Thomas Reginald Palmer (5.12.35 to 31.3.20)
Dear Readers, it is my first Father’s Day without my Dad, and as usual I have marked the occasion by falling flat on my face. I have noticed that on occasions of high stress and sadness, when I am too much ‘in my head’, my body reminds me of its existence by bringing me literally ‘down to earth’. Fortunately, apart from a scraped knee and grazed hands, nothing much is damaged apart from my dignity, but it does make me think that it is no use pretending that these days don’t hurt. Carrying on ‘as usual’ doesn’t work.
It is less than three months since Dad died, and while on the face of it things are back to normal, I look in the mirror and can see that they are not. I am anxious about the smallest, most insignificant things at work, because it’s easier than worrying about the existential crises that being an orphan have brought up. I can’t trust myself to have a conversation where I mention my loss because I never know if I’m going to be able to finish the sentence without crying. Everything reminds me of Dad, and of Mum. On my walk to take photos in East Finchley last week, I found myself in tears at the sight of a mallow shrub, one of Dad’s favourite plants. He took a seedling with him from London to Dorset back in 2002 when he and Mum moved, and apparently it, and the roses, are being well looked after by the new owners of the bungalow.
Roses surrounded with the paraphernalia of medications at Mum and Dad’s bungalow back in 2018
And at the moment, there isn’t even a grave to visit. Dad’s ashes are still on a shelf at the funeral home, waiting for his name to be added to the gravestone so that we can inter him with Mum. And although we have a September date in the diary for Dad’s memorial service, goodness only knows if it will actually happen then. Everything is in abeyance, and trying to move forward is such an effort when there is so much uncertainty.
When I think about Dad’s last few months, I wonder if on some level he knew that his time was coming to an end. At Christmas he developed the idea that his mother and father had moved into one of the flats across the way, and that they’d be joining us for the turkey and crackers. He kept springing up and looking anxiously out of the window to see if he could see them coming.
‘I never knew my Dad!’ he said, which was true: Dad’s father was killed in a tank in Tunisia in 1943, after he joined up as a commando at over 50 years of age. Dad remembered his father walking into the house and doing a cartwheel from the living room to the kitchen, and that was the only thing Dad ever told us about him.
When we sat down to eat, Dad couldn’t settle, and wanted us to wait until his parents arrived before we started on our lunch.
‘I don’t think they’re able to come, Dad’, I said at last.
Dad’s face crumpled but then he pulled himself together.
‘I’m really upset’ he said, ‘ they only live across the road’.
I made up some story about ‘Mum’ not being well enough, and that seemed to mollify him a bit. Increasingly he was ‘spending time’ with people that he’d loved and lost years before. Nonetheless, I know that he was enjoying his life, and that he wasn’t ready to die – he had friends at the home, and was always relating the various adventures that he’d had, real and imaginary. Although Dad wasn’t directly killed by Covid-19 (his test was negative), I still believe that the pandemic contributed to his death: he was hospitalised to protect the other people in the home when he developed a chest infection but, while waiting for almost four days for the results of the test, he became so agitated that he was heavily sedated, which would have exacerbated his breathing problems. I blame no one for what happened, because I’m sure that everyone was acting in the best interests of the greatest number, but my Dad became yet another statistic in the figure of ‘excess deaths’ in the UK, which currently stands at over 65,000 people.
In many ways, I have been lucky. I was able to be with Dad when he died, a privilege denied to so many people during the pandemic. He was 84, and I’d had him as my Dad for all those years. He was a good Dad to me, and I have no bad memories of him as a father. We were often allies: we would roll our eyes at one another when Mum ‘went off on one’, and we could sit in peaceable silence watching Pointless or Midsomer Murders for hours, only occasionally trying to outdo one another with the correct answer to a European Capital beginning with ‘T’, or contributing an insightful comment on some MacGuffin in the plot. But the tax we pay on love is the grief when the person is gone, and the sense of rage that somehow, maybe, it could have been otherwise. I accept that Dad is gone, and yet I don’t.
Edna St Vincent Millay probably best sums up where I am at this moment, though in half an hour I might be in a calmer, more reflective space. And when I think of all the other unnecessary deaths that this pandemic has brought, I am not resigned to that either. When all this is over, I hope that someone is held to account for the shambolic incompetence of this government, who have moved from fiasco to fiasco without the slightest sign of regret or apology. Shame on them.
I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.
Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.
The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.
Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.