The Road to Forgiveness

It is October 1999. I have just put down the phone on Mum after a furious row. It started, as family arguments do, with a slow simmer: the odd well-timed comment, the choice use of a sniff or a grunt of disapproval, building to a list of my shortcomings, tempered with soothing noises from me until a tipping point is reached and we are in the throes of a full-blown accusation-fuelled verbal fist-fight.

The house is quiet now. I am sitting in our one good armchair, staring at the pattern on an inherited rug, bathed in soft light from an inherited lamp. My husband and I have just started to build a life together in our first home; we have begun to build our own family. Our eight-month old daughter is in her cot upstairs. It is past ten o’clock and I should be going to bed. I have only recently gone back to work and I need to try and get some sleep before my daughter wakes me at 3 am. But sleep is far from reach now. My rage against Mum is at a rolling boil. If a stranger were to walk in now, they would think I had been the victim of an attack of some kind. I am hunched over, sobbing silently and hugging my knees. I could not begin to explain to anyone how I have got here in the course of a short phone call. It would take a full lecture course on the history of my relationship with my mother – accompanied by illustrated PowerPoint presentations – not to mention an in-depth analysis of how members of my family interact with and intercede for one another.

The fact is, at this point in my life, even I do not know how I have got here. I rarely argued with Mum when I lived at home – I actively avoided confrontation of any kind. I knew, implicitly at first, and then explicitly, that it wasn’t worth it. If ever I complained to Dad or Grandma I was told, ‘Just be a good girl.’ And so I was. And life resumed its ordered course.

Until now. Tonight I have had enough. I have had enough of playing this game, of being complicit in Mum’s strange behaviour, of pretending that her obsessions and paranoias are normal. I have had enough of the controlling, the haranguing, the bullying, the shouting, the accusations, the swearing. I am an adult now, a mother myself. I cannot be who my mother wants me to be. I have to be me.

**

Looking back at that night, with the benefit of hindsight and a formal diagnosis of Asperger’s for Mum, I can see this conversation as a key piece of a large, scattered jigsaw puzzle of which our family has tried making sense for years. Why was Mum such a controlling figure? Why did she seem to latch on to something which made her anxious and hammer away at it until either the problem went away or a bigger problem took its place? Why did unexpected, surprising acts or decisions make her agitated to the point of aggression? Why was she so damn rude at times? Why were we all so frightened of her?

Mum’s diagnosis came, initially, as a relief. It felt like validation – as though, at last, someone was listening to me and my sister and saying, ‘Yes, you’re right. Your mother sees the world very differently from most other people.’ We were able to rationalise her repetitive behaviours, her anxieties, her depression too. We could read up on it, consult with people who understood it, give it a name. We could step out on the first stretch of the road to forgiveness for all the pain Mum’s condition had caused.

But now, a year on, we simply feel sad. Especially now Dad has gone and never had the chance to hear the truth about Mum. Life could have been so different for Mum – for all of us – if she had been diagnosed earlier. She could have learnt coping strategies for her anxieties, ways of negotiating social situations which she found overwhelming. She might now not be lying on her bed, subdued by a cocktail of anti-anxiety medication, too closed-in to engage with the outside. She might not have been so frightened by the world and all the chaos it seemed to bring to her door.

Or maybe she would still be like this. But at least we might have been helped, as a family, to see the world through her eyes – and thus avoided furious rows such as that one over the phone seventeen years ago and the many that followed that night. We might have been able to forgive her more readily, and forgive ourselves too. We might have been able to love her more readily for who she was. Because now, love feels like the only answer we have to give – and yet it feels like too little, too late.

Advertisements

Walking and Talking

I have taken to walking the dog at dusk. It suits me not to have to nod and smile at other dog-walkers. The fading light and the moon’s faint beam and the chill in the air all fit my mood, as I walk and I think back over the past year.

Sometimes I call my sister, who, two hundred and fifty miles away, is often walking her dogs too. We walk and we talk, sometimes commenting on what our dogs are doing, sometimes commenting on the wildlife that we spot in the half light. Mostly, we catch up on the practicalities of on-going death-related duties: our parents’ house has still not sold and we are responsible for its upkeep. There is always some piece of financial business that must be discussed and we are still battling some institutions who refuse to show an ounce of human compassion when it comes to wrapping up a loved-one’s affairs.

And then there is Mum. And there is so much to say about her, that sometimes it is too much. And so we move on, invariably finding ourselves meandering along the path which leads inevitably to Dad.

‘Those last days were his Glory Days,’ my sister said on our last walk-and-talk session. ‘He was such a silent dad before he was diagnosed, but something happened to him once he went into hospital and he became extraordinary.’

He did. He rose to the challenge Death had set before him. He became a beacon to us: a shining example of how to live. And die.

We talk about how he was Mum’s SatNav through the tortuous paths of their life together. How he quietly stood beside her, a strong pillar next to Mum’s whirlwind nature. How he calmly navigated the storms of the early days of their marriage with no money, then on into parenthood, building a home, a career, caring for ailing elderly parents, becoming grandparents and succumbing to illness themselves. He rarely, if ever, lost his temper with us or Mum. In fact, his temper only became frayed in those fraught last three years. And who can blame him for that?

We go over and over these things. We talk about how we miss him too, how we hear his voice in our heads, how the image that we carry of him is not that of a frail and sickening old man, but of a vigorous, smiling, healthy father. We sometimes cry (at which point I am doubly thankful for the failing daylight).

‘He had to go when he did, you know,’ my sister often says. ‘He and Mum couldn’t have survived together much longer.’

I know she is right. I have read the heartbreaking journals which Dad kept during the last years when Mum’s mental health went into rapid free-fall. He was keeping it all hidden – all the stress, the worry, the panic over how best to help and care for Mum. Mum is safe now, well cared-for and not left sitting in a chair in the dark with no food in the fridge. And Dad is at peace.

I reach the summit of my walk and look out over the valley. This is where I often came to ring Dad when he was in hospital. Sometimes I come here and talk to him still.

The moon is bright, the rooks are flying home, tiny pipistrelle bats appear from the filigree trees and circle above me. The tawny owls begin their evening conversation and the last light disappears from the sky.

I say goodbye to my sister and loop back on to the path which takes me home. A whole year has almost passed with no Dad in it. And yet, for as long as my sister and I continue to walk and talk about him, something of him remains.

 

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.

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.

img_5145

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?

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.

IMG_3620

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.