One Small Grain

Sometimes it is a very small thing that tips me off balance. Something minuscule is added to the scales of everyday living, and I am knocked off course. Something as small as a speck, a mote, a grain.

It is morning. The house is quiet. I am tipping a spoonful of coffee grounds into the pot, waiting for the whistle of the kettle, enjoying the stillness and the aroma and the anticipation of my morning shot of caffeine.

Then, with the last grain falling from the spoon, comes a thought: Dad loved coffee.

Just that. And I have let go of the spoon and am gripping the edge of the work surface, bent over, feeling that familiar squeeze, waiting for it to come, that deep ache which wells up, pushes to the surface and breaks in a sob: the voice of grief.

‘Would you like an espresso?’ I have a picture of him saying this after a meal, waving his newly purchased stainless steel Bialetti pot in an expansive gesture, insisting on the Italian pronunciation of the word.

I see him sitting at my kitchen table while I fix a pot for him. He has spread the newspaper out and is turning the pages in his slow, methodical manner. He turns to look at me as I bring the pot over. ‘Ah, lovely! A drop of coffee.’

He is in the local farm shop cafe with me, perusing the cakes, a small-boy look of eyes-bigger-than-stomach greed on his face. I order him an Americano, thinking with no small twinge of irritation that he gave up the milk in his coffee for health reasons, but he is about to consume acres of fat and sugar in one slice of that Bakewell tart.

I see him, too, in hospital, propped up on pillows, wincing at the acrid ‘instant muck’ the NHS provides. ‘You get a taste for it in the end,’ he says, smiling.

Sometimes it is a very small thing that tips me off balance. Something as small as a grain of coffee.



Father’s Day

It is Father’s Day, 21st June 2015. I am visiting Dad and have brought the kids with me this time. It is the first time they have seen him since his amputation. They are both understandably subdued. A man on the ward snores loudly, making me giggle, but even this does nothing to lift the kids’ spirits.

Dad, despite large doses of morphine making him rather woozy, immediately embarks on a story of a time he spent in hospital when he was my son’s age: fifteen. He had gone in for an appendectomy and was on a general ward with people a lot older than him.

‘One of them was a snorer – it was awful!’ Dad remembers. ‘One night, when he was snoring, none of us could sleep and we were all talking to each other in a whisper. I said I had an idea of how to stop the snoring, but first I needed to know if the man was married. No one knew. I decided to try out my idea anyway, so I crept up to the snoring man and said, in a high-pitched voice, “Darling, you’re snoring again!” at which point he snorted loudly and then stopped. The next day, someone asked him, “Excuse me sir, are you married?” to which the man replied dolefully, “Yes, for forty-nine years,” to which everyone on the ward erupted into laughter!’

The kids visibly relax at this: here is Grandpa being Grandpa. Here is the man they know and love: a man who likes nothing more than to be surrounded my his family, telling silly stories, making people laugh.

That evening, he sends my sister a text in response to good wishes for Father’s Day:

‘Thank you, sweetheart. I have the most devoted daughters in the world and in another age would have been on Solon’s list of happiest men.’

On Father’s Day 2016, I decide to find out a bit more about this list of men. I discover that one of them is Tellus, an Athenian statesman who, Herodotus tells us:

‘…had both beautiful and good children, and he saw all his grandchildren from birth and all remaining alive… And the end of his life was most brilliant… he died beautifully, and the Athenians … honoured him greatly’

This seems rather an apt way of remembering my dear dad on this special day. Happy Father’s Day, everyone.


Order into Chaos

The time has come to start clearing our parents’ house. We have put this off for months, not wanting to believe that our mother will never return; that she has entered a new phase of life, needing care that cannot be provided in her own home.

We have not wanted to think that Dad will never return either; that he will never cook another barbecue in the garden, never again sit at his desk ‘fiddling about’ on his computer, that he will never again be seen in the drive, washing his beloved car or fixing his kayak to the roof.

