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.