your Future — stories about the rich working-class canvas of his youth in Depression-era Yorkshire, his experiences during the Second World War and his search for love in the rubble of postwar, Allied-occupied Hamburg, where he was redeemed through his marriage to Friede, my mother.
I thanked him for teaching me how to be a decent human being while hearing his last breaths. It hurt me so much to feel his body grow cold as death approached. Then I heard, while I whispered to him that it was time to join history, his breathing grow faint, as if he were an exhausted swimmer, too far from shore to reach the safety of land, before sinking beneath the cold, dark waves.
I hovered over his corpse and stroked his cheek, knowing that after that moment, I’d never again have the opportunity to touch my dad. And something lingered in me, still lingers in me — and that was the enormous love, respect and understanding that we had shown each other for my entire life, but especially during the last years of his life when we dared to change the world for the better.
After placing one last kiss on my father’s cold brow, I placed in his hands a picture of my beloved mother and walked from the hospital out into the morning air. Too tired for tears, in the frigid indifference of late November, I made a quiet promise to my father, and to myself. “Dad, I will finish what we started. I will use the example of your life to teach others that a better society can be built on the foundations you and your generation laid at the end of the Second World War. You will not be forgotten, judging by the grief expressed by tens of thousands of people across the world at your death. A new tomorrow is possible.”
What Harry accomplished could not have happened without this love and commitment to him. Each time we travelled, both Harry and I were moved by the simple kindness of strangers. I’ve cried many times over the thousands of tweets from people all over the world expressing their condolences and love for my dad. It has made this walk of mourning less lonely. Thank you.
My dad was an ordinary man, born into extreme poverty, then raised out of it by the creation of the welfare state after the Second World War — his generation’s hard-won legacy for future children of this planet. It is truly humbling that his efforts in later life to make society better have been recognized by so many as noble and heroic acts.
However, now, to preserve his legacy, I must conclude his travels to the world’s refugee hot spots, finish his book on the refugee crisis, write my own book about life with my dad, continue his advocacy on social media and begin speaking to anyone who will listen about the life history of this remarkable man, Harry Leslie Smith — my dad.