Remembrance

Today is three years to the day that Mum died. She was in a care home and died alone in her room. We never did discover a definite course of death, but were told it was most probably a heart attack. I have gone into some very dark corners of my mind since that day, wondering what her last moments were like. Did she have time to feel pain? To feel fear? I think I am more horrified at the thought of her being alone and frightened than alone and in pain.

Perhaps this is why Mum’s death felt so much more like a body blow than did my dad’s two years before. I had sat with Dad as he took his last breaths. I had had all the chances in the world to say the things I wanted to say to him as he was dying. Sitting with Dad and letting him leave this world was a process that I felt I saw him through; much as I was involved in my children arriving here. The two events have been entangled in my mind ever since: dying and birthing. Both equally painful, both equally exhilarating and life-changing.

Mum’s death was different. She just went. Like that. Out like a candle flame, caught in a gust of wind. People have tried consoling me, telling me that is the way she would have wanted it. No fuss. No long-drawn out suffering. Such platitudes have only made me angry. How do you know? I have wanted to snap. In life Mum loved a fuss; she loved to feel loved and fawned over and cherished. Why should her wishes for death have been so different?

Today I am thinking of all those who have died like Mum: alone, probably in pain, very probably afraid. There have been so many in these past twelve months. And their lonely, frightened deaths have left so many more people in pain with a grief that cannot be consoled. Whatever anyone might think about Mum being ‘lucky’ to die quickly ‘without fuss’, no one can say the same about the hundreds of thousands who have died from Covid with none of their loved ones there to hold their hand.

Today I am also thinking of the people left behind. The people grieving grandmothers and grandfathers, mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, daughters and sons and lovers and friends. I am thinking of those people who, like me, woke up one day to a phone call to tell them that their loved one, their most precious friend, lover or relative had died. I am thinking of those who, like me, have sat and stared and wondered How? I have nothing to offer these people but my thoughts and my sympathy, both of which are useless. But perhaps less useless than focussing on a number. Or a photo in a newspaper of a shameful man with his head bowed in mock reverence.

The one thing I can perhaps offer, though, is a focus on this thought: that each of the people left behind is feeling what I have felt, am still feeling – a deep, aching sense of loss. Every single person who has lost someone in the past year is hurting, badly. And, looking at the figures published this week of the number of people who have died (not the number of ‘deaths’, but people), this means there are hundreds and hundreds of thousands more who are deep in grief right now. You and I will probably walk past a few of them today without even realising it.

So, what can I draw from this, on a day when I am allowing myself to revisit my own grief? I think, maybe, the importance of kindness. The importance of gentleness and love and understanding. The importance of empathy. Because, whatever our lives are like today, one day we too will come face-to-face with grief and loss. One day we too will lose someone we love. Just like that. Out like a candle flame, caught in a gust of wind.

In memory of Gillian Hankey, 12th August 1943 – 28th January 2018

Motherless

Yesterday I walked my dog along the strand on the big surfing beach near where I live. I took her there for a change of scene because we have been trying variations on a theme for weeks now and that theme, beautiful though it is, is getting tired. I had a sudden yearning to stand on a long sandy beach and stare out across a vast horizon of tumbling waves. I had envisaged arriving early and having the beach to myself. I had forgotten it was half term. Already at 9.30am the beach was full of young families; toddlers swaddled in waterproof jumpsuits, woolly hats and wellies, up to their necks in holes they had no doubt been busily digging since breakfast, their weary-eyed parents clutching takeaway coffees as they stared out to sea, one eye on their charges. I didn’t envy them. Those sleep-deprived days are way behind me, and I have no desire to go back to them.

My dog went crazy-stupid the minute we hit the beach. She charged in and out of the sandcastles, barking at the kids with their exciting high-pitched voices and their unnerving colourful outfits. I was irritated – it meant I had to call the dog back and put her on the lead again and make my way swiftly past the children, rather than linger on the shore looking for shells as I had planned. My mood, already overcast that morning, was in danger of ramping up into a full-blown storm.