It is only a house. Only bricks and mortar and double-glazed windows. And they are only things. Only papers and clothes and photos and pots and pans. But each item is so redolent of our childhood – of family meals, arguments, holidays, jokes, plans and games.

You would think it would be the photos and letters that would tip us over into tears. In fact, it is the most mundane objects which seem to have the strongest effect. I am doubled over, howling in the cupboard under the stairs, when I am caught off-guard by the sight of a hook which Dad must have made for the vacuum cleaner hose. Only Dad would have thought to make such a hook himself from a bent coat hanger, because only Dad saw things in that way.

There are three areas of the house which hold the greatest dread for me: my parents’ bedroom, Dad’s study and the kitchen. That is what I think, anyway, as I stand in the house alone one morning, willing myself to start somewhere. I turn away from those three rooms and decide to start in the garage.

But this is much worse than a cupboard full of suits and jackets. Shelves of jam jars face me, neatly stacked, their contents carefully separated out so that large nails are all together in one jar, small ones in another. Boxes of glue, again ordered by size. A chest of drawers full of old sheet music, neatly stacked. The bicycles hanging on convenient racks on the wall which Dad, of course, made himself from nails and wire and wood. The canoe and kayak, held in place on beams above the car. And the car. Dad’s beloved Alpha Romeo, now covered in dust, the battery flat.

It is the neatness, the orderliness of everything. It seems so pathetic. So pointless. And yet so Dad. I used to tease him for his love of order, sometimes I would get irritated too. But it was who he was: a man who loved the beautiful order of Latin and Greek grammar and syntax, who adored the logic of the Law, who loved to pick apart a choral score and understand how his part fitted with the other voices, who liked his nails short, his hair trimmed, his suits neat, his shirts ironed.

And now all that order is to fall into chaos: into skips and dumps and charity shops and auctions, bundled up and taken away and handled by strangers.

Even in death, Dad wanted order and neatness. In the hospital, following his last appointment before his amputation, he handed me a scrap of paper with a verse which he had composed in Latin, masking the horror of what he was asking me, keeping his request tidy and at a remove from the emotions he knew would otherwise encumber it:

‘Hic timor, hoc votum est: mea membra frigore terrae ne celes; leviter surgat ad astra cinis.’

The cold earth was not to be allowed to let loose the chaos of decay on Dad’s body; rather he wished to be neatly disposed of and to be returned to the beautiful order of the universe.

I can’t do this. I can’t empty his whole life into dustbin liners and cardboard boxes. I can’t.

Fragile Defences

What does grief feel like?

It feels like an angry sea, held back by fragile defences. It is there, in the background all the time. If you allow yourself to listen, you will hear it churning. It is best not to listen. So you do what you can to keep the defences well maintained.

Every day you do an inspection. You do it as soon as you wake, tentatively feeling along the surface of the wall for cracks.You tell yourself that this way you will be in control. As the day goes on, you feel the sea pushing, surging, hurling itself against the rickety materials you have used to keep it at bay. Sometimes you have to stop what you are doing to rush and fill in any small holes which threaten to let even a trickle of grief through.

Most of the time, the defences hold. You plaster on a decorative smile for good measure, as a distraction. That way no one will notice that the wall is shaking, quivering against the pressure that is mounting behind it.

But the tides of grief are strong. Some days all it takes is one tiny fissure and then the defences are down, the grief breaks through and you are overwhelmed. You gasp as the cold waves clutch at your heart, and memories and emotions and images flood your mind. You struggle to swim to the surface, to take a gulp of air, to stop yourself from being tossed on to the rocks.

You always manage to swim back to shore. Sometimes the journey leaves you exhausted, wrung out, cold and shivering. You feel you will never be able to go through that again; that next time you will surely be dragged down by the undertow into the freezing black depths.

At other times you are able to clamber out, to sit on the sand and recover, looking out at the horizon. At times like this, the sea calms, the sun comes out and the water glistens. You feel the warmth coming back into your limbs, you spot a boat coming into the bay, and you tell yourself: I will survive this. I will be rescued. I will tame this sea of grief.