Ash Wednesday

I carried your ashes, Dad, all the way from Wiltshire back to Kent. On the way I wondered why I had not left you there in the first place. Why had I made things so difficult? But then I remembered that you would have been kept at the funeral parlour. Not you, of course: your remains. But still, a part of you would have sat on a shelf for all this time. So perhaps it wasn’t so crazy, bringing your ashes on a round trip.

I met my sister, your younger daughter, at Charing Cross station. The station from which we always came in and out of London when we too lived in Kent. The station where we sometimes met you and Mum for trips to the theatre or the Tower of London or the Natural History Museum.

We talked all the way to Tonbridge. (We are good friends, my sister and I. You gave us each other and for that we are eternally grateful.) We looked out of the window at old, familiar and new, less familiar, sights. We reminisced. We ate stupidly inappropriate food – pink and white macarons, slices of pineapple – and laughed at ourselves. And we planned what we would do and say once we had found the perfect spot to say our last goodbye.

We dropped our bags at a hotel which, in our childhood, was thought of as rather grand, but is decidedly less so now. Then we walked to the river.

It was a Wednesday in September, and yet the day was as hot and cloudless as though it were July. No holiday hordes of children playing on The Rec, however, no groups of teens swilling beer under the trees. It was easy to find a quiet spot, on the stretch of river where you spent your Sunday mornings.

We sat down by a dip in the bank where dogs would no doubt choose to slip into the water. The river was so low, and we were so hot and dusty, we decided to wade in. We paddled, drinking small plastic cups of Cava – your celebratory drink of choice. We watched the tiny water boatmen, which you loved so much, collect around us; their little legs and feet sticking out like the oars of a double scull. We remembered canoeing with you, singing with you, laughing with you, watching birds and other creatures with you.

We lit some tiny floating candles and scattered a few rose petals on the water, then we launched a white origami boat which your eldest grandson had made. You loved origami. You loved boats. We felt it was right to do this, to send you on your way.

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Finally, when we could put it off no longer, we poured out your ashes. They were beautiful: like the coarse grey sand on the beach at Santorini. We let them flow through our fingers and marvelled at them. They billowed out into the water like smoke. We read ‘Crossing the Bar’ by Tennyson, for the sea-faring imagery. We read a few lines from the end of The Lord of the Rings where Frodo crosses through the grey rain-curtain and from The Little Prince, too – both favourite bedtime stories of yours. It made me wish again that I had read to you, that last night that we both spent in my childhood home.

And then we left. Just as an exceptionally friendly, over-enthusiastic dog came to claim his spot in the water, almost knocking us flying! You would have loved that. Some might have felt it ruined the afternoon, but we could not stop laughing, knowing you would have seen the humour in that moment.

We felt so peaceful as we walked away, under a hot, blue sky. You are now home and truly at rest. And we will always remember the spot, so we will come back sometimes and sit and think of you.

Goodbye, dear Dad.

Take me to the River

We are going back to our home town to scatter Dad’s ashes this week. It is over a year since we had the bizarre conversations with the funeral parlour about what to do with our father’s body. Cremation or burial? If cremation, did we want to go to the crematorium? Did we want to keep the ashes or leave them behind? If we were keeping them, did we want a cardboard ‘scatter tube’ or an urn? What design?

We answered the questions, feeling dazed. We knew Dad wanted to be cremated, but all these other choices? There was something obscene about it all: we were not picking out accessories for a new car. There was a horrible detachment to discussing the finer details, knowing that what we were doing was agreeing how best to dispose of our dear dad’s body.

But now, a year on, we can focus on exactly what we want to do. We are clear-headed, no longer befuddled by his sudden disappearance from our lives. We have planned what we will say, where we will go and have put a lot of thought into making it as peaceful, personal and respectful as we can. And with those thoughts have come wave after wave of sadness as we realise: this is it.