We marched on, the dog straining at her leash. We reached a patch of empty sand and the beach stretched ahead with no small children in our way, so I released the hound. She had gone barely three metres when a man ran up to her and pointed her back to me. I felt the thunder rumble in me as I prepared myself for a confrontation. I had set my face and got my words ready when I saw the man was smiling and looking apologetic.

‘Sorry love, but can I ask you to put the dog on a lead? There’s an abandoned seal pup up ahead. Can you walk around the top of the beach?’

My face no doubt then did what anyone’s would do at such news. The combination of that doleful word ‘abandoned’ with the short, soft syllable, ‘pup’ is enough to pull at anyone’s heart strings, no matter which side of the bed they have got out of that morning. My storm clouds evaporated as I turned to look at the helpless grey heap on the sand. From where I was standing it could have been anything: a mound of seaweed, a pile of rope fallen from a fishing boat, a wet towel dropped by a careless teen, an abandoned wetsuit. As I walked around the top of the beach, I made myself focus on the small creature. Even from a distance I could see that its eyes were shut. Its little body was covered in sand as though it had been rolled up on to the beach by the surf like a lump of driftwood. It was lying on its side, completely exhausted – lifeless, it looked to me. I felt a hard, deep tug from somewhere unnamed inside me and suddenly I was crying. I picked up speed, walking away to the cliffs so that no one would notice the mad old bat stomping past a seal pup with tears streaming down her face.

I rarely think of myself as a mother. If I were asked to say, without thinking, how I define myself, I would say I am a writer. Then I would say teacher. Then I would say mother. Sometimes this has worried me. Does it mean that I am lacking somehow? Less of a mother than the others? I used to look at the mums at the school gates, who chattered on endlessly about their offspring, and feel a kind of distaste and a definite sense of disconnect. I was not part of that club however hard I tried to dress the part and learn the lines. I felt a huge relief when the children went to senior school as by then it was acceptable to take a step back from motherhood, no explanation needed, and pour myself into my writing and teaching: I was able to own the identity that I had felt was being pulled away from me while the children were young.

But now that they have left home and I find myself mother to them in name alone – and maybe because I am now motherless myself – I am often capsized by feelings of motherliness that seem to come from nowhere. It is a force as strong and unexpected as that from a breaker that picks you up and knocks you so hard that you are left feeling winded and unsettled for the rest of the day.

It happens when I find, by chance, a story that my son wrote when he was in year one, his spelling endearingly phonetic and chaotic, his ideas wild and unfettered. Reading it floods my mind with images of him running up to me, his face spilt into a grin so wide it has spread to his whole body, his skinny arms and legs bursting with happiness as he bounces on his feet to tell me of his latest wild plans to have his own zoo. It happens when I find a T-shirt of my daughter’s at the bottom of the laundry pile and I am pushing my face into it and inhaling before I know what I am doing, breathing in the musky smell of her, imagining her thick, long hair running through my hands, conjuring up her laughter and her chatter as she tells me about her work, her friends, the latest gossip. And, it seems, it happens when I see a small abandoned seal pup, washed up by the wild autumn seas, left to fend for itself on a beach packed with curious holiday makers, lone grumpy walkers and idiot out-of-control Labradors. 

I walked back along the cliffs so that I could let my dog run wild. I looked down at the raging sea. The seal had been taken away while I was walking. The beach was open again to walkers. It was a red flag day so there were no surfers, only the rolling waves crashing and breaking into creamy soft foam. The water was innocent and momentarily powerless on the smooth shore’s edge. Children ran in and out of it, laughing, throwing seaweed at one another. I watched them, but felt nothing in particular at seeing them play – I still don’t want to be the mother of a small child again. It was an exhausting, all-consuming time that regularly left me angry and empty by bedtime.

