The End of This Road

It is a year to the day that I started this blog. It is two years to the day that you phoned to say that you had bad news. Two years since you told me that what happened next was “between me and my Maker.”

Two years is supposed to be enough time to have assimilated what has happened. I am supposed to stop talking about your death now. I am allowed to mention you in conversation as long as I am recounting cheery things; involving others in memories of happier times.

But two years is not enough time. Neither, I suspect, is three years. Or four. Or twenty-four. Or any number. It is only those who have not lost someone they love who think of grief in terms of a finite period.

Since joining The Dead Dads’ Club (as a friend has dubbed it) I have spoken to many people who have given up trying to explain to outsiders what grief is like. Everyone’s experience is as different as the love they have for the ones they have lost. But we all have one thing in common. We all agree that grief is now part of us, that it has changed us as all the big things in life do and that it is here to stay; to be lived with, to be carried along with us until we too have to leave, passing on the mantle to others who will bear it in their turn.

A month before you died you told me that I should “get out more”. It was a serious point, made in a conversation we were having about the sort of work I had had published up until now and what my plans were for the future. It was one of those chats which challenged me, which made me see how much more I have left to do. So that is what I am going to do now. I am going to get out more, with the sound of your voice and encouragement ringing in my heart.

I shall stop this blog today. It is time to take a different road. Writing this blog has helped me in more ways than I could have imagined. It has been different from talking and different from keeping a journal. It has helped me think through my experience and it has put me in touch with others who have been through similar times. It has opened up conversations, led me to read books I would otherwise not have read, showed the side of friends and acquaintances I did not know existed. It has also made me see how many gifts you gave me, Dad, and that the greatest one of all was storytelling. I don’t know what I will do with all these words. But I do know one thing: just as life goes on, so do the stories. There is never really an end to any of it.

 

Ancient History

I have put off reading the love letters for a few weeks. I thought it was going to feel wrong: that I would be eavesdropping; spying on a private part of my parents’ lives that it was not appropriate for a child to see.

But that’s just the point. I am no longer a child. I am the parent of two adolescents who are not so far away from the age my parents were when they first met, aged 19. Is it this which gives me the distance I need?

There are letters for almost every day from May 1963 to July 1966. The overwhelming feeling I have once I have lined up Mum’s letters alongside Dad’s is one of privilege. Here is almost three years of conversation – conversation that normally would be lost to the tides of time. Amongst the records are the minutiae of a life that must be planned in pen and ink and not down a phone line or via the worldwide web. Details of train times and plans for weekends are noted alongside tentative dips into the waters of romance. These shy forays quickly blossom when Mum asks Dad to write to her in Latin. They are corresponding about meeting in London to go to Henley regatta together and Mum suggests she get up early to make the most of the day. Dad replies:

[…] sed surgere mane puellas quis, nisi cui non est ulla puella, ferat?

I have to look this up, of course, my own O Level Latin long forgotten. All I can understand is ‘girls’ and what I think is ‘jump up’. It turns out (as Dad has to subsequently explain to Mum) it is a quote taken from Ovid’s ‘Amores, Elegy XIII: The Dawn’.

[…] girls shouldn’t rise early – who would do that to a girl, save a man who has not a girl of his own?

Typical of Dad to try to make a joke in Latin. It has the desired effect, however, for soon Mum is calling him ‘O meae deliciae, Martinus’ and he is responding with ‘O lux et vita mea, Gilliana mihi carissima’.

Their shared love and knowledge of the Classics was a deep bond. The letter which brings this most starkly home is one Dad sends from his first visit to Rome in July 1963. He gushes that ‘imperial buildings and temples and basilicas and baths’ have him summoning up Ancient Rome and making him long to ‘learn Italian and take you there’.

They did exactly this in retirement, going to Italian classes together, Mum grumpy at the speed with which Dad overtook her in mastering the grammar. They hired Italian DVDs and turned off the subtitles to force themselves to concentrate and learn more quickly. They even set their SatNav to speak to them in Italian. And they visited Rome and many other parts of Italy together and with friends. When Mum was first taken very ill with anxiety and depression I sat with her and tried to distract her from her panicky thoughts, asking her where her favourite place on earth was. She suddenly stopped hyperventilating and smiled. ‘Italy,’ she said, her shoulders going down, her breathing slowing. ‘The sun. And the language. And the food.’