The funeral was a wonderful public celebration of Dad’s life. It was as joyful as a day like that can be. It was full of warmth and love and laughter and tears.

This scattering will be quieter, private, we hope just as beautiful, but definitely sadder than the public goodbye.

Today I have sat and cradled the tube of Dad’s ashes and I have wept. I have talked to him. I have read aloud poems. I have felt the weight of what remains of him – 2.5 kilos – and remembered what the funeral director told us: that the weight of a person’s ashes comes close to what they weighed at birth. I have thought about him as the ‘bonny boy’, the fit young man, the brother, lover, husband, uncle, friend; the young dad, the older dad, the dad I said goodbye to last summer.

And after that, I took a walk down to the river near where I live now, and I sat in the warm September sun, and I watched the water flowing slowly, and I thought about how Dad’s ashes would mingle with the water. I tried to imagine them becoming part of the flow of the river, possibly becoming fish food, and how those fish might then be caught by a–

And before I could think the word or visualise the image, I heard the high ‘peep peep’ of a kingfisher and saw it buzz the riverbank – so close, I could have reached out and touched it.

I walked home, thinking how right this feels, this trip back to the river of my childhood, my sister by my side, our father’s remains in a bag on my back. We will make it good for you, Dad. We will do you proud. And then we will try to move on, keeping you forever close in our hearts. And in the joyful ‘peep peep!’ of merry little Martin, the kingfisher.

The Unmentionable Side to Death

We are allowed to talk about sex. We are allowed to discuss, quite openly, the graphic details, the mechanics, the highs, the lows, the things people do, the things we like, the things we don’t.

We are allowed to talk about childbirth. We are allowed to admit to the pain and mess and fear and sheer exhilaration of bringing a human into the world. And what comes in the days, weeks and months which follow.

We are allowed to see both these things relayed to us via screens, directly into our own homes. Celebrities talk endlessly about both topics, publish pictures of both, boast and preen about both.

And we are allowed to talk about death. But only in general terms. There is an accepted vocabulary for it.

After all, there are limits.

But why? Because it is not glamorous? Not seemly?

Or because we are scared of it.

Whatever the reason, there are details which may not be discussed. Personal details. Which must be kept under wraps. Shrouded.

Why? Why should we shy away from talking about the inevitable? Sex may not be a feature in some people’s lives and neither may childbirth. But death? Death comes to us all. Even those glamorous celebrities.

The details of death are hidden away from our everyday lives, even though ‘in the midst of life, we are in death’. It is given many euphemisms: he has passed on, she has passed away, they are deceased, he is no longer with us, her time has come, his number’s up . . .

We see and read and hear reports of death every day, but not the details; not what it was like for those individuals at the moment they left this world. And certainly not what it was like for the loved ones they left behind.

I am definitely not allowed to talk to anyone about how much I needed the physical contact of my dad’s dead body. I am not allowed to admit to how much I wanted to kiss him, to hug him. To eat him up. I am certainly not allowed to talk about about how I felt, going through long lost photos of him as a young man: seeing him through his mother’s eyes in that wonderful, foxed and faded homemade album of black and white photos of his life from 0-19 years, that she had given him when he got engaged to Mum. Or seeing him through my mum’s eyes in the early years of their love affair, engagement, marriage. Or seeing him holding a tiny me. Seeing him with new eyes. And falling in love with him. I can’t talk about that. It sounds wrong. Oedipal. Perverted.

But true.

And when I finally pluck up enough courage and talk to others who have been through this loss of a parent, I find, to my astonishment, that they say the same. And that it doesn’t matter if it was a woman losing a mother or a man losing a father or another woman losing a father or a man losing a mother. They all have said the same to me – or rather whispered it: ‘I fell in love with them, wanted to hold on to them, to physically attach myself to them…’ The words are not always the same, but the admission is: ‘I fell in love with my parent after his/her death.’

So why aren’t we allowed to talk about this?