Blood, Sweat and Tears

Today I met with a friend whose father passed away a year ago. She told me how she has not been able to cry properly yet. She talked of her grief being locked away; of how it surfaces without warning, brimming and threatening to spill, but how it is quickly buried again. ‘I can’t let it out. I don’t want to walk around being miserable all the time,’ she said. I told her that I didn’t grieve properly until at least a year was past. In fact, I don’t think I faced the raw pain of it until I had to deal with another death, over two years on from losing Dad. And then it was the death of an animal that did it.

Two months ago our lovely Labrador, Kenna, became unwell very suddenly. One morning at breakfast time instead of wolfing her food down in seconds, she stood over her bowl, looked at the food and then looked at me. The sorrow in her eyes was unbearable. It was clear what she was saying. ‘I want to eat, but I can’t.’ She then took to her basket and lay, panting, her back legs shaking. I assumed she had been poisoned or had had an allergic reaction, so I took her to the vet, expecting to be sent packing with the appropriate prescription.

Instead we were sent to the bigger veterinary practice in the next town and I had to leave her there. For tests. Two short words whose length belies the weight and darkness of their meaning.

A few hours later I was weeping down the phone as I decoded the young vet’s careful phrases. ‘It appears there is a mass attached to her spleen. We could operate, but it might not achieve the desired outcome.’

I called a friend. She drove me to my dog. We lay on the floor, either side of her, stroked her head, her paws and told her she had been a perfect companion, a lovely creature, but that we were very sorry, the time had come to let her go. As we said this, she began to whimper. I ran to get the vet. She administered the drug and Kenna sighed her last and closed her eyes.

I howled.

The next day I went back with my husband and son. We lifted her already decomposing body into the back of the car. We drove home, the smell of her filling the air around us. We carried her into the garage while we set about digging her grave. The ground here is full of sandstone. It had begun to rain. My husband dug so far and then handed the pickaxe and spade to me. The hole was too deep and the ground too hard so I lay on the wet grass, my head in the grave as I scooped out handfuls of earth and stone and howled and howled and howled, not caring who might see or hear.

We carried her body from the garage to the grave. We lowered her in and said some words. I didn’t want to let go of her soft head, her velvet ears, her gentle nose. I had to be pulled off her.

I wish I could have buried Dad like that. I wish I could have given him a dog’s death. So much more real and pure and raging than a sanitised cremation with some lovely hymns. I wish I could have wrapped his body in a sheet and dug a grave with my bare hands and lowered his body into the earth and got down into it with him. I wish I could have done that last thing for him – given him an authentic send-off with all the blood and fluids and smells and dirt and mess that it would have entailed. Birth is not neat and clean – my children were handed to me covered in blood and mucus and they were beautiful. Why can’t we handle death in its messy reality too?

I said all this to my friend today. She nodded, tears in her eyes.

‘I sound like a madwoman, don’t I?’ I said.

‘No,’ she said. ‘No. Perfectly sane if you ask me.’

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Where I am Now

I said I wouldn’t write this blog any more. I said I would go out and live and stop dwelling on the things I have lost. But as the wonderful writer Eva Ibbotson said, “You cannot stop the birds of sorrow from flying over your head, but you can stop them nesting in your hair.”

So that is what I have been trying to do. I have gone out. I have travelled. A lot. I have joined a choir, I have plunged into cold rivers and lakes, I have watched kingfishers and herons and cormorants and swans. I have spent time with friends and family. I have written four books this year and published two since my last blog post. I have waved my daughter off to university and watched my son bloom into a beautiful young man who now wears a suit to school (and soon, I hope, will be going to university too). And all the time I have been aware of those birds of sorrow, fluttering above me. I miss Dad. I missed him on my travels – he would have loved the sights we saw, the food we ate, the Spanish we spoke. I am sad that he wasn’t there for the kids’ GCSE and A Level results. I am sad that he’ll never read the books I have published.

