Unweighed Love

30th July 2015

It is two days since you died, Dad. I have looked everywhere and I cannot find the Will or the document you showed me three months ago, outlining all your savings and investments. I remember quite clearly how you took me into this room while Mum was sleeping and, putting on your best, slightly pompous, lawyer’s voice as you always did for serious conversations, you opened a file on your PC and talked me through the spreadsheet. Then you pulled out the bottom drawer of your desk and showed me a folder marked ‘Wills’ and went through yours with me. I remember how I stood there, my breath locked inside me, my heart flickering in my throat, my eyes hot from the effort of not crying. I remember how I forced myself to concentrate on what you were saying, and how your voice was quiet, so quiet and far away. I strained to catch hold of the words. I am not sure I did catch all of them. But I know I saw that document and I know I saw the folder.

And now I can’t find either. I have sat at your desk, feeling like an intruder, going through your neatly stored files, telling myself not to get distracted by scanned letters I have sent you, photographs and funny little stories and poems you have saved. I have not found the spreadsheet. I have sat on the floor and gone through every folder, every box file, feeling dirty, sinful even, riffling through your private papers, coming across letters to and from your brother (ever the lawyer, you have kept copies of your own correspondence too). I cannot find the Will, Dad. I cannot find it.

I have found your parents’ Wills and all the paperwork surrounding their last days and the applications you made for a Grant of Probate for them. I have found their birth and death certificates, your birth and marriage certificates, letters to and from doctors concerning Mother’s health over the years. I have found a tattered photo album your mother made of your life from birth until marriage. How she adored you. I have found the telegram you sent your parents when I was born:

13th MARCH 1970… GIRL… ANNA CLAUDIA… BORN 06:30… UNWEIGHED LOVE… MARTIN

It should have read ‘UNWEIGHED… LOVE MARTIN’, of course. But I rather like the idea of ‘unweighed love’. It sums up how I feel about you. Love unweighed. Unweighable love.

But right now I have to say I am also starting to get a bit cross, Dad. Where is your Will? I have asked friends and family and have phoned local solicitors. No one can help. Only you can. So, please? Point me in the right direction? Before I go mad.

***

1st August 2015

I am looking through an old folder of letters to and from your brother for the umpteenth time. I flick angrily through the last pages. I get up, thinking I will throw the whole lot in the recycling pile – and the Will falls out.

What were you thinking when you hid it in here? Did you panic in those last days at home, worried at the strangers coming and going – the social services, hospice nurses, District Nurses, carers – that someone might find it, alter it, steal it? Or were you so addled by pain and morphine and the prospect of your approaching demise that you did not know what you were doing?

Whatever the truth of the matter, you seem to have heard me crying out to you yesterday. So now I know. Your Will reflects your character and temperament: fair and just to the last letter, considerate, even-handed, sensible and plain-speaking. It was witnessed on my birthday seven years ago. Your birth was registered on my birthday too. Seventy-one years ago. I hang on to these coincidences.

I hang on to what I can, because I have lost you, Dad.

 

 

Advertisements

The Comfort of Strangers

In the days after Dad’s death, we came across the best of human kindness. We came to realise that, even though neither of us has lived within a hundred miles of our home town for over twenty years, we are still considered part of this little community because we are ‘Martin’s daughters’.

We had not realised either, how many people would want to honour Dad’s memory when it came to the funeral, but a quick round-up of all the groups and clubs he was involved with soon revealed why this was. Dad was a member of the Civic Society, the Philharmonic Society, the French Circle, Round Table and then 41 Club, the Conservative Society, the Canoe Club, the Wine Club and took regular Italian lessons with a class who had quickly become fond of him – and these are only a few of the local groups in which he was heavily involved. He had also, in his time, organised rowing regattas for various banks in the City, was the treasurer for an educational organisation which promotes the teaching and learning of the Classics (JACT) and was the only Englishman ever to be awarded an honour in the secret Swedish society, the BVs: Bärsärkar& Vikingar. The BVs and the Philharmonic were possibly his favourite pastimes and certainly, as he confessed to me towards the end of his life, his best method of escape from home when things were getting tough. He enjoyed the BVs a little too much on occasion, ending up at the end of the line on the last train home ‘by mistake’.

All this before we took into account close friends, family and old work colleagues.

So, looking back, it is not really surprising that at every turn there was someone ready to help us out. A close friend of Dad’s gave us the name of a solicitor when we could not find Dad’s Will. This solicitor was a ‘local boy, born and bred’ who became of invaluable assistance to us over the next few months and charged us the bare minimum for his time. An old friend of mine swept in the day after Dad died to offer help with finances and is still standing alongside us to this day, answering questions and calming us down when needed. A family friend who is a lay-reader offered to lead the funeral service, perfectly sensitive to our varying faiths and beliefs and intensely in tune with Dad’s sense of humour and our love of him.

