Dear Readers, on Wednesday it will be a year since my father died ,and as those of you who have been through a bereavement know, the ‘firsts’ are hard. The first Father’s Day, the first birthday, the first Christmas are all filled with memories of the person who isn’t there any more. Sometimes I sit in my living room and look at the space in the bay window where Dad used to lay in his reclining chair, and I can almost hear him snoring away gently. Or I remember him tapping along to the radio, or noticing some bird on the cherry tree, just visible through the French doors. At these times I feel that he is there, just outside my peripheral vision, and if I turn around fast enough I’ll catch a glimpse of him. But at other times it’s clear to me that he is absolutely gone in any meaningful way, and so is Mum.
I had a dream where the two of them were tottering along the garden path towards the car, and I was watching them from the house. They were bickering as usual – Dad wanted to hold Mum’s hand because she was unsteady on her feet, but she thought that Dad would fall over too if she tripped and he was holding her. But then Dad snatched her hand anyway, and they headed remorselessly away from me. I so wanted them to turn and wave but they were very focused on where they were going. The dream flavoured the whole of my day. At the age of 60 I felt as abandoned as a small child lost in a supermarket.
All around me people are wiping the dust off their garden tables and sorting out their wineglasses in preparation for the first step out of lockdown tomorrow. It’s going to be glorious weather, and I expect my neighbours will be having a whole gaggle of garden-based events, meeting up with family that they haven’t been able to see properly for months. I’m pleased for them, but at the same time it just reminds me that most of my close family are dead. Lockdown has been a kind of protection because everything has been so strange. When Mum died I couldn’t somehow believe that people were going about their lives, laughing and joking and worrying about trivialities. I am reminded of the famous Auden poem about stopping the clocks because someone has died. But then, I too have been that person, laughing and joking and worrying about trivialities, and indeed a lot of the time I still am. Perhaps part of the wonderful thing about life is that it drags you on, even when you don’t want to go.
Someone compared grief to a bookshelf. In the beginning, the only book is the one about sorrow. That book is always there, but gradually other books appear, about different subjects, until life fills out again, and we can go moments, then hours, then maybe even days without thinking about the person who is gone. But this I have learned: losing someone that you love, however old they were, however predictable the event was, is like having a door slam shut behind you. You can never be the person that you were before, because now you know, in your bones, that nothing is forever. Death is no longer some abstract notion, but a bitter fact that you are going to have to learn to live with and incorporate into your daily life.
The nature of grief changes though, and that is a blessing. I find myself thinking about how mischievous Dad was, how determined to get his own way. I remember that he loved to make people laugh, how kind and gentlemanly he was towards women, how he hated a direct fight but was a master of the sneaky move. I find myself remembering all the times that we’d sit in the living room watching Countdown, pretending not to be competitive. Even after his dementia, Dad was always the one who could win at a quiz. In short, he is coming back to me, and he’s coming back whole, all of him, with a big grin on his face.
When Dad’s dementia took hold, it was clear that he had become a master of paradox. He could believe that his parents were coming to visit him at Christmas, even though they had been dead for years. He could believe simultaneously that Mum was dead, that she was living somewhere else and wasn’t speaking to him because he’d upset her, and that he wasn’t old enough to be married. And it isn’t so different for me. I know that Dad is utterly, absolutely, completely gone, never to return, and that I’ll never hold his hand again. And yet, I also sense him moving through me every time I make a decision about the garden, or put a slice of lime into a gin and tonic, or get a question right on Mastermind. He is here but not here, present but absent. I miss him more than I can express, but I am having trouble remembering his face.
I will never ‘get over it’, and yet I am moving on, regardless.