There’s no doubt that they have changed me, those birds. For a while I felt so distracted by them that I lost sight of the person I had always been. I told people “I don’t feel myself”. I struggled to recapture the essence of that self; the core of Anna-ness which kept me anchored in daily life. It hasn’t helped that I have watched my children grow away from me just as I lost Dad. And my mother has slipped even further away, cocooning herself against unwanted sights, sounds, tastes, smells, feelings and thoughts while she waits for death to release her. The knowledge that she has lost the essence of her own self has played havoc with my sense of balance. I feel cast adrift. Without moorings. Without direction or purpose. Unsure of what to do next with life.

Perhaps as a consequence I have held on to the past as though clinging to a raft that will ferry me back to a place I felt safe. And I have worried over a future which is a place that looks anything but.

Today, though, I felt something shift. I was getting changed after a swim and was aware of the eerie echo from the baby pool of young mums’ voices singing. “The wheels on the bus go round and round, round and round, round and round…” I felt the past reaching out, pulling me back to a time which has gone forever: a time when I had small soft children who would nestle in my lap rather than large, lanky teens who can’t wait to be free of me. Then I glimpsed two older ladies in baggy swimsuits and baggier bodies, unwittingly showing me the shape of things to come.

The birds of sorrow were threatening to land when a toddler-pitched scream splintered the air, wrenching me back to the present moment. I don’t want to go back to those days, not really. And I don’t want to think about the days to come. I am not young. Nor am I yet old. I am here. Now. And I will enjoy it while it lasts.

 

The End of This Road

It is a year to the day that I started this blog. It is two years to the day that you phoned to say that you had bad news. Two years since you told me that what happened next was “between me and my Maker.”

Two years is supposed to be enough time to have assimilated what has happened. I am supposed to stop talking about your death now. I am allowed to mention you in conversation as long as I am recounting cheery things; involving others in memories of happier times.

But two years is not enough time. Neither, I suspect, is three years. Or four. Or twenty-four. Or any number. It is only those who have not lost someone they love who think of grief in terms of a finite period.

Since joining The Dead Dads’ Club (as a friend has dubbed it) I have spoken to many people who have given up trying to explain to outsiders what grief is like. Everyone’s experience is as different as the love they have for the ones they have lost. But we all have one thing in common. We all agree that grief is now part of us, that it has changed us as all the big things in life do and that it is here to stay; to be lived with, to be carried along with us until we too have to leave, passing on the mantle to others who will bear it in their turn.

A month before you died you told me that I should “get out more”. It was a serious point, made in a conversation we were having about the sort of work I had had published up until now and what my plans were for the future. It was one of those chats which challenged me, which made me see how much more I have left to do. So that is what I am going to do now. I am going to get out more, with the sound of your voice and encouragement ringing in my heart.

I shall stop this blog today. It is time to take a different road. Writing this blog has helped me in more ways than I could have imagined. It has been different from talking and different from keeping a journal. It has helped me think through my experience and it has put me in touch with others who have been through similar times. It has opened up conversations, led me to read books I would otherwise not have read, showed the side of friends and acquaintances I did not know existed. It has also made me see how many gifts you gave me, Dad, and that the greatest one of all was storytelling. I don’t know what I will do with all these words. But I do know one thing: just as life goes on, so do the stories. There is never really an end to any of it.

 

Failing to Reappear

Almost two years have passed since Dad knew he was dying and Mum stopped coping with life. Almost a year since I started writing about it. There are still times when I struggle with accepting what has happened. How can Dad be here one minute and gone the next? How can Mum be here – and yet not be present?

There have been times when I have half-convinced myself that once that I have gone through this grieving business and come out the other side, things will go back to normal. My mind plays tricks on me. I catch myself thinking I might pick up the phone and talk to Dad. Or Mum might get better and not need to be in a care home any more. The house will still be there for me. I will be able to go back. In time as well as space.

Sometimes it is a relief to sleep and not think of these things. Unless, that is, I dream. A recent nightmare had my parents back in their house for a visit after my sister and I had started to clear it. Dad was cross that I had been in his study, through his desk, through his neatly filed paperwork. Mum was jubilant. “Thank you so much for getting rid of all his books!” she told me, beaming. “I have been trying to get him to do that for years.” And in the back of my mind, a panicky voice was saying, “But we’re selling the house. Mum is supposed to be going back to the care home. Dad is . . . Dad is . . . Dad is not coming back at all.” I woke up with a gasp, reality rushing back in.