It seems appropriate that two Classicists should have left so much to document their marriage. Reading it now, in an age when the love letter has been replaced with images zapped from smartphone to laptop to tablet, it does feel as though I am unearthing a little bit of ancient history.

Love in Pen and Ink

When I was expecting my daughter, Mum got it into her head that I needed to sort through all the belongings that remained in my childhood home and either take them with me or throw them away. This was how I found myself on a dark, blustery December afternoon, crouched, eight months pregnant, in the attic of my parents’ house, sifting through boxes and bags and old suitcases.

I had always hated the attic, mainly because of the fear instilled in me from an early age that if I went up there I would fall through the floorboards, on to the soft insulation and through the ceiling of the room below. I hated the ladder – the rattling metallic announcement it made as it came catapulting down from the hatch. I hated the way that noise was distorted so that voices from the road outside could sound as though they were somewhere much nearer, lurking in the rafters with me. I hated the smell: the fusty, dusty, mildewed smell of old cloth and paper. And I hated the dark and the piles and piles of stuff, thrown up there, willy-nilly – a graveyard of possessions.

This time though, I was aware, possibly for the first time, that my mother had herself once been an excited and fearful first-time parent. That here, in cardboard boxes and old trunks and cases, were remnants and reminders of that time. As I pulled out a tiny, moth-eaten hand-knitted cardigan, a smocked Viyella dress, a teething ring and a plastic bag full of cards congratulating my parents on my birth, I realised that this would one day be the fate of all the items I was now amassing in preparation for my daughter’s arrival.

While I was sorting through old toys and clothes and school books, I sat down heavily on a grey metal-framed suitcase, only to find to my dismay that I had crushed it under the weight of my advancing pregnancy and that items were spewing from its sides, like jam oozing from a doughnut. I pushed myself up, intending to try to push the contents back – then stopped. The suitcase had been full of envelopes: hundreds of them. I shone a torch on them and saw the inimitable italic hand of my dad on some and my mother’s equally inimitable scrawl on the rest. I knew what they were, of course. I couldn’t bring myself to open them. It felt wrong – that while they were, at that moment, downstairs watching TV, drinking coffee, waiting for me to come down, I was up here, holding in my hands their youthful promises of love and devotion spilled out on to sheets of Basildon Bond in blue and black ink. They would never have imagined these pages would be read by anyone but each other. I couldn’t be the one to break the spell.

Fast-forward nearly twenty years, and I am now in full possession of those letters. I have sifted through so much of my parents’ lives by now that it doesn’t feel so bad, taking the letters out of the bag I carried them home in on the day we emptied our childhood home. I have read so many private things, gone through so many personal effects, been a silent witness to so many decisions made for me and my sister before we were aware of them. I haven’t read the letters properly yet, though. It has still felt like an intrusion too far. I am torn. Should I let their marriage rest in peace?

But watching my own children reach the age when my parents met each other for the first time, I feel a growing urge to open those musty, mildewed envelopes. I feel an overwhelming need to know my parents better – to understand them as the young people they once were, with all their hopes, dreams and fears. I need to know the man and the woman behind the labels Mum and Dad, in the same way that I sometimes long for my own children to see the real me behind the facade of (M)otherness.

And so I put aside a day in which to date-order the letters. I figure I am ready to read this chapter of their story, that I know it anyway from anecdote and hearsay, and that this is just more cataloguing – another part of the process of letting Dad go. I am not prepared for the surge of grief which hits me when I open the bag. Just that smell has me spinning back in time to the day in the attic when I first found them. I am undone by the force of my parents’ young love for one another, by the fact that for the best part of four years they appear to have written to each other almost every day.

‘What is the point?’ I hear myself crying. ‘All these words. All this love. All gone.’

As if in answer, the next envelope I pick up has a small bundle of photos inside. I flick through them, my face wet with tears, and see three photos of my dad in his late teens, sitting and talking to his parents. I gasp, dropping them, as though stung. A hand has flung itself out across the seas of time to wave these photos in my face.

