The Last of the Firsts

18th August 2015. The date of Dad’s funeral. It was a day of contrasts: of smiles and tears; of laughter and sobbing; of colour and darkness; of music and silence; of jokes and solemnity; of youth and old age. Of life and death.

My uncle, Dad’s older brother by ten years, came all the way from Johannesburg with his daughter at his side. Dad’s brother was the stuff of legend to us while we were growing up – the older brother who, in his twenties, was often tasked with some parental responsibilities. Dad loved him absolutely and we know that love was returned in equal force. ‘I did not expect the little fellow to go before me,’ he said, the night before the ceremony.

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On the day, my teenage children stepped up to the plate and gave a reading (Wind in the Willows – what else?) and a piano performance which tugged at my heartstrings almost more than the sight of Dad’s bamboo coffin being borne through the church on the shoulders of, amongst others, my husband, my brother-in-law and another cousin. My little niece and nephew, who had given me such joy and comfort since coming back from Thailand, also stepped up, behaving immaculately through, what must have been for them, a baffling and at times boring ceremony.

My sister and I said our last words to Dad – our eulogy – together. We had written the words together and now we stood, shoulder to shoulder, in front of two hundred mourners, to tell everyone a few anecdotes, to remember Dad with smiles and fondness.

As we were saying goodbye to friends and old colleagues – some of whom had travelled huge distances to pay their last respects to Dad – my husband said, ‘Are you going to invite people back to the house?’ My sister and I hesitated. Mum would never have allowed such an impromptu invitation. But Mum was not there. ‘Yes!’ we said. The party that ensued with the remaining guests (mostly family and neighbours) was so jolly that more than once I caught myself looking for Dad to see if he was enjoying it.

Shoulder to shoulder : this is how my sister and I have stood in the days, weeks and months since we gave that eulogy. Shoulder to shoulder as we went to meetings with solicitors, and financial advisors; shoulder to shoulder in front of psychiatrists and doctors. Should we rent our parents’ property or sell it? Should we keep hold of Mum’s furniture “just in case” or sell that too? Should we find her a care home or care in her own home? We have made all these decisions, and many smaller ones, together. At times the decisions have had to be made without much time for discussion or deliberation. Sometimes we have not been sure we have done the right thing. More than once we have caught ourselves about to ask Dad what he would say.

18th August 2016. It is a year since Dad’s funeral. I have just come back from a magical two days with my sister in her home by the Norfolk coast. We have spent hours talking about Dad, going over the events of the last year, remembering the funny little things he said and did, the things he loved and the people who meant so much to him. Sometimes, unintentionally, a saying of his or a snatch of a song he used to sing would find its way out of our mouths.

‘It feels as though Dad has been here with us,’ I remarked before I left my sister. ‘Well, you know how that song in the Lion King goes,’ my sister joked. ‘ “He lives in you, he lives in me!” We laughed, but I thought, ‘Yes, he does.’

Today might be the last of the first anniversaries, but it will not be the last day of remembering. It will not be the last day of grieving either. And I am pretty certain it will not be the last day I feel the need to write about everything that has happened to our family. But it will get easier to bear the sadness, we do know that. And for as long as we have each other, standing shoulder to shoulder, my sister and I will be all right.

‘He lives in you, he lives in me!’ We might just have to go and see the show together sometime, little Sis.

 

 

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A Time to Dance

Once, after a particularly difficult day with Mum, Dad told us the story of their first Union Ball. It must have been 1963, at the end of their second year at Cambridge. There is a photo of them together that night which I know well. I used to pore over it, as though it held the key to understanding my parents, seeing them in the first flush of love. Look at them! They are both so happy. So young! This was before the time for mourning or weeping. This was their time to laugh; their time to dance.

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The black and white of course lends the photo a certain glamour. But I imagine that even in harsh, unedited, high definition colour, my mother would still look like a film star in that wonderful ballgown, created by my talented grandma.

Their eyes have the sheen of a couple of young people who have drunk more alcohol than they are perhaps used to. Dad’s bow tie is askew and there is a slight tipsiness in his leering smile. Even so, there is much to be gleaned from this picture. Dad can’t tear his gaze away from Mum, while Mum is looking out of the picture, towards the photographer or a group of onlookers, perhaps. I have always thought how this photo encapsulates their relationship: Dad ever the loving protector, unable to drag his eyes from Mum; Mum always looking away, never quite inhabiting the moment, looking for something else – something better?