Dreams like this play on my feelings of guilt in the dark early hours. My thoughts spin on a destructive loop: Dad would not be pleased with what we have done since he died. We should have found a way to keep Mum at home. We should not have sold their furniture and given their books away. We should have found a cure for Mum. What would I say to Dad if he asked me? He would not like her being on a dizzying cocktail of drugs ranging from anti-psychotics to anti-depressants to sedatives to sleeping pills and goodness only knows what else. She has Asperger’s Syndrome. We know that now. That is not a condition that needs drugs. It needs sympathy and understanding and help with learning coping strategies. Doesn’t it?

Except that, it turns out, things have moved beyond that for Mum. She is so deeply locked into her own world now that tinkering with her drugs, trying to withdraw them, makes things worse for her. Hellishly worse. It has been tried and the results were terrifying: disorientation, panic, fear, hysterics, physical instability. And so she is back on the pills again. Back on her bed. Back in a state of drug-induced calm. And we have been advised to accept this. To realise that this is what is necessary. Because we will never have her back the way she was.

I went to see her yesterday. On the train from London I stared out of the window at landmarks familiar from my childhood: the station names I could recite by heart, the fields, the white weather-board and red-brick cottages, the Oast houses, the orchards, the river. I felt the familiar weight of sadness in my chest. Mum was always so proud of being a Kentish Maid. She would lecture me on the county’s history. Now she doesn’t talk at all, other than to ask me to leave.

After my short visit, I went to sit by the river where we scattered Dad’s ashes. “The house will be sold next week,” I told him – almost two years to the day that he rang to tell me his cancer was terminal. Once Mum has gone, will I have a reason to return to Kent ever again? Will I really make the trip just to sit on that riverbank and gaze into the silt and think of Dad paddling by this spot in his canoe? How can I accept the way things are? How can everything have changed so quickly? How it is possible that Dad is no more? That Mum has turned her face to the wall? Surely I could have prevented it?

The night before I had gone to see “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. A few lines from the play echo in my mind as I stare into the muddy water and try to hold on to an image of Dad and Mum as they were:

“The fact of [death] is nothing to do with seeing it happen – it’s not gasps and blood and falling about – that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.”

A disappearance gathering weight as it goes on. Yes. That is it. An acceptance is necessary from now on. An acceptance of Dad’s never coming back. And with that, the acceptance that Mum, as we knew her, isn’t either.

Ancient History

I have put off reading the love letters for a few weeks. I thought it was going to feel wrong: that I would be eavesdropping; spying on a private part of my parents’ lives that it was not appropriate for a child to see.

But that’s just the point. I am no longer a child. I am the parent of two adolescents who are not so far away from the age my parents were when they first met, aged 19. Is it this which gives me the distance I need?

There are letters for almost every day from May 1963 to July 1966. The overwhelming feeling I have once I have lined up Mum’s letters alongside Dad’s is one of privilege. Here is almost three years of conversation – conversation that normally would be lost to the tides of time. Amongst the records are the minutiae of a life that must be planned in pen and ink and not down a phone line or via the worldwide web. Details of train times and plans for weekends are noted alongside tentative dips into the waters of romance. These shy forays quickly blossom when Mum asks Dad to write to her in Latin. They are corresponding about meeting in London to go to Henley regatta together and Mum suggests she get up early to make the most of the day. Dad replies:

[…] sed surgere mane puellas quis, nisi cui non est ulla puella, ferat?

I have to look this up, of course, my own O Level Latin long forgotten. All I can understand is ‘girls’ and what I think is ‘jump up’. It turns out (as Dad has to subsequently explain to Mum) it is a quote taken from Ovid’s ‘Amores, Elegy XIII: The Dawn’.

[…] girls shouldn’t rise early – who would do that to a girl, save a man who has not a girl of his own?

Typical of Dad to try to make a joke in Latin. It has the desired effect, however, for soon Mum is calling him ‘O meae deliciae, Martinus’ and he is responding with ‘O lux et vita mea, Gilliana mihi carissima’.