And yet . . . I wouldn’t say no to a day of the best bits. A compilation of the greatest hits of my kids’ childhood: holding them close in a towel after a warm bath and breathing in their soap-clean smell; watching them play on this same beach in the sunlight late on a summer’s afternoon; listening to them chattering happily in the back of the car with their friends after a day of swimming and body-boarding; seeing them huddle up around the table in the cottage, shovelling steaming pasta into their beaming faces before shouting for a game of cards before bed. What I wouldn’t give to have a day like that again.

Roots and wings

Our last chick left the nest four days ago. He was more than ready. He had outgrown it long ago, his wings so strong and wide he would regularly knock into things. He had become frustrated with the lack of space long before the time had come to let him stand, teetering on the edge, ready for his first flutter into the big wide world. He had been given everything he needed, and more, to help him navigate this next stage. It was time to let him leap.

I had waved his sister off three years before, and that had been hard: leaving her in an empty student flat in a strange city, trying to avoid the look of panic in her eyes as she realised she was on her own for the first time in her life. I had coped by rushing home to her brother and his routine of school and drama club and pets and homework and late-night pick-ups from party venues. I had thrown myself into writing and taken on a teaching job and tried to stifle the heavy, pressing, empty feeling in my chest whenever I walked past her bedroom.

Now there are two empty bedrooms to walk past. And perhaps because I have spent more time one-to-one with my son, the heaviness in my chest seems harder to ignore. A friend asked me how he was getting on the other day and I embarrassed myself by bursting into snotty tears, as though he had died rather than moved a few hundred miles away.

On the journey to his halls of residence he became quieter even than usual. My mind whirred with things I yearned to say to him, but knew I shouldn’t. Instead I spoke a lot of nonsense to fill the silence. My mouth said, “Would you like a snack?” while my head asked, “How are you feeling? Are you nervous?” My mouth said, “Goodness, how did it get to be lunch time?” as my head asked, “Are you worried about missing friends?” My mouth said, “Will there be supper in halls for you tonight?” My head said, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”

When I went to university, over thirty years ago, my parents helped me unload the car and then came to my room and hovered, not wanting to leave me, unsure of how to say goodbye. I had no idea what they were feeling, and I didn’t really care. All I knew was that I wanted them to go as soon as possible so that I could get on with this next exciting chapter of my life. My son was spared such awkward unwanted parental attention. The virus has made sure of that. We had to drop and go.

Fledgling birds are sometimes found sitting on their own, looking – to us humans – lost and abandoned. We misinterpret their situation and often make things worse for them by intervening, trying to put them back into the nest they have just flown. In fact, the parents are usually nearby and watching out for their young. They may be attending to four or five young that are scattered in different directions, but they will most likely return to care for the one that seems to have been left to find for itself. Fledglings produce sounds that their parents recognise, so one of them will return and care for it in time. When fledglings leave their nest they rarely return; it’s not a good idea to put the bird back in as it will hop right back out.

So it must be with me and my two chicks. There is no point in trying to put them back into the nest. But I can stay alert to their calls for help and be there for them when they need me. I have given them roots and now I must let them open their wings and soar.

In No Time

Time was something Mum obsessed over. Like the White Rabbit in Alice’s Adventure’s in Wonderland she would pace back and forth before she needed to be anywhere, checking her watch and her father’s old carriage clock and the grandfather clock in the hall, muttering over and over, “We’re going to be late!” 

No wonder, perhaps, that I seem to have inherited this trait. It drives my family mad. I have a preference for being at least five minutes early for any appointment and get tight-chested and prickly with panic if stuck in traffic, watching the minutes race on by. 

It’s a slippery thing, time. And the older I get, the more wily it becomes. Was it really five years ago today that Dad died? Because if I focus on that morning, not dissimilar to the one I can see today through my study window – quiet and still, the light low and golden – I can put myself exactly where I was and the years roll away and I am back there, by his side, watching his time run out.

Five years ago today time was of the essence. I had woken on the first day of a holiday on a remote island in the Chumphon Archipelago to a call from my sister to say that Dad had only 36 hours left to live. A quick calculation revealed that I would need every last second of those precious hours to make it back to the UK in time to see Dad before he kept his appointment with death.