I am being harsh, and yet, when Dad talks of that evening, it makes us think, my sister and I.

‘As we left, your mother became quite over-emotional. She was sobbing her heart out. I was worried that I had hurt her or offended her in some way. I asked her what the matter was and she said, “I am just so happy. Tonight was so wonderful. What if I am never this happy ever again?”‘

We were silent as we watched him sigh and shake his head. ‘I suppose I should have known then, shouldn’t I?’ he said.

How could he? How could he have known, in the exuberance of youth, in the magic of a heady summer night when he was only twenty years old; how could he have had the faintest idea that the woman he had fallen in love with suffered from mental illness, from depression and anxiety which would go on to cripple her in later life? How could he have separated out the extreme highs and the beauty and excitement that went with that, from the lows and the agitation and seen this for what it was: a medical condition – something which needed professional support and careful handling? How could he have been so calculating when the very reason he had fallen in love with her in the first place was because she was so sparklingly different?

The Short Goodbye

‘What shall we do about Mum?’

This is a question we have asked each other so many times over the past months, years even, since her slide into mental illness. What shall we do about her health? Her safety? Her wellbeing? What shall we do about her while Dad is in hospital?

Now we are worried about what we do about her now he is dead. And the most pressing issue right now is: what shall we do about her during the funeral?

It has never occurred to me not to include her in the funeral, but when I ask my sister how we are going to manage her while we also give the eulogy, look after our own families and Dad’s friends and orchestrate the whole day, my brother-in-law gently steps in and says, ‘You don’t.’

I am conflicted. On the one hand the relief of someone giving me permission not to include Mum is huge. On the other the sense of betrayal is even more overwhelming. How can I not allow my mother to go to her husband’s funeral? How can I even entertain the idea?

I call the hospital where Mum is still under section and ask the opinion of the mental health nurses. They think a large funeral will be too much of an ordeal for Mum in her current state but they also think that she needs to ‘say goodbye’; to ‘have closure’.

In the end, the wonderful funeral parlour we were advised to use suggests that we have a private ceremony for Mum in their chapel, four days before the funeral itself. So the decision is taken out of my hands. I am not to feel guilty. This is the best course of action: everyone agrees.

So this is how, on 14th August 2015, I find myself driving back to Kent to meet my sister and her husband in the tiny chapel that backs on to the the car park of the pub where we used to meet with our school friends on Christmas Eve. The ceiling is low, the room packed with people. Mum is heavily sedated. She looks tiny: frail and frightened, as though she has no idea why she is here. Her eyes stare into the distance behind thick glasses – not her usual contact lenses. She has had her hair blow-dried and someone has clearly removed her facial hair as well. She is wearing a simple black linen dress. She is the only person sitting down. There are two nurses with her and our family friend, Brian, is here along with someone from the funeral parlour, my sister and her husband. In an alcove is Dad, inside his bamboo coffin. I had never expected to get this close to it. It is awful, knowing that he is lying inside, and that I cannot see him or touch him. But if I feel this, how must Mum feel? Can she feel anything at all through the fug of Diazepam and goodness knows what else?

The already small room is made to feel smaller with all the people it now contains. Brian says a few words and also a prayer. I am not listening. I am watching Mum, holding my breath to see what she will do. Will she cry? Will she say anything? Will she ask if this is the funeral proper?

Brian is asking if we want to say something ourselves. Mum says, ‘No.’ So that is that. She she wants to go. She will not even lay a bouquet of flowers on the coffin. My sister and I do it, my stomach clenching with unsayable words, inexpressable thoughts. I want to scream and howl, but I can’t. I need to get out of here, for this to be over. It is awful. There is nothing beautiful about this, nothing remotely appropriate. A woman is saying goodbye to the love of her life, her husband for forty-nine years. It should not be like this. I wish I had not come. I wish I did not have to see my mother so ravaged by illness, so distanced by drugs, so diminished. I wish she could show grief, even if it were loud and ugly and terrifying to watch. I wish she could stand by our side at Dad’s funeral. I wish I did not feel this guilt; this sense of having let her and Dad down.

We watch Mum leave in the taxi with the two mental health nurses. We wave and call ‘Goodbye’. She does not look at us as the car pulls away.