Because it is my son in those photos. It is my son in that lanky body, that buzz-cut hair, that smile, that little frown, those gesticulating hands. My son is staring out at me from my father’s face.

So there it is. The point. All those words. All that love. It hasn’t gone. It is still here, triumphant, thumbing its nose at death while it lives on in new life.

 

The Ghost of Christmas Past

Mum has always hated Christmas. The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

For most of our adult lives, my sister and I have not been able to understand her attitude towards it. Why, for example, would she insist on calling at the beginning of September to ask us our plans? Why would she need to know that early on precisely where we would be convening and who would be invited? Why would she need to know exactly what we, our partners and our children wanted as presents?

‘Don’t tell me!’ I would blurt out, trying to interrupt her before she reeled off a list of the gifts that were all ready, wrapped and waiting in her wardrobe before the first leaves had fallen from the trees.

As children, my sister and I would be shielded from much of Mum’s festive-based anxiety. We spent Christmas either down the road from us at our grandparents’ house, or at our uncle’s. Mum was presumably thus spared much of the shopping and cooking and decorating and anything else that caused her stress.

Looking back, Mum is almost invisible in my early childhood Christmases. I remember playing games and watching Morecambe and Wise in my grandparents’ sitting room. I remember the tree, dug from the garden every year, sitting in its pot, covered in coloured lights and tinsel. I remember my uncle wearing silly Christmas hats. I remember him and my dad telling jokes and doing their Goon Show routine as they did the washing up together. I remember the meal around the dining table, its size struggling to cope with the extra people and food. I remember my cousins arriving when I was 7 and 9 years old, adding an extra layer of excitement to the anticipation of Christmas. And I remember the table eventually admitting defeat as we and our cousins grew bigger and the four of us took up as much place and food as our parents and grandparents. That was when we decamped to my uncle’s much larger house near Winchester.

My aunt always loved Christmas. In temperament at least, she was Bob Crachit to my mother’s Scrooge. She was an only child, and freely admitted that she was making up for her own childhood in the Christmases she now hosted. Christmas to her meant fun and noise and laughter and lots and lots of people. It meant dressing up for a lavish Christmas Eve supper. It meant a house decorated in every room, Christmas music playing and the largest tree I had ever seen. It meant ‘tree presents’ as well as ‘main presents’, midnight mass in the local cathedral, and food, glorious food. If there weren’t enough beds for everyone, beds were found or made up out of whatever was available. We played charades, went for long, frosty walks with their dog, watched films on the big TV in the converted attic room and we drank champagne long before we were legally allowed to.

And Mum could not cope with any of it.

My happy reminiscences of time with my cousins is marred by memories of my mother’s black mood which would usually kick in some time late on Christmas afternoon. I have no doubt that an excess of alcohol was the trigger, but it was a mood which had been cooking slowly along with the turkey since our arrival on Christmas Eve. No one was ever prepared for the explosion; either for what would cause it or how it would be manifest. One year it was simply the fact that my aunt had cooked ‘too many potatoes’ which then built to a full-blown rant on how my aunt ‘always did everything to excess’. Another year it might have been a rage over something that was happening on the political stage, prompted by an innocent opposing point of view from someone else in the family. It could also have been the simple case that my aunt, unlike my father, grandparents and uncle, had not spent years living alongside my mother, and therefore had not understood that the best path to take was often the one of least resistance. In any case, we were in her house, so why should she put up with my mother’s behaviour? And so the rows between Mum and my aunt usually escalated, scattering the rest of us to the four corners of the house to play with presents, watch telly, wash up or nap until the storm had passed.

As my teenage years progressed, I became more and more acutely aware of the effect of Christmas on my mother. It was a flashpoint in the year that I came to dread. Her depression would kick in around the time my sister and I went back to school and would darken and deepen along with the shortening days. By Christmas she was often stuck in a mire of misery that no amount of coaxing could shift. Until a match was struck and the rage was lit.

As adults, my sister and I tried to make things right. We invited everyone to our own homes, taking it in turn every year to have our parents for the Christmas period. But this seemed to make things worse, particularly if we introduced new ‘traditions’ or cooked food in an unexpected way. We grew to dread having our parents for Christmas and would phone each other after every visit for a post mortem, tallying off the latest transgressions and disasters.