Their shared love and knowledge of the Classics was a deep bond. The letter which brings this most starkly home is one Dad sends from his first visit to Rome in July 1963. He gushes that ‘imperial buildings and temples and basilicas and baths’ have him summoning up Ancient Rome and making him long to ‘learn Italian and take you there’.

They did exactly this in retirement, going to Italian classes together, Mum grumpy at the speed with which Dad overtook her in mastering the grammar. They hired Italian DVDs and turned off the subtitles to force themselves to concentrate and learn more quickly. They even set their SatNav to speak to them in Italian. And they visited Rome and many other parts of Italy together and with friends. When Mum was first taken very ill with anxiety and depression I sat with her and tried to distract her from her panicky thoughts, asking her where her favourite place on earth was. She suddenly stopped hyperventilating and smiled. ‘Italy,’ she said, her shoulders going down, her breathing slowing. ‘The sun. And the language. And the food.’

It seems appropriate that two Classicists should have left so much to document their marriage. Reading it now, in an age when the love letter has been replaced with images zapped from smartphone to laptop to tablet, it does feel as though I am unearthing a little bit of ancient history.

Love in Pen and Ink

When I was expecting my daughter, Mum got it into her head that I needed to sort through all the belongings that remained in my childhood home and either take them with me or throw them away. This was how I found myself on a dark, blustery December afternoon, crouched, eight months pregnant, in the attic of my parents’ house, sifting through boxes and bags and old suitcases.

I had always hated the attic, mainly because of the fear instilled in me from an early age that if I went up there I would fall through the floorboards, on to the soft insulation and through the ceiling of the room below. I hated the ladder – the rattling metallic announcement it made as it came catapulting down from the hatch. I hated the way that noise was distorted so that voices from the road outside could sound as though they were somewhere much nearer, lurking in the rafters with me. I hated the smell: the fusty, dusty, mildewed smell of old cloth and paper. And I hated the dark and the piles and piles of stuff, thrown up there, willy-nilly – a graveyard of possessions.

This time though, I was aware, possibly for the first time, that my mother had herself once been an excited and fearful first-time parent. That here, in cardboard boxes and old trunks and cases, were remnants and reminders of that time. As I pulled out a tiny, moth-eaten hand-knitted cardigan, a smocked Viyella dress, a teething ring and a plastic bag full of cards congratulating my parents on my birth, I realised that this would one day be the fate of all the items I was now amassing in preparation for my daughter’s arrival.

While I was sorting through old toys and clothes and school books, I sat down heavily on a grey metal-framed suitcase, only to find to my dismay that I had crushed it under the weight of my advancing pregnancy and that items were spewing from its sides, like jam oozing from a doughnut. I pushed myself up, intending to try to push the contents back – then stopped. The suitcase had been full of envelopes: hundreds of them. I shone a torch on them and saw the inimitable italic hand of my dad on some and my mother’s equally inimitable scrawl on the rest. I knew what they were, of course. I couldn’t bring myself to open them. It felt wrong – that while they were, at that moment, downstairs watching TV, drinking coffee, waiting for me to come down, I was up here, holding in my hands their youthful promises of love and devotion spilled out on to sheets of Basildon Bond in blue and black ink. They would never have imagined these pages would be read by anyone but each other. I couldn’t be the one to break the spell.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and I am now in full possession of those letters. I have sifted through so much of my parents’ lives by now that it doesn’t feel so bad, taking the letters out of the bag I carried them home in on the day we emptied our childhood home. I have read so many private things, gone through so many personal effects, been a silent witness to so many decisions made for me and my sister before we were aware of them. I haven’t read the letters properly yet, though. It has still felt like an intrusion too far. I am torn. Should I let their marriage rest in peace?

But watching my own children reach the age when my parents met each other for the first time, I feel a growing urge to open those musty, mildewed envelopes. I feel an overwhelming need to know my parents better – to understand them as the young people they once were, with all their hopes, dreams and fears. I need to know the man and the woman behind the labels Mum and Dad, in the same way that I sometimes long for my own children to see the real me behind the facade of (M)otherness.