 

Halcyon Days

As soon as Dad has gone, the kingfishers arrive. They seem to come when I most need them. I mention this to someone, adding that I realise I am being sentimental, that I am attaching significance to a happy coincidence. ‘If it helps you, does it matter?’ she says.

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There are so many happy coincidences, it is hard not to attach a significance. There is the time when I am alone in the house, crying, feeling overwhelmed by responsibility and grief: I turn over a pile of papers on the window sill next to Dad’s desk, and a kingfisher looks up at me from a ceramic coaster. There is the day when I am wading through emails from well-meaning friends of my parents, asking for updates on Mum. One is from a friend who is missing Dad sorely and is often close to tears when I see him. It contains a photo of him and Dad on holiday in South America, sitting next to a sign which reads, ‘Martín, el pescador’, with a picture of the bird.

Later, much later, there is the van which turns off a roundabout in front of me on a day when I am exhausted and thinking ‘I can’t cope with today. I want to go to bed.’ I have to steady myself when I see that the sign on its back doors reads simply, ‘Kingfisher’.

And there are the birds themselves which skim the silky surface of the water alongside me when I am rowing. A fellow oarswoman says one day, ‘You always know it will be a good outing when you see the kingfisher.’ And it always is.

In between Dad’s death and the funeral, I go home for a couple of days for a break. One sunny morning I get up early and ask my son if he wants to come to our favourite swimming spot in the river near Bath. We arrive to find no one there. My son goes to look for birds and other wildlife, declaring the water too cold. I cross the weir, change behind a bush and lower myself into the glass-green river. It is satin-smooth, clear enough to see the stones and small fish beneath me. I swim past the lily pads, past the laughing mallards. I hear a familiar high-pitched insistent whistle and turn to look at the right bank. Not one but two jewel-bright birds are hovering above a branch, not more than a couple of metres from where I am swimming. My breath catches in my throat as I watch them working together, hunting for fish. I think of Martin and Martine from the picture book I found in the bookcase at Dad’s:

‘… away they fly together… There will very soon be a family, and what could be softer for a baby kingfisher to sleep in than a cradle lined with tiny fishbones!’

The text from this beautiful old book has been running through my mind ever since my sister and I talked about writing the eulogy. This sighting seems to confirm that the book needs to have a place in that final goodbye. It also sends me, clenched with grief, swimming much further upstream so that I can howl into the early morning air without disturbing the birds. Or allowing my son to hear me.

Once home and dry, I discuss the importance of the kingfishers with my sister. She agrees that we should mention them in the service. We end our eulogy with these words from Père Castor’s lovely picture book:

‘The following spring I come back to the little white bridge. From afar I see a large expanse of water gleaming. […] One could almost imagine that the clouds of spring had come down from the sky to walk the earth […] In the midst of all this new life I think sadly of my two kingfishers. And then, suddenly – frr, frrr! Two pairs of wings flash under the bridge like lightning, skimming over the surface of the water: a pair of kingfishers, brilliantly blue, perch on a branch. Could they be the children of Martin and Martine returning to their native stream? I do not know. I know nothing about them. But I am happy: I realise that life goes on, goes on for ever.’

 

 

Breathing in the Past

The time I spend in my childhood home between the day of Dad’s death and that of his funeral takes on a light, breezy quality. Once the arrangements for the service and party are sorted and the death certificate has been obtained and the most important utilities and financial institutions have been notified, something lifts in the atmosphere. It is as though I am being supported or carried through these days.

I slot back easily into living in the house – this house that I have not enjoyed visiting for many years. I love throwing the windows and doors wide to let in the summer air and the light. It is a house full of light, I realise. Yet it has not been in recent times. Mum had not wanted to let in light or air. It upset her. Agoraphobia kept her a prisoner in closed rooms, confining her to the same green chair, day in, day out.

Now I get up early, open the back door and listen to the birdsong, watching the one friendly blackbird who comes to sit in the bush outside the kitchen. There has always been a lone friendly blackbird in the garden. One year we were visited by a blackbird with a streak of white feathers in its wing. Dad christened him ‘Punk’. I remember this and other things about this garden: the badminton net that we put up every summer, the games of boules, the handstands and cartwheels we practised and perfected, the skipping games, my little tortoise whom Dad insisted on putting on a fabricated leash ‘so that he will not run away’, the school that was once our neighbour and the little boys who would peer through the fence and laugh at us. Some of them were the brothers of our friends. I cradle my coffee cup in my hands and think of these things and breathe in the past.