But it was the strangers who were there at the right time and in the right place whose unexpected, unlooked-for kindness was most poignant. There was the lady behind the counter in Boots who took my mother’s medication from me and said, ‘Are you all right, dear? You look at bit shaken. Has your mum passed away?’ When I told her, briefly that, no, it was Dad that had died but that Mum was now under Section and that her medication had changed, she blanched. ‘What a terrible, terrible story,’ she said, and made me promise I would come and find her if ever I needed help. There was the florist who gave us a ‘good deal’ on Dad’s flowers and threw in a free, extra arrangement for when Dad was held at the funeral parlour. There was the gardener who had helped Dad out for a few months and who offered to do table arrangements for the wake, telling us Dad was ‘a great guy’ and hugging us, telling us to take care. There was the GP who called to tell me that Dad was ‘without doubt the bravest man I have ever met’ and the OTs and the nurses and the oncologist and the surgeon who said much the same thing and assured me that Dad had put up an incredible fight against the most virulent, inexplicable form of cancer any of them had ever seen. And there were the people who came to the funeral, many of whom I had never met, who told me over and over what Dad had meant to them and how they shared our sorrow.

And since then there have been people who I have gone to see for my own needs who, after only minutes of talking to me, have looked into my eyes and seen what is behind them and have just known what to say and do. The most recent of these was an osteopath who said, ‘You strike me as someone who is holding on to a lot of stuff. You need to be kinder to yourself.’

Perhaps I do, although I am not exactly sure how to go about that just yet. I do know, though, that without the kindness and comfort of friends, acquaintances and strangers, I would not be doing as well as I am now.

Stop All the Clocks

28th July 2015

There is so much to do.

We go back to the Hospice in the afternoon. We collect Dad’s pathetic parcel of possessions: his pyjamas, his wash bag, his one slipper, his watch. His gold-plated Omega. The watch he brought back from Saudi in the 1970s and of which I was in complete awe. ‘My dad has a GOLD watch.’

We sign the green form which gives permission for his body to go to the crematorium. We listen as we are told that a doctor must sign a medical certificate, that there will be no need for a post mortem, that we should go and see a funeral parlour as soon as possible. We are given leaflets, information about the government website, ‘What to do after someone dies‘. We need a death certificate, the Will, the Lasting Power of Attorney for Mum. We should phone the bank, close his accounts, put everything in Mother’s name. All this is explained quietly, respectfully, slowly. Yet there is so much to take in.

As we leave, I glance through the door into the en suite and see Dad’s shower gel on a shelf: ‘Alive and Kicking’. I give a small smile, thinking Dad would chuckle at the irony. Or perhaps he had bought it on purpose, as a smack in the face to the idea of becoming a one-legged man. After his amputation there had been a few occasions when we had laughed together following the thoughtless use of expressions such as ‘they haven’t got a leg to stand on’ or ‘you’ve put your foot in it now’.

I look down at Dad’s watch and see it has stopped. 06.56. A minute after he died.

We go back to the house. It is quiet. So quiet. My niece and nephew have gone out with their dad.

‘The clocks have stopped,’ my sister says. ‘Mum’s watch had stopped too, did you know? She asked Marina to get her a new battery before we left her.’

If only time would stand still. I need more hours than one day can provide to do all that needs to be done.

Stop all the clocks . . .

‘The stars are not wanted now: put out every one;
Pack up the moon and dismantle the sun;
Pour away the ocean and sweep up the wood.
For nothing now can ever come to any good.’

I want to draw the curtains and sleep and sleep and sleep.

But there is so much to do after someone dies.

 

Heaven Sent

‘Thank God for Marina.’

My sister and I have said this over and over ever since the day this loving, caring, practical, no-nonsense force of Nature appeared in our lives. For months we had cajoled, argued and pleaded with our parents to accept some help in the home or to take some respite elsewhere. They had consistently refused to the point that in May 2015, faced with Dad having a leg amputated and Mother home alone in a frenzy of anxiety, my sister joined some agency listings online. ‘I am going to find someone,’ she said. ‘I don’t care if we have to pay for it ourselves.’

This is how we found Marina. A shining, smiling face on a web page who quickly transmogrified into a living, breathing angel of mercy.

