Dear Readers, how are we all doing? What a bittersweet week it has been for me: I got out more than most, all the way to Dorset and to the nursing home where my dear old Dad died on Tuesday, but mostly it’s been four walls. It has been day after day of perfect spring weather here in London, and so we have been going out for an early morning walk to the cemetery every day. I can see this too being curtailed at some point in the near future, as people seem to be unable to resist gathering and meeting their friends, but for the moment it’s a sanity-saver. There’s something about walking (and writing) that helps to ‘right’ things: there’s a lot of evidence that it re-wires our brains, and mine could certainly do with some help at the moment.
I have been getting on with the practical things that have to be done after a bereavement. The cremation will be, of necessity, a very low-key event: just immediate family, which means me, my brother and our respective partners. Social distancing is going to be observed, which means I can’t even hug my brother, or get a lift to the station, as we come from separate households. Sad but necessary, and I know how incredibly lucky I’ve been, when you think that lots of people are saying goodbye to their loved ones via I Pads. The cremation is going to be webcast, which makes for a very strange situation – I will watch with interest to see how it affects the whole thing. The vicar who gave the service for Mum is able to conduct the ceremony, and as I love her this is a great thing. And how I’m looking forward to being able to see Dad off properly, when all this is over and things get back to whatever we decide is normal.
It’s hard telling people that Dad has gone too, but I have had great solace from what people have said. Dad retreated in his mind to the days when he was a boy, and his cousin Derek was his substitute brother – he often mistook my brother for him. When I chatted to the real Derek, he sounded so like Dad that I choked up. There is a certain East End accent that is disappearing from the world, and the world will be worse off without it. I once stayed on a bus past my stop because the lady in front was talking to her friend in exactly the same way as Mum talked, the same accent and the same cadence.
And I have been thinking a lot about Dad’s passing on Tuesday, how it seemed to be such a struggle, and yet was then so utterly peaceful. Death is a mystery, and nothing in my life has felt so profound. I was moved to tears by this blog by Radical Honey, who is a blessing at the best and worst of times. I too felt that Dad was intensely in dialogue with something beyond my comprehension during his last days, and that when he died it was because he’d made some kind of peace. With Mum it was even more explicit: she told me, several days before she died, that ‘someone is helping me’, although she wasn’t sure who. With both of my parents, I felt that death seemed like hard work, but that my role was as a witness: they had moved beyond earthly concerns, and were engaged with something else. May that give those of us who aren’t able to be at our loved ones’ bedsides in their final hours some solace.
And in another not-so-profound statement, I have decided to let my hair go grey. Partly it’s because at the moment I have no choice, but also because I want to mark all these rites of passage physically – Mum and Dad’s death, my sixtieth birthday. I feel an urge to move into elderhood, to accept the changes that are happening rather than cover them up. In this time of strangeness I feel a sense of letting go: what really is important? And how can I express myself fully?
I wonder what the new normal will be? It would be wonderful to think that some good things will have come out of this: new networks of community, new respect for the nurses and doctors, the bin men, the teachers, the supermarket workers, the postmen who have gone about their business in spite of personal risk, a new resilience which tells us that we didn’t need a lot of the things that we thought we did. I suspect that all of us will be touched by the tragedy of this situation, and that the meaning that we make of it will determine how our society functions going forward. Will we look after one another, or will we fall to blaming others? Will we hold our government to account? We live in interesting times, and I suspect that future generations will judge us on how we manage this crisis, and how we apply what we learn to the bigger challenge of climate change. Let’s see how it all comes out.
And on Tuesday I have some of the cutest photos I’ve ever seen, when we go back to Borneo to suss out the macaques. Stay tuned….