Almost two years have passed since Dad knew he was dying and Mum stopped coping with life. Almost a year since I started writing about it. There are still times when I struggle with accepting what has happened. How can Dad be here one minute and gone the next? How can Mum be here – and yet not be present?
There have been times when I have half-convinced myself that once that I have gone through this grieving business and come out the other side, things will go back to normal. My mind plays tricks on me. I catch myself thinking I might pick up the phone and talk to Dad. Or Mum might get better and not need to be in a care home any more. The house will still be there for me. I will be able to go back. In time as well as space.
Sometimes it is a relief to sleep and not think of these things. Unless, that is, I dream. A recent nightmare had my parents back in their house for a visit after my sister and I had started to clear it. Dad was cross that I had been in his study, through his desk, through his neatly filed paperwork. Mum was jubilant. “Thank you so much for getting rid of all his books!” she told me, beaming. “I have been trying to get him to do that for years.” And in the back of my mind, a panicky voice was saying, “But we’re selling the house. Mum is supposed to be going back to the care home. Dad is . . . Dad is . . . Dad is not coming back at all.” I woke up with a gasp, reality rushing back in.
Dreams like this play on my feelings of guilt in the dark early hours. My thoughts spin on a destructive loop: Dad would not be pleased with what we have done since he died. We should have found a way to keep Mum at home. We should not have sold their furniture and given their books away. We should have found a cure for Mum. What would I say to Dad if he asked me? He would not like her being on a dizzying cocktail of drugs ranging from anti-psychotics to anti-depressants to sedatives to sleeping pills and goodness only knows what else. She has Asperger’s Syndrome. We know that now. That is not a condition that needs drugs. It needs sympathy and understanding and help with learning coping strategies. Doesn’t it?
Except that, it turns out, things have moved beyond that for Mum. She is so deeply locked into her own world now that tinkering with her drugs, trying to withdraw them, makes things worse for her. Hellishly worse. It has been tried and the results were terrifying: disorientation, panic, fear, hysterics, physical instability. And so she is back on the pills again. Back on her bed. Back in a state of drug-induced calm. And we have been advised to accept this. To realise that this is what is necessary. Because we will never have her back the way she was.
I went to see her yesterday. On the train from London I stared out of the window at landmarks familiar from my childhood: the station names I could recite by heart, the fields, the white weather-board and red-brick cottages, the Oast houses, the orchards, the river. I felt the familiar weight of sadness in my chest. Mum was always so proud of being a Kentish Maid. She would lecture me on the county’s history. Now she doesn’t talk at all, other than to ask me to leave.
After my short visit, I went to sit by the river where we scattered Dad’s ashes. “The house will be sold next week,” I told him – almost two years to the day that he rang to tell me his cancer was terminal. Once Mum has gone, will I have a reason to return to Kent ever again? Will I really make the trip just to sit on that riverbank and gaze into the silt and think of Dad paddling by this spot in his canoe? How can I accept the way things are? How can everything have changed so quickly? How it is possible that Dad is no more? That Mum has turned her face to the wall? Surely I could have prevented it?
The night before I had gone to see “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead”. A few lines from the play echo in my mind as I stare into the muddy water and try to hold on to an image of Dad and Mum as they were:
“The fact of [death] is nothing to do with seeing it happen – it’s not gasps and blood and falling about – that isn’t what makes it death. It’s just a man failing to reappear, that’s all – now you see him, now you don’t, that’s the only thing that’s real: here one minute and gone the next and never coming back – an exit, unobtrusive and unannounced, a disappearance gathering weight as it goes on, until, finally, it is heavy with death.”
A disappearance gathering weight as it goes on. Yes. That is it. An acceptance is necessary from now on. An acceptance of Dad’s never coming back. And with that, the acceptance that Mum, as we knew her, isn’t either.