I went to the beach while my husband raced around getting a taxi and booked a place on a ferry for me. The taxi had to arrive in the next ten minutes or I would miss the ferry. Oh, my fur and whiskers! While my husband rushed, I forced myself to walk slowly along the white sand. I picked up pieces of coral that looked like bleached bone. How was it possible that I was on a beach under an early morning tropical sun, while my dad was lying in a bed in the middle of the night in Kent, waiting to die. Had we done the maths right? Would my time-travelling across the zones from east to west get me to Dad before it was too late?

Thirty-six hours is not long. A day and a night and a day. Time that is easily wasted. I could spend thirty-six hours doing nothing but read, eat, sleep, repeat. Thirty-six hours is also the longest period of time a person can endure. I know this twice over, because my daughter took thirty-six hours to arrive into this world and there was not one second of that time that was not stretched with pain and fear.

In the end it did take exactly thirty-six hours for me to get to that bedside in Kent from that beach on Koh Tao. Thirty-six hours of excruciating minutes that crawled across the face of every clock I checked as though a curse had been put on them; as though I were living out a nightmare in which I was filled with a desperate need to reach my destination, but my legs were filled with lead and no amount of effort on my part was going to get me there fast enough.

I should have been used to this feeling. I had spent the past three years running on lead-filled legs, pushing boulders up hills only to have them roll back down and flatten me, time after time after time. Mum had been sick for so long by this point it had become normal to wake every morning weighed down by dread over what the day would bring. And then Dad’s cancer had crashed in and ripped the fabric of our lives apart and honestly there were days when I wanted to throw my head back and laugh like the mad women my mother was sharing a ward with.

Time played tricks on me over and over during that period. At one point in the early summer I was driving to see Dad in hospital and I completely forgot what month it was. My teenage kids seemed to suddenly skip a couple of years overnight and become young adults before my eyes. My skin wrinkled and my hair grew white as I stared at my reflection. A year disappeared in the blink of an eye. 

I wasn’t too late in the end. I walked into the darkened room where Dad lay, and exactly one hour later he drew his last breath. A breath so deep it took every last ounce of energy from him. It was, quite literally, his last gasp. Sometimes cliches are the only way to go.

Now it’s five years later. Five whole years of breathing and sleeping and reading and writing and eating and playing and laughing and loving and crying and remembering and grieving and living. Five whole years without Dad. And two and a half without Mum. And yet it’s not five years. It’s a nanosecond. A wink. A shiver. It’s as though it were only yesterday. And long may that feeling last, for as long as I can hold them in my mind’s eye, they will still be here, Mum and Dad. Together. Time without end.

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Despair for the World

It’s been a hellish week. Fires raging in the US. Hatred, anger, hurt and grief howled loud in the streets. As if a pandemic weren’t enough, we now have another disease to deal with, and this one is one hundred per cent human-born.

And why? When we are all of this world. When we are all conceived and grow and are born and live and die. Or, to borrow from the Bard:

“If you prick us, do we not bleed? If you tickle us, do we not laugh? If you poison us, do we not die?”

When my children ask me, “Why are people like this?” I have no answers. I can’t make sense of it for myself, let alone for them.

All I can do is try to find hope; to go out and look up at the trees, or to sit by the water, and to see that the world has been here long enough to see generation after generation go to war and die in pandemics, and to hate and hurt and love and grieve. And yet the world is still here. The seasons come and the seasons go and they don’t take much notice of what we humans do.

This lockdown, a poem has put it better than I ever could. It has been my solace and my inspiration. It is a small thing, a poem. It can’t solve the problems we humans are now facing. But maybe it can help to shift our focus. To help us see the bigger picture. In any case, it’s all I have for now.

THE PEACE OF WILD THINGS by Wendell Berry

When despair for the world grows in me

and I wake in the night at the least sound

in fear of what my life and my children’s lives may be,

I go and lie down where the wood drake

rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.

I come into the peace of wild things

who do not tax their lives with forethought

of grief, I come into the presence of still water.

