A Living Wake

‘I would like to have a party.’

Dad announces this a couple of weeks after he has been told that he has only three months left to live.

‘I would like to say thank you to everyone who has helped me and Mum since I had to go in for my operation,’ he says.

Sister is very good at organising events, so she gets on the case immediately, calling caterers, talking to Dad about wine. I draw up a guest list for Dad’s approval. I also point out that Mum is going to freak out, to put it mildly.

‘It will be fine,’ Dad says. And this time I believe him. This is the first time in years that he has said he wants to do something for himself and has not worried about how it will affect Mum.

I believe him and in the same instant I am fearful. Mum has not been able to handle people coming into her house for as long as I can remember. When we were kids it was just  our version of normal. We lived by a set of complicated rules about which pieces of furniture we were allowed to touch, sit on, eat at, and which we had to treat with religious reverence. The pink sofa was hallowed ground – no friends or grandchildren were allowed on that; the dining table was not to be breathed on unless there were mats or a tablecloth on it; the front lawn must never be walked on; the kitchen was an area reserved for Mum and Dad – no one else was allowed to make so much as a piece of toast in it. And as for the airing cupboard. Don’t even go there. Literally.

‘We’ll have to keep it a surprise,’ Dad says. ‘Otherwise Mum will fret about it.’

She will. She will say, over and over, ‘I can’t do this, Martin. I can’t. I can’t.’ She will beg him to cancel. She will shout and whoop and scream and follow Dad around, repeating herself over and over. She will say that the house is filthy, that they do not have any food, that she does not have anything to wear. She will say all this, forgetting that her husband is dying. Or rather, she will say all this so that she can forget.

We become increasingly anxious ourselves. Will Mum go loopy when she sees the furniture has been moved? How will she respond to strangers in her kitchen?

Dad pours us a glass of wine the night before the party. It is from a bottle he quietly places before us, without comment. We only notice afterwards that it is a Shiraz Cabernet called ‘Optimist’.

In the end, it all goes smoothly. Mum is shellshocked but not hysterical. She drifts through the party like a ghost while people talk to her with manufactured smiles and carefully formed comments.

Dad loves it. We have many photos from that day. He is smiling big, genuinely happy smiles in every one.

On the day of his funeral, at the wake, I look around the room and see many of the people who came to the party three months earlier. The thing that strikes me, more than the fact that everyone is wearing black this time, more than the fact that there is little laughter, more than the fact that Mum is not there – is that Dad would have loved it.

He was a sociable man who loved a party. And we all know now, that on Saturday 30th May 2015, he didn’t want a party so that he could say thank you. He wanted it so that he could say goodbye.


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