We met her in a cafe in Tonbridge. She was waiting outside and as we walked towards her, she beamed at us in recognition. We sat, talking over cappuccinos, as nervous as if this were a blind date, giving out intimate details about our Mother’s mental health and our Dad’s personal requirements. It was a meeting of minds. Marina immediately understood what we were saying about Mum. After months of trying to explain to professionals and friends and neighbours alike that Mum wasn’t simply ‘depressed about Dad’ but that she was in fact very ill herself, we had finally found someone who got it.

‘I’ll come and meet your parents but I will act as though I am there for your dad and I won’t talk to your mum unless she wants me to,’ she said.

It worked, and from there on in, Marina has been with us.

‘I am going to see this through,’ she tells us, whenever we protest that she has done too much for us already.

Marina was employed as a carer, but over the last 14 months she has been so much more. A carer, yes, with all the, sometimes horrendous, jobs which that entails, but also a furniture remover, healthcare liaison official, agony aunt, cleaner, housekeeper, and above all, friend.

In the midst of all the pain and loss, Marina has been a shining beacon of hope and succour and love. She has been a bridge over troubled waters, a lighthouse on the rocky shores of grief. We bless the day she walked into our lives, from the parched, golden land of South Africa to a cold, grey crowded high street in a small town in Kent. We could not survive without her. Thank God indeed for Marina.

A Place For Everything

In the car on the way back to the house, Marina remarks on the difference in our demeanour towards Mother compared with that towards Dad. ‘You become smaller – like two little girls, waiting to be told off.’ I think about this later. It is a lifetime of holding our breath, watching Mother and waiting for the next explosion that has done this to us; the uncertainty of her moods, not knowing what it will be that will tip her over the edge this time. It is a lifetime of Being Good Girls. And that is not set to change any time soon.

We go back to our parents’ house and into our parents’ room, where Mother has forbidden anyone to go for months and months. It is covered in crumpled used tissues, unopened letters (mostly bills, alarmingly) and dirty clothes. A thick layer of dust sits on the mirror, dressing table and bookcase. Since Mother’s illness took its place at the helm, and then Dad’s came too and jostled for pole position, this house has veered violently off-course. This house, where Mother used to chant, ‘A place for everything, and everything in its place’, is all at sea.

I go to Dad’s study which, since his illness, has been a makeshift bedroom, a dumping ground for furniture that was in the way when the hospital bed came, and now, by the looks of it, is a recycling station for yet more unopened mail. I stand and look at the piles and piles of stuff on the sofa, table, desk and floor and feel crushed, as though I am now lying under it all, weighed down by paper. My sister has two small children. How will she be able to help sort through all this? And the Will and the funeral and the unpaid bills and the telling everyone and the death certificate and the finances and his possessions and his clothes. Oh God, his clothes.

I will have to do this. Me. Anna. The oldest child. I hear my cousin’s voice saying, as he did when we found out that Dad would not make it, ‘We are all relying on you now, Anna.’ Well you shouldn’t, I feel like saying to him now. Because I am not up to this. I am not grown-up enough. I am not strong enough. I am weak and small. Cold, tired, weak and small.

I go into the dining room and look at the hospital bed, the zimmer, the bed pan, the drugs. The paraphernalia of the end of days. This room used to be part of the sitting room. I remember the day we moved into this house. It was 1976. We had moved from a tiny two up/two down at the other end of town. I had never been in a house this big before. I ran round and round the empty rooms thinking, ‘This is my house! This is MY house!’

Mother wanted a dining room for entertaining, though, so the rooms were closed off, divided in two, creating a dark, formal room which I always hated. ‘Can’t we eat in the kitchen?’ I would ask, dreading the manners that were expected in the dining room, the ‘Sit up straight’, ‘Don’t scratch the table!’ ‘Don’t rock on your chair’, ‘Be a Good Girl!’

What I wouldn’t give for a big family meal around the table now. The last one we had was just before Dad went in for his amputation. In spite of the circumstances and Mother’s anxiety, it was jolly. I must remember that.

I turn away from the insurmountable task of clearing and sorting and instead I pick up the tattered address book from the shelf in the sitting room. I open the book at ‘A’ and run my finger over the names and numbers, some familiar from childhood, some not. And I begin the long, sad job of ringing round, bearing the news of Dad’s demise, receiving sympathy and consolation and answering questions about the funeral, taking advice about how to proceed and consoling others in my turn. The message from everyone is clear. ‘You can do this, Anna.’ As if I have a choice.

Of course I can do this, I think as I close the address book and draw breath. I have to. I am a Good Girl.

Till Death Us Do Part

The euphoria vanishes with the realisation that we have to go and tell our mother that our father, her partner of 49 years, has died.