The last time I had my parents to my house for Christmas, Dad was already very tired from managing Mum and was complaining of a sore leg. They both had chest infections. Mum was on antibiotics and obsessing over what time to take them, following me around like a lost puppy, whining and complaining and driving me mad. It was not a good time. It was, however, a million miles away from what lay ahead. Unbeknownst to all of us, we were about to enter the most frightening time of our lives. Mum was sliding towards a period of high anxiety which would lead to a diagnosis of psychosis and subsequent admittance to a mental health wing. And Dad was brewing a hideous form of cancer in his leg which would eventually claim him.

Last year was our first Christmas without Mum and Dad. Dad had passed away that summer. My grandparents are long gone and my aunt passed away unexpectedly six years ago. And Mum had already firmly turned her back on the world by then. Christmas is now a non-event, something she can choose to ignore. She stays in her room, as she does every day, and waits for it to pass.

I understand now that Christmas, for a person with Asperger’s, is something close to experiencing all their worst nightmares at once.The excess of it, the surprises, the people we are expected to see, the mess, the noise . . .

The irony is, Christmas in my house is no longer the noisy, surprise-filled occasion it once was. I have teenagers who sleep in and are no longer so enamoured with playing charades. It is a far more predictable event: a time for hibernation, reading and long walks.

Mum would probably prefer it.

 

No End in Sight

It has been over two months since we scattered Dad’s ashes. For a couple of weeks after that day, I felt peace hemming me in. I felt bound by it; contained and safe. I told myself that I had drawn a line under my grief – that I would not forget Dad, of course, but that I would no longer be stalled by sadness. I would get on with living my life in the here and now.

It turns out, however, that grief doesn’t allow itself to be boxed up so efficiently. There is no such thing as ‘closure’ (which in many ways is a relief, as I have always hated the smug overtones that word brings with it). There are only chinks of light in the long, dark days of deep sadness.

Sometimes that sadness prevents you from going out or talking to anyone unless you absolutely have to. Sometimes it fells you, folding you in two as you grip hold of a chair for support and howl like a wounded beast. Sometimes it makes you angry – angry that other people’s dads are still walking around, fit and healthy, enjoying their retirement and their relationship with their grandchildren. Sometimes it makes you weep quietly as you think of the things you have recently experienced which you long to share with your dearly departed.

I fear that my husband is growing weary of my bleak moods. He tries to understand and be sympathetic, he is loving and attentive. But his frustration at not being able to bring me out of this is getting to him, I know.

‘Does everything remind you of your dad?’ he asked, the other day.

‘Yes.’

Everything.

The weather: today it is a beautiful crisp, clear day with a sharp frost and I think, ‘Dad would have been out on the river this morning’, or ‘Dad would make porridge on a day like this.’

A song on the radio: I am singing along, and Dad’s face pops into my mind, singing it too. I can see the way he raises his eyebrows as he attempts a note that is out of his natural range, or the way he tucks his chin in when going for a lower one.

A wooden spoon: I am stirring a sauce and I see his hand on the handle; his hand adding spices and exotic flavours. I see his head bend to sip from the spoon and taste it for seasoning.

A TV programme: I laugh at a joke which makes my family groan and I think, ‘Dad would have got it.’

A book I have just read: I think of how I would have recommended it to him, shared it with him.

A bird at the bird table: he loved to listen to their song.

Everything, anything – sometimes nothing at all can act as a trigger. He is in my mind all the time. I can hear his voice, I can see his smile, I can feel his arms around me.

There is no such thing as closure. Not when you have had someone’s love for forty-five years. Not when that love has formed you: physically, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally.

‘I’m not sure what I believe about life after death,’ a friend said recently, ‘but I do know that love lives on. You can’t wipe out a lifetime of love. Do you even want to?’

So maybe there is no end in sight to this grief. Maybe it’s because the road is long with many twists and turns, maybe it’s because I’m in a tunnel right now. Or maybe I just have to accept this burden and learn to carry it with me along the way, because it has become part of who I am.

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.

 

 

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?