Ashes To Ashes
It was a gloriously sunny summers day, and we were sat overlooking the back garden with the patio doors wide open; the children were running around outside, playing and baiting each other as usual; my wife and my mum were chatting away, putting the world to rights; and my dad and I listened on the radio to those gripping final overs in the fifth day’s play in the First Ashes Test at Cardiff. This was always going to merit me writing a post – ideally in my start-of-the-year outing for The Obscurer Awards – as the “sporting moment of 2009”: to show how, for me, despite the alleged excitement that the newer, abbreviated Twenty20 version of the game provides, what with its boundaries and wickets galore, in fact little (and certainly nothing in Twenty20) can match the hard-to-explain tension and excitement of listening to the commentators describing the England lower order; batting, yes, yet not even really trying to score runs, just hoping to survive, to hang around a little longer, until stumps and a forced draw. In the event, though, I’m mentioning that day for another reason. It was Sunday the 12th of July, and the final time my dad visited my house. Just under two months later we were sat in Stockport Crematorium for his funeral.
Paul Auster, in The Invention of Solitude, meditates on his father’s death and talks of how, the instant he heard the bad news “I knew that I would have to write about my father”. Michael Dennis, on the other hand, said “I’ve experienced a great sadness over the past month or so, but this blog isn’t and was never meant to be confessional; while I’m happy to share some of my life online, there’s much that I keep to myself.” I figure I must be somewhere in the middle; but where? I’m unsure whether I should write here on the matter, I certainly don’t feel a need to write, and it would be far easier for me to simply pass; and yet I simultaneously feel I can’t not write something. This was never intended to be a personal blog, but how can it not be? I’ve already posted on births and deaths, such things can’t help but define us to some extent, to inform our world-view, and despite the pseudonymous nature of this blog – or perhaps because of it – I do write here from the heart.
But deciding that I can’t not write something doesn’t solve the problem of what I can write about. I must have missed the “How To…” guide to blogging for grieving sons. I could write a detailed and glowing celebration of my dad’s life, but to some extent I’ve done that already, in the script we gave the minister at the funeral. I could talk of all our happy times together and express how much I love him still, a love undimmed by circumstance; but that is perhaps just too personal, and those memories are ones I want to cherish and treasure, and keep to myself and my nearest. As this is my blog then perhaps I should simply fulfil my blog’s remit, which is to get things off my chest. I think that’s all I feel I can muster, and anyway, mere words will always fall short of what I want to say, frankly I’m not a good enough writer to successfully say what I feel truly. So here, finally, is the next best thing, version 7.4.35 of this post, the hardest thing I’ve written, and an account of my past few months. And soon I’ll press publish and be done with it.
The death of a parent is the usual tragedy, to paraphrase someone, I think; for my dad it began with the mundane and then promptly accelerated out of control. So, there was the shocking rapidity at which a concern over likely gallstones became the fear, then reality, of a tumour; how the onset of jaundice, an anaemic collapse that led to hospitalisation, a shortness of breath that necessitated the constant wearing of an oxygen mask, all seemed like minor setbacks requiring treatment which would surely lead to the road to recovery, but which instead turned out to be little more than marker posts on a relentless, steep decline. In the middle of August I left my dad to go on holiday, where I tried – and usually managed – to enjoy myself, all the while expecting to see him again, an expectation that did not come to pass. My last real sight of my dad was of him sat at home on the settee, too weak to get up, hugging his grandchildren the day before we drove to Cornwall, as we told him we’d see him in a fortnight on our return. We did manage a couple of brief webchats as we huddled around the laptop in the Sandbar at Praa Sands on our first Wednesday and second Sunday, but the final act came just the following Wednesday as I watched Radiohead play “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” from the Reading Festival via the Red Button. My mobile rang at 11:30pm; a time, to quote Auster again, when
No one calls…unless it is to give news that cannot wait. And news that cannot wait is always bad news.