Marina offers to drive us to Dartford to the mental health wing, euphemistically called The Jasmine Unit. There is nothing sweet, cheery or delicate about this place. It would be better named The Deadly Nightshade Unit. Mother is still officially detained under the Mental Health Act, so we have to phone ahead to say we are coming. They guess the reason and put up no resistance.

We are let in through the locked doors and Marina leads the way to Mum’s soulless room. The contrast with the room in which Dad has spent his last hours could not be more marked. No aura of calm here. No gentle floral furnishings. No kind-faced quiet nurses. The staff have unreadable pent-up expressions etched into their features. There are cries and shouts from unseen rooms. A woman comes up to us, chuntering about how she needs to get out. She presses her face up against the glass of the locked doors. The walls are painted a harsh, institutional cream, the doors are covered in cheap pale wood veneer. Everything is functional. This is not a home, not somewhere to live. It is a holding chamber from which the in-mates will be expelled into who knows which circle of hell.

Mother gets up from her plastic armchair. She looks ancient. Mad. Her once carefully coiffed hair is white, wild and woolly. Her chin sprouts a beard of white. Her eyes are wide and staring. She totters backwards and forwards, making unsettling whooping noises. We should be used to this by now. We are not. We want to hold our mum and weep with her for the loss of our father, her husband. We want to console her, to reassure her that we will take care of everything. Instead, as soon as we start to talk, she sits down, is quiet and it goes like this:

‘Mum, we are so sorry. We have to tell you that Dad has died.’

Silence.

‘Mum, you know Dad was very ill. But he’s at peace now.’

Silence.

‘We were with him. It was very peaceful. He wasn’t in pain.’

Silence.

My sister and I look at one another, at Marina. We start to cry. The nurse who is with us looks sorry for us all.

‘There is a taxi coming,’ Mum says.

‘No, not now,’ says my sister. ‘Dad has gone. There’s no taxi.’

‘You’ll have to leave. There’s a taxi coming to get me. There’s a taxi coming now.’

We cannot reach her. In truth, we have not been able to for some time, so why should today be any easier? Today, when death has finally parted what no man shall put asunder: a lifetime of love.

Eventually we do leave. There is nothing we can do. Nothing left to say.

 

Life After Death

We watch Dad’s face become younger in the minutes after his death. His skin is smooth and blooming; youthful, almost. We can’t stop kissing him and touching him and holding him. It feels in no way morbid. He is still our Dad. Death has no sting. Not yet, anyway.

A nurse comes in. ‘Would you like me to put him into his pyjamas?’

We agree this would be nice. The ubiquitous hospital gown with its over-familiar blue and white pattern is depressing in its reminder of illness, drugs, bed baths and ward rounds.

We leave the room while he is changed into his own cotton pyjamas, lovingly ironed by Mother before she was taken away to her own newly institutionalised life. My God, that woman could iron. Even in her most manic episodes, ironing would calm her, soothe her wretched, writhing thoughts. I think back to the airing cupboard in my parents’ house: that hallowed space where every piece of clothing had its place, pristine and ordered. It broke my heart when I went into it three weeks’ ago to fetch Dad a shirt and I realised that no one would ever look after him as well as Mum used to do – and that this was one of the many reasons why he missed her.

When we come back into the room Dad is dressed, neatly tucked up and simply beautiful to look at. There is a light euphoric feel in the air. As though we have accomplished something. As though something good has happened. And in a way, it has: Dad has passed on, shuffled off this mortal coil and left behind the pain which has wracked him these past months, as a snake sheds its skin to become shiny and new. To look at him now, you would have to say he really is at peace. All the anxieties and panic I have felt since leaving Thailand have dissipated. I sit and chat to my sister, laugh even.

Marina, the wonderful carer who found Dad at home three days ago in a confused state, comes into the room. She is tearful, telling us he was ‘a gentleman’ and that it was a privilege to look after him.

‘Bless him, he was so confused before we got him into hospital,’ my sister says. ‘He was convinced he had to get to Luxembourg with a case full of cash. He kept getting cross and saying there was an income tax conspiracy which he had to sort out.’

We are all laughing now, remembering his funny ways, his obsessions, his passions, his love of life.

The nurses are discreet, but it is clear that they need us to leave; that they have a job to do. They gently suggest we come back later.

I go back with my sister and Marina to my childhood home where I am greeted enthusiastically by my gorgeous nephew and niece and my kind brother-in-law.

I look at the children, rocketing around their grandparents’ house and I think: ‘A generation goes and a generation comes; but the earth remains forever.’

 

(With thanks to the Hospice in the Weald who made Dad’s last hours so peaceful and showed us such support and kindness.)