And I feel above me the day-blind stars

waiting with their light. For a time

I rest in the grace of the world, and am free.

Grief in the Time of Corona

We are all grieving. Not all of us are grieving loved ones lost to the virus, but all of us are grieving nonetheless. And we may not even know it.

“Why do I feel so tired all the time?”

“I can’t read. I can’t seem to concentrate.”

“I have lost my appetite.”

“I have this sharp pain in my chest.”

“I feel so angry.”

“I feel ridiculously weepy.”

“I feel quite panicked.”

These are some of the comments I have heard from family and friends or have read online. And they are all symptoms I recognise. When my parents died, I went through all of the above, and more. Strange surges of emotion which didn’t seem to fit my idea of what grieving should feel like. Sudden plummets in mood that could be triggered by the smallest thing. Physical aches and pains that I had never had before.

Grief is a response that comes with a whole set of behaviours, and it’s as individual in its shape and size as the person who is grieving. We don’t acknowledge it or talk about it much in our society, which is perhaps why we don’t recognise it when it comes along. We think we know what grieving is and what it’s for. It’s weeping when someone’s died. It’s feeling sad at the loss of a loved one. It’s despair at the idea we’ll never see them again.

But it’s also anger at the perceived injustice of our situation. It’s a physical ache. It’s a deep disruption and disturbance to our peace of mind. So no wonder then that when we are grieving we might want to punch and hit and kick like a toddler having a tantrum. Or curl up in a ball and hide like a wounded animal. There are no rules to grief.

Grieving is a response to loss. So it’s no surprise we are all grieving right now, because we have all lost something: our old life. So if you’re tired all the time, take a nap. If you can’t read, don’t stress about it – do some drawing or cooking or sewing or go for a walk instead. If you’ve lost your appetite, make yourself a comforting warm drink or try small snacks instead of worrying that you can’t manage a meal. If you’ve pains in your chest, try breathing exercises or yoga or mindfulness. If you’re angry go and take it out on something in a physical way – chop some logs, scour the bath, punch a cushion, go for a run. If you’re weepy, cry. If you’re panicked, talk it through with a friend.

Whatever you do to get through this crisis, remember to be kind to yourself. That’s the best advice I was given, so I feel I should pass it on. Take care.

*

A Place for Everythingmy mother, autism and me is published by HarperCollins Publishers in the UK on 9th July 2020. Available for preorder now.

Lockdown

I haven’t written about you for nearly a year, but don’t think I haven’t thought of you. I think of you, Mum, and you, Dad, every single day. In fact – if only I could tell you – I’ve written a book about you both. It will come out on 3rd July, almost five years since you died, Dad. The title mentions Mum because the ‘hook’, as publishers like to say, is her and her late diagnosis of autism. It would make you chuckle, Dad, I think: we always said, “It’s all about Mum.” She always came first because she had to. Even when you were dying of cancer. She needed us more than you did. Or so we thought.

I have had a lot of time to rethink things during lockdown. If you were both still alive now – if you were both still alive and sick now – how would you cope? Mum would be frightened to go out because of the virus, so at least she would agree to stay at home. She wouldn’t want to touch anything that had come in from outside, though, so would that mean that you, Dad, would be tasked with disinfecting everything over and over and over until you could reassure her. And if you had just come out of hospital after your first operation to remove that tumour, would you even be able to do the things Mum needed in order to feel reassured? And what about you? What about your care?

I think about how eaten up with worry and guilt I would be, not being allowed to travel to see you. I would be sitting here, looking out at blue skies, enjoying being with my kids and my husband, all the time knowing that you are shut in, together, both in pain, both suffering, both, in your separate ways, alone.

There are so many people living through all this right now. So many elderly couples, leaning on each other, each staggering under the weight of responsibility and care. So many middle-aged children, wanting desperately to see their parents and prevented from doing so. And so many more who have had to learn of a parent’s death from afar.

I haven’t written about you, but I think of you and I think of all these other people, suffering as you did, but with the added burden of lockdown. And I quietly give thanks that you were at least spared this.