As it is the summer holidays, old friends are around. I link up with four of my oldest and best friends from my school days, spend time with them, their children and their parents. I walk my Labrador with one friend who has recently acquired a black Labrador as well. We take the dogs to the cemetery where we used to hang out as teenagers. It doesn’t seem morbid or strange. The dogs career around, jumping on each other, tails whirring like helicopter blades. Their happiness is infectious. I have always loved the vast, open space of this cemetery with the views it affords. It was a favourite place for all kinds of illicit behaviour too, of course. Probably still is. We walk and reminisce and laugh. We talk about our parents ageing and what this means for us. Her dad is becoming very frail and she is worried about her mum’s health.

I spend an afternoon by the river with another friend and her four boys. Someone is fishing for crayfish which arouses much excitement. We play football, laugh, reminisce. Her mum joins us. Her father has early on-set dementia of some sort, as yet undiagnosed. Everyone is carrying fears and sorrow about the end of something in their family. We are all faced with the same things. But, for now, we don’t dwell on them. We enjoy being together.

It is as though this is Dad’s gift to me: a glimpse back at all the happy times. It is as though he is here, in this light and lifted atmosphere. As though he is saying, ‘Stay in this house which I bought for us. Enjoy the life I built for you. Remember the good times, Anna. Do not be sad.’

Always Look on the Bright Side

Brian, an old friend of Dad’s, offers to lead the funeral service. He is a lay reader at the local church. The church where Mum and Dad got married nearly forty-nine years ago and where we went to services with the Brownies and Guides and met a lot of our childhood friends.

We are overcome with gratitude – and relief. We are baffled by the amount of decisions that need to be made in the days after Dad’s death. The meeting at the funeral parlour alone was exhausting. We knew Dad’s wish was to be cremated, but other than that we had no idea what he wanted. He was not an overtly religious man and had merely told me, ‘Do what you like with the service. I just don’t want to offend anyone.’

In the end we went with our gut and tried to make choices that best represented the kind of man he was. Hence a coffin out of bamboo – the nearest thing to a boat – instead of some dark, sombre wooden box. And the flowers we chose were sunflowers and agapanthus. The resulting arrangement is reminiscent of my sister’s wedding bouquet.

There is much in the organisation of Dad’s funeral which reminds us of a wedding: drawing up a potential guest list; finding a venue for ‘the party’ afterwards (we find we are calling it this rather than ‘the wake’); choosing food and wine; choosing music.

It is in choosing the music that we have most fun. We are sitting in the dining room, which has become our Chamber of Central Communications where all the paperwork is laid out in terrifying columns. We are drinking coffee and talking about Dad’s love of singing and poetry, and Brian is remembering a particular limerick Dad wrote about Brian’s surname, ‘Buck’.

‘He deftly managed to avoid the more obvious rhyme,’ he says, grinning.

We realise that we can’t simply go for the safe options for Dad’s big send-off. He was too joyful, too full of life, laughter and mischief for us to say goodbye via quiet music and dirge-like singing.

‘You know, he loved Monty Python,’ Brian says. He gives a pretty impressive impersonation of the well-known line from ‘The Life of Brian’, ‘”He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy!”‘

And that is how we come to choose the recessional piece.

‘Do you think . . . would it be appropriate to have “Always Look on the Bright Side of Life” to walk out to?’ we ask.

Brian beams. ‘Yes! It sums your dad up perfectly.’

Later, back at home, I download the song to discover that the word ‘shit’ features very clearly. I debate saying nothing about this, but in the end I ask my son to bleep it out, thinking that even Brian would possibly not allow that in church. We cannot find a suitably quiet ‘bleep’, so my son uses the sound of a sheep bleating to cover up the offensive word. This makes us laugh and laugh every time we play it through.

Hopefully, as Dad requested, we did not offend anyone. If the smiles I saw on my way out were anything to go by, I don’t think we did.

**

“Always look on the bright side of life

For life is quite absurd,
And death’s the final word.
You must always face the curtain with a bow!
Forget about your sin – give the audience a grin,
Enjoy it, it’s the last chance anyhow!

So always look on the bright side of death!
Just before you draw your terminal breath.
Life’s a piece of *BAAAAA!*
When you look at it.

Life’s a laugh and death’s a joke, it’s true,
You’ll see it’s all a show,
Keep ’em laughing as you go.
Just remember that the last laugh is on you!”