And of course I knew at that moment. But there were still other possibilities, perhaps – my father, like Schrodiger’s cat, was neither alive nor dead – until I picked up my phone, and Caller ID informed me that my parents were ringing. But it wasn’t my parents, it was my mum, with the news I didn’t want to hear. Eventually I placed my phone carefully back on the window ledge but missed and let it crash onto the floor, and then I went through to my wife. In the morning we told my son, packed up, and headed home.
Small consolations occasionally broke into my mood as my wife drove us back. Given the hand that my father had been dealt, and the illness he’d suddenly been saddled with, he wanted to go when he did, he didn’t want to hang on. Over the following days there would be mood swings as I enjoyed waking in the morning, relishing that half-second before my memory would tap me on the shoulder and remind me that my dad had gone. I could be fine, talking – even laughing – in those situations where I wouldn’t expect my dad to be present, until it would hit me that there were no situations at all where he would ever be present again. I would casually refer to popping to my “mum and dad’s house”, then break down as I’d realise how redundant that term now was. Different days would lead to different emotions, as I moved through loss, anger, and feeling bereft. The day before the funeral was perhaps my lowest point; I felt hollowed out, knowing I could put it off no longer and thinking that in a day’s time my dad would finally be gone for good. The following week I returning to work; too soon, I now believe. I dreaded going in almost as much as I dreaded the funeral, and during a particularly busy hour I pretty much went to pieces, the office walls tumbling in around me.
Feelings of loss turn into a feeling of having lost, and while not exactly sorted I’m more or less adapted to the new reality now. I still hate going into work, but now it’s for all those old, boring reasons, plain old job dissatisfaction; to that extent I am back to normal. It jars less, too, referring to my dad in the past tense – although the fact that it jars less does still jar – and I am gradually getting accustomed to having joined that legion of people who begin sentences with something like “I remember once, while my dad was alive…” Many things don’t change; all my memories are still intact, I still have all those photos, it’s just that neither can ever be added to. Much of the time it still doesn’t seem quite real; it’s far easier to imagine that my dad just happens not to be here right now than to accept that he’ll never be here again; in that regard the funeral wasn’t the end of anything, as I can still happily assume him tucked away safely at home with my mum, merely a phone call away. Then I’ll be thinking about something like my daughter’s forthcoming third birthday party, planning ahead and visualising him being there as clear as day, large as life…and then I’ll heave a heavy sigh.
But I can still hear my dad’s voice in my head all the time; when I watch the match, if I pop to the shops, as I listen to the radio, especially when I hear the news. I can still anticipate his fury at the latest proposals from the government, his despair at the latest announcement from “that Gordon Brown”. While I’m unable to confirm what it is my dad thinks, let’s face it; I know. I’ve lost the person whose wrong-headed political views were always so close to hand. Wherever he is now, he’s no doubt found some sort of enlightenment and realised that in all of our many arguments I was right all along. Me, I’m going to have to find another locked door to push against. I guess this old blog could come in handy after all; so please don’t hesitate to hang around here and tell me that I’m talking bollocks. You’ll be fulfilling a vital service.
Of course, that would involve me actually writing something here, and I will, in a bit. But when I do I will still write from time to time about my father, when appropriate and fitting, as I have done many times before. In this way his story has not died, not while his loved ones still live. Yes, it’s now time to look forwards, but while my dad’s influence still remains, as strong as ever, I think he still has his part to play.
from A Shropshire Lad by A E Houseman
Wake: the silver dusk returning
Up the beach of darkness brims,
And the ship of sunrise burning
Strands upon the eastern rims.
Wake: the vaulted shadow shatters,
Trampled to the floor it spanned,
And the tent of night in tatters
Straws the sky-pavilioned land.
Up, lad, up, ’tis late for lying:
Hear the drums of morning play;
Hark, the empty highways crying
‘Who’ll beyond the hills away?’
Towns and countries woo together,
Forelands beacon, belfries call;
Never lad that trod on leather
Lived to feast his heart with all.
Up, lad: thews that lie and cumber
Sunlit pallets never thrive;
Morns abed and daylight slumber
Were not meant for man alive.
Clay lies still, but blood’s a rover;
Breath’s a ware that will not keep.
Up, lad: when the journey’s over
There’ll be time enough to sleep.