**

My memoir A Place for Everything: my mother, autism and me

is published by HQ Stories on 3rd July.

Available for preorder from Waterstones, Hive and Amazon now.

Out of the Darkness

Happy Christmas to you!

 

The most wonderful time of the year – Joy to the world – Goodwill to all – ’Tis the season

Merry

Happy

Jolly

Sparkly

Shiny

Glittery

Tinselly

Christmas—

 

No

No

Stop

No room for that

 

You stop

You frown

And you say: don’t

Don’t spoilt things

There’s no room for grief/pain/loneliness/tears/sadness/moodiness

No one wants to see it. No one wants to hear it. Keep singing! Keep dancing! Keep passing the parcel until the music stops! Haven’t you heard about the glad tidings? And what about the carols and the games and the food and the telly and the parties? The sparkles and the glitter and the music and the drinking and the fun? Don’t tell me that you’re feeling low. Don’t tell me that you’re missing someone. Don’t tell me that it’s all a bit much and you’d rather hide away. ’Tis the season to be happy and jolly and bright—

 

We know

We know

But

The thing is

It’s tough

It’s bleak

It’s hard

 

when the Ghost of Christmas Past stalks the halls

when the memories well up when you least expect them

when that song

that decoration

that joke

that recipe

acts like a switch that turns on the grief and then puts it on full volume

drowning out the light

It’s hard when you’re sinking in the bleak midwinter darkness

 

Listen. We don’t want to be miserable. We don’t want to put a dampener on it all. We want to recapture the light and the laughter and the smiles and the silliness. It’s what ‘they’ would have wanted, as you keep telling us.

 

And yes, we know the light is there, it’s just that we can’t quite see it. It’s a struggle. Sometimes there’s a glimpse. A flicker. Sometimes even a flare. But it’s quickly gone. Quickly out of our grasp.

 

Be patient with us. We know you don’t understand. Yet. We won’t be like this forever. We’re reaching for the light. We’ll get there.

 

We know that one day there’ll be:

No more mourning

No more crying

No more pain

Peace on earth

Peace in our hearts

 

So let us be and give us space

One day we’ll emerge from the darkness

Thank you for understanding

 

And peace to you this Christmas

Ebb and Flow

This summer we moved to West Cornwall, our favourite place in the world. It’s the place where we have come on holiday every summer ever since the children were tiny – and most May half-terms and Easters, too. It’s the place where my husband was born and where he brought me back in the days when we were dating. It’s the place where we went on to have one of those unspoken conversations which couples have, and after which we both knew we’d somehow made a promise to one another; that a line had been drawn in the Cornish sand. It’s the place which has birthed at least one novel from me and which I hope will go on to birth many more. In any case, it’s a new chapter for all of us.

This morning I took my dog to a beach that I haven’t been to since the children were small. We had stopped coming because it gets so crowded during the holidays (especially since it’s been used to film the moodier and more romantic scenes for a well-known TV series).

In my mind, the place was a vast sandy beach with loads of space for running around. (The TV series certainly gives that impression too, from the long shots of windswept waves and towering granite cliffs.) My kids used to race back and forth from the waves at low tide, shrieking and laughing as the cold water splashed them. In my mind, it was a perfect place to take my young dog – the only member of the family who still delights in such simple pleasures. Dogs are not allowed on the beaches in the summer, but now that October is here, it’s open season. So I got up early, thinking of spending a good hour running about on the sand with the dog.

But when we got down to the cove I saw that memory had played its old tricks on me again: the beach was tiny! There wasn’t really much room for the dog to run at all, and I’d paid for a full two hours in the car park. I went and stood at the tide line and stared out to sea, letting the memories wash over me. All those sandcastles. All those picnics. There was the time my son insisted on making a “sand car”, complete with steering wheel and gear stick. There was the time we were the first to arrive on the beach and one of us shouted, “Dolphins!” We ran down to the water, stripping off and jumping into swimsuits as we ran, then plunging in, we swam out to greet them. The dolphins squealed and squeaked and we laughed and clapped as the beautiful creatures leaped and turned and played with us.

