I was hurtling towards a deadline when the call came.
A year ago today.
I was writing flippant dialogue between snippy teenage girls, making up scenarios about irrelevant, bitchy arguments. I was inventing stories, creating worlds, a million miles away from the real one which was about to rear up and kick me in the face.
I knew straight away why he was calling. I had to turn away from the computer screen, bend over with my head between my knees, stare at the carpet. Focus.
‘How did it go, Dad?’
He gave a whimper. An alarming, childlike noise. My sister and I both say that a year on we still hear that whimper.
He started to babble. ‘I’m so sorry. I’m sorry to disturb you. I know you are working. I wanted you to know. I wanted to tell you. I’m afraid I don’t have much time left.’
Take this in. This is important. This is bad. Feel. React. Say something.
‘Not much . . .?’
‘I’m so sorry,’ he repeated, as though he had caused some offence. ‘The cancer has gone to my spine, my lungs and my collar bone. They think I have got three months. It is so upsetting for everybody.’
‘It is so upsetting for everybody.’
All those apologies, as though death were a bad choice on his part.
I can’t remember what I said next. I must have told him to stop apologising. I must have said I couldn’t believe it. I must have said I loved him, that I would go through it all with him. What did I say? My diary is not much help. I was about to go away on a book tour. I was worried about going away before being able to see him. I was worried about how Mum would take the news. I was inadequate.
Words failed me. Always irritating, to say the least, when you are a writer.
I do know that I closed the document on my computer, because the next time I opened it, after he had died, the date indicated that the last time I had worked on it was around 2pm on 27th April 2015.
He died on 28th July. Three months and a day later.
How can they be that accurate? I still think about that. If I had known on that day that we really, literally only had that amount of time left, what would I have done differently? Would I have cancelled everything? Stopped all the clocks? Cut off the telephone?
What should I have said on 27th April 2015? What should I have felt? A year on, I still ask myself.
Because the thing is, no one tells you the rules for grief. No one tells you that it is OK to go through it in your own way. That it might start on the day your father tells you that he knows that he is dying. Or it might not. That you might be struck dumb with disbelief – possibly for days, weeks. Or that you might roar with rage, or that you might cry and cry until you make no sound, or that you might feel sick to the stomach, or that you might not be able to sleep, or that you might want only to sleep – sleep forever so that you don’t have to wake up and feel all these physical, sharp, deep, painful things. No one tells you that any and all of this is ‘normal’ and ‘all right’ and ‘allowed’. No one tells you.
No one tells you, because unless they have been through it themselves, these days, they don’t know or talk or want to talk about grief and death and our possible daily proximity to these things. No one tells you, because it is better not to think about it. And because sometimes there are no words.
Sometimes there is only a whimper.