Monday, June 18, 2007

Sunshine and flowers

I stand at my father's graveside holding a gold rose. We've chosen gold and red for his funeral wreath - his favourite colours brighten the sadness of this day. Mother wants us to place a gold rose in the grave. So I am standing here, on a windswept Shropshire hillside, in the June sunshine (why are the moments of the greatest sadness of my life so sunny? It doesn't seem right somehow) waiting to say goodbye to my father.

Some moments later, I walk away from his grave, having deposited the rose. And yet, I have no memory to this day of having thrown it in. I couldn't remember the next day, even. I wonder whether it's because I am not yet ready to accept the finality of this.

You don't lose people all at once, you lose them in bits and pieces. So speaks the narrator of John Irving's fine novel, A Prayer for Owen Meany. I think that's very true.

Over the next few months I try to get used to a world without my father in it. I have been blessed with a solid happy family background. My parents are the bedrock and centre of my life. To lose my father feels as though the foundations of my world have been rocked for ever. Can I, will I, ever survive the storm?

The one thing that sustains me through the early weeks is the sure knowledge that, had my father have come round from that final heart attack, his quality of life would have been unbearable. I couldn't stand losing him, but I wouldn't have wanted him back under such circumstances.

It also felt as though it was the right time for him to go. I thought back to the conversation we had had about his heart bypass. In the end he didn't get the chance to have it, but fate rolled the dice one way, and I don't think he'd have been that unhappy with the result. He had seen us all grow safely into adulthood. Some of us were married, some of us not. A few of us had children (my only regret is he never saw mine). We were all pretty settled. I think he breathed a sigh of relief, and thought he could let go.

However we rationalise these things, though, grief is an odd and unpredictable emotion. I know he is better off. I feel glad he is no longer suffering. But the sense of loss is incalcuable. It hits me unawares, and at unexpected moments. I think I am fine, and then a great wave of sadness will overtake me, and I reel from the shock of it. Each wave seems higher and more painful then the last, and I feel battered and bruised in their aftershock.

Although I have odd moments when I cry (to my astonishment and slight frustration I find myself completely unable to cry at the funeral), I find I cannot really give into the emotion. The block of ice remains firmly wedged in my chest, and sometimes I think I am cold and heartless. I should be feeling this more. And yet, I seem to be unable too.

I go to bed at night and long to dream of him. If I can't have him in the real world, maybe he'll be waiting in the wings somewhere in my subconscious. But most nights, I awake disappointed. And on the rare occasions he strays into my sleep, I cannot see his face, or his back is turned to me.

One night, though, I dream that I am in the house where I grew up. It is dark outside, and from the top of the stairs, I can see a shadow in the door, which I know is my father. I go gladly to greet him. He flings the door open. It is not my father as he was at the end, but my father from fifteen years ago - wearing a battered old raincoat he liked to wear and a stupid hat. It's been a hideous nightmare, this misery I've been living in, my father isn't dead at all. How stupid I've been. But then before my eyes he starts to disintegrate and turns to straw. I wake up in a cold sweat. My father is gone. My psyche is playing tricks on me. All that is left is a man of straw.

The sun continues to shine throughout that summer, but I feel lost in a dark tunnel. Lost and incredibly alone. Once I go to buy flowers for a friend. I walk into the shop not thinking about my father. But all the flowers I see around me are in gold and red and yellow. I cannot breathe and walk away. I bring back blue flowers instead.

Spouse is hugely supportive, but I am unwilling to overload him with my grief. And even though I share it with my siblings my own experience of it is peculiar to me, and a burden only I can carry as they must carry theirs. I am also horribly conscious of not boring my friends with my troubles, so I eke out my confidences sparingly, telling one friend one thing, someone else another. It is only when we are on holiday some months later, that I realise, that in doing so, I've barely confided in Spouse at all. Unwittingly I've locked him out of the worst thing that's ever happened to me. I have two nights when I sob uncontrollably in his arms, but even then, I don't do so for long. What I really want to do is stand on a mountainside somewhere, completely alone and howl like an animal. Grief at its base is a primeval and raw emotion. I don't want anyone, not even Spouse, to witness me like that.

I work with people who are mainly younger then me, and just as I did all those years ago at university, I feel somewhat out of kilter with them. This is outside most of their experience, and I feel I have taken a vast step into the unknown. A book I read over and over again is Blake Morrison's When Did You Last See Your Father? He at least understands what I'm going through. And I think I agree with him that losing a parent is liking entering the grown up club. My life is now mine to take charge of. My father has left me with the tools, it is up to me to complete the job.

Around the time of my 30th birthday, Spouse and I go away for a weekend in Cornwall. It is a magical sunny weekend, and I feel like I am finally emerging from the dark. He gives me an eternity ring. I suggest tentatively we might think about having a family.

Life really does go on.

The people that go before us light our path and show us the way. My father was the best of guides, and I miss his wisdom still. He taught me to think, to stand up for myself, to fight my corner but never to put someone down, to care for and protect the people around me. He taught me the importance of poetry and books, I wouldn't be doing what I do without him. Words are my business, and his greatest legacy to me. For the longest time I couldn't see or feel his presence in my life. I felt cheated that just as I got to know him, I lost him. I wish more then anything he could see my children. I know how much he would have loved them and they him. I tell them about him constantly, so they will know him the way I know my grandmother. But more and more now I recall his wisdom, his kindness, his strong sense of fair play, and I realise that the lessons he taught me will remain with me always.

He left me far too soon, and I will never stop missing him.

But the light he left burns very bright, and guides my way still.

Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night

Dylan Thomas

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.


Dumdad said...

Another emotive, fascinating post.
A Prayer to Owen Meany is a book I enjoyed immensely (although some critics trashed it somewhat) and I shall never forget the denouement and why the basketball practice all made sense.
And now I shall have to re-read Blake Morrison's minor masterpiece! (So many blogs, books etc, so little time).
I'm re-reading H.E. Bates's A Breath of French Air and devoured half of it last night. My problem with reading is that if I've enjoyed a particular novel I want to find all the author's other books.

Jane Henry said...

Blake Morrison's book is going to be made into a film, I coincidentally read last week.

Yes there isn't enough time to read everything is there....

Marie said...

I was really moved by that. Thank you for writing it.