Then were the times when my daughter wouldn’t get out of the water, even though her lips were blue, while my son would start crying from the cold – he was so small and skinny. He would beg for biscuits and snuggle up to me for warmth, wrapped in his yellow towel with its little duck-faced hood. He is six-foot tall and muscle-bound now and would rather die than be seen crying. Or snuggling with his mum.

As I watch the sea coming in, I am painfully aware of how much time has past. I can’t stop time any more than I can stop the tides. I can’t bring back those wriggly little bodies who danced in and out of the waves, try as I might to conjure them up. Maybe that’s why I have a dog. I watch as she jumps in and out of the water, so overexcited her tail is whirring round and round like a helicopter blade. Her legs can’t keep up with her body; she is full to the brim of the feelings that running wild bring. She cannot contain herself. She is uninhibited by the worries and anxiety that adolescence and young adulthood bring. She is innocence and freedom and youth and joy. As my kids once were.

I walk along the tide line and look down at the shells, and I remember all the times I’ve beach-combed with my children and collected our finds in bowls and jars. I have an urge to pick up shells and pieces of sea-frosted glass right now, but who am I collecting them for? My family is as scattered now as the shells that lie strewn across the beach.

But I can’t stand and waste the morning in mourning. Life moves on, as inexorably as the tides. I can’t stop it, so I shall just have to go with the ebb and the flow. And see what this new chapter brings.

IMG_2749

Father’s Day

I am determined not to be sad this year. I have moved on. Father’s Day is about my husband’s role as father to our two kids. I decide to get on with packing for our imminent house move, to be proactive and to focus on the future.

Inevitably, though, this sends me to the boxes of letters and photos and school certificates and postcards and assorted memorabilia that I brought back from Mum and Dad’s over two years ago. I thought I had done a pretty good job of sorting when first I emptied my childhood home, but the boxes and bags have undergone two or three different stages of sifting since then. Each time I have felt able to let go of things. And today I will let go of more. I am strong enough now to throw out a whole envelope of fuzzy black and white photos which in the fug of grief I could not bear to part with. I can now discard the cards from people I have never met, the invitations from people who mean nothing to me, the maps and tickets and postcards from holidays taken before I was born.

Yet of course there is some scrap of paper somewhere in all of this that has the power to ambush me. I tell myself this isn’t so, that I am doing well, being ruthless: filling up recycling bags, not allowing myself a second glance at diaries or newspaper clippings, not allowing myself to feel sentimental over a recipe for quiche carefully cut from a magazine. Then I lift a file and there it is: the morsel that has been lying in wait to undo me. Song lyrics written in Italian in Dad’s hand – a song I remember him learning in his Italian classes with Mum:

Manca sollecita
più dell’usato,
ancor che s’agiti
con lieve fiato,
face che palpita
presso al morir,

face che palpita
presso al morir.

I have never learned Italian, so I have to look up a translation. It seems the lyrics are old and hard to translate into modern English. One version I find is: a flame that is flickering close to its end will die quickly, more quickly than usual, even though the breeze that makes it flicker is a light one. 

I find the song on YouTube and play it back. In the deep, doleful music I hear Dad’s voice. He loved to sing. He loved to learn new languages. Maybe he wrote these lyrics down in an attempt to learn them by heart. Maybe there is no significance at all to the fact that they survived being thrown away by him before he died. But it seems suddenly as though the words are steeped in significance – in a meaning personal to Dad. Because that’s what he was: a bright flame, a light that blazed. And he did die quickly in the end. He seemed to be doing well right up until his last week, and then his lungs began to fill, he became confused and sleepy and then he just slipped away. As though a light breeze had snuffed him out.

I know I am being ridiculous, behaving as though somehow Dad has reached out beyond the grave to give me this sad little note on Father’s Day. But I miss him so much, I’ll take any bit of solace I can right now.