And so I put aside a day in which to date-order the letters. I figure I am ready to read this chapter of their story, that I know it anyway from anecdote and hearsay, and that this is just more cataloguing – another part of the process of letting Dad go. I am not prepared for the surge of grief which hits me when I open the bag. Just that smell has me spinning back in time to the day in the attic when I first found them. I am undone by the force of my parents’ young love for one another, by the fact that for the best part of four years they appear to have written to each other almost every day.

‘What is the point?’ I hear myself crying. ‘All these words. All this love. All gone.’

As if in answer, the next envelope I pick up has a small bundle of photos inside. I flick through them, my face wet with tears, and see three photos of my dad in his late teens, sitting and talking to his parents. I gasp, dropping them, as though stung. A hand has flung itself out across the seas of time to wave these photos in my face.

Because it is my son in those photos. It is my son in that lanky body, that buzz-cut hair, that smile, that little frown, those gesticulating hands. My son is staring out at me from my father’s face.

So there it is. The point. All those words. All that love. It hasn’t gone. It is still here, triumphant, thumbing its nose at death while it lives on in new life.

 

The Storyteller

As Patrick Ness writes in ‘A Monster Calls’: ‘Stories are important […] They can be more important than anything. If they carry the truth.’

Dad knew the power of story. He loved nothing better than uniting a group with a laugh by telling a well-rehearsed joke or anecdote – even better if he could pull it off in another language. He would save up the memory of some funny incident that he had witnessed, or been party to, and retell it with embellishments and feigned accents. He knew how to hold his audience in the palm of his hand.

And he knew the importance of reading to us, his daughters. And how to read; bringing someone else’s story to life, lifting it off the printed page with empathy, dramatic tension, excitement, humour – and more of those accents. He knew when to pause, when to rush on at breakneck speed, when to stop for the night, making us beg him to read more, keeping us on tenterhooks for the next chapter.

Morning and evening, the Financial Times was his reading matter on his long commute in a grimy, sardine-tin-tight train. But the moment he walked through the door at the end of the day, that was when story time began.

When he read The Hobbit, I was there, with Bilbo, feeling the clamminess of Gollum’s cave and squirming at the horrible swallowing noise in the creature’s voice. When he read Kipling’s Just-So Stories I could smell that great, grey-green, greasy Limpopo River, all set about with fever-trees. When he read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, I could feel the fur coats and sense the change in the air, from the warmth of the wardrobe to the icy chill of a never-ending winter as Lucy passed through the portal into Narnia.

And then there were the fairy tales. My sister’s favourite was The Princess and the Pea. She was fascinated by the many mattresses on which the princess slept. (And she has always had a passion for peas, for some reason best known to herself.) Dad must have told her that story thousands of times and each time it would take on a different flavour in the telling.

My favourite was The Fisherman’s Wife – a strange tale of unhappiness and a deep dissatisfaction with life. For years, looking back, I had no idea why I loved it so much, other than having a need to hear, over and over, the lines, ‘Alice my wife, the bane of my life, has asked me to beg a boon of thee’. I liked the idea of a ‘boon’ – whatever that was – and let those words roll around deliciously in my mouth.

It wasn’t until Mum was spiralling downwards into depression, and ultimately psychosis, that I saw the real truth in the stories Dad had read to me as a child. By the time Mum was detained under the Mental Health Act, the witch’s curse was truly upon us. We were stuck in a fairytale: not the Disney sort where princesses swoon in the arms of chisel-jawed princes and every story is told in saccharine-sweet technicolour happiness. No. It was the kind where you find yourself locked in a tower, an impossible task set before you while panic and despair hang over you like an evil enchantment. Or the kind where you battle against thorns and branches, hacking your way through to the castle, only to find that everyone is asleep and you can’t wake them, however hard you try. Or the kind where a fisherman’s wife is stuck in a dark ditch and desperate to get out, but no matter what solutions are offered her, she seems incapable of seeing them for what they are, and so remains condemned to end her days in the dark ditch where she started.

When a psychologist finally gave Mum the diagnosis of Asperger’s I told him, ‘You have set us free – I feel as though I have been screaming inside a glass box for the past three years.’ Or a looming dark tower with no windows or stairs.

So yes, stories can be more important than anything. Sometimes they carry the truth better than anything else. And I will always be grateful to Dad for his gift of story to me.