“…she went on all the same, shedding gallons of tears, until there was a large pool all round her, about four inches deep and reaching half down the hall.”
Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Nothing has happened. No one is ill or hurt. No one I love or care about has died recently. Life is comfortably mundane. And that’s OK. This first blog post of two this week has come about partly because some friends and colleagues have recently lost people they love, and partly because it’s my birthday this weekend, so the persistent dull ache of having lost both my parents twinges in the pit of my stomach just that bit more sharply. I never expected to be an orphan in my thirties. Funny word that: orphan. I’d associated it with musicals and Dickens and 80s epic cartoon series, but not with me. And then, a few months after my Mum had died, it hit me with a world-trembling hammer-blow: I was an orphan, and there was nothing I could do about it.
I dislike not being able to ‘fix’. When things are wrong – let me make it better. I like challenges to solve. At work, while I am comfortable with being uncomfortable and not having all the answers, I like to have a number of different plans in mind. I’m good at planning, and I pride myself in efficient execution of plans, too. But this was not the case when Mum died. I had no solution, no answer. I did, though, have ‘things to do’ when Dad died, as Mum was battling Parkinson’s disease, so my sister and I ploughed everything into caring for Mum, and sorting tablets and consultant appointments and bed sheets and painting classes for older people because – come on Mum! – get back into doing stuff! I see now that this was all kinds of stupid. But grief can make you stupid and inspired and empty and busy and lonely all at the same time.
Dad died of liver cancer. His consultant said it was huge tumour growing like a satsuma on his liver. I found the image comforting, almost. The idea of something growing in Dad, fertile but deadly, gave me strange solace. Dad also had emphysema, and this was getting frighteningly worse. So bad that on some days he clawed frantically at his neck for breath, and it was on days like these that he was admitted to hospital. Grief mangles time, so memories and moments become like shards of glass; glistening and beautiful, painful and fragile, and dazzling. I remember a bleak day in 2010 when Dad went into respiratory arrest, and my sister and I stood motionless, suspended in time and desperation and love, with the doctors and nurses like worker bees around us: fixing, nourishing, saving. Incredibly, they did save Dad, so close as he was to leaving and never returning. And Dad’s cross to bear from thereon was knowing he was going to die, and soon, but he now had a choice of two: emphysema or liver cancer. Because on the x-ray they took as Dad clawed and grasped and tore at his chest for breath, they saw a massive shadow at the bottom of his lungs. It turned out it wasn’t on his lungs – they were already ravaged – but on his liver. There, nestled as snug as a bug, was the tumour that would kill him.
Dad raged on for another two years. And I do mean that: Dad lived as best he could and did so with terrific intensity. He did, absolutely, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” In the last two years of his life Dad was a glorious mix of belligerent fury and gay abandon: railing against the unfairness of it all, and the next round of oral chemotherapy, and the cheek of the postman not to deliver his newly-bought smoothie-maker on time, and the bloke down the corridor in their home who kept irritatingly parking his scooter in Dad’s spot, and “Do you think I should try jeans, Claire?”. This was when I knew Dad really was aware of death’s encroaching shadow: he was trying new things. He just wasn’t a jeans and smoothies kinda guy. And, God love my Dad: he did buy those jeans, and ironed them down the middle like his chinos. Old habits die hard.
In April 2012, when Dad was being eaten from the inside out by the satsuma-tumour, and drowning on the inside from his emphysema, and having fought what would turn out to be his last battle with pneumonia too, I knew he was returning home from hospital to die. Dad was a short and slight man anyway (a nippy scrum half in his day), but was now a man who’d become a tiny membraned bag of bones and phlegm and wheeze and determination. A man who was looking death in the face, and had done so a number of times before April 2012, and had stuck two fingers up at it with a swear and a flourish. So, on that weird watercoloured spring morning in 2012, Dad decided that enough was enough, and, well, gave up. I don’t remember much, but I remember the clutch of knowing death had arrived – and had been and gone, and the sharp sting of tears, and us rushing over to Mum and Dad’s home. Mum was majestically calm in her grief: poised, accepting, smoothing our hair and wiping away our tears. I remember glimpsing Dad through the door, dead on the bed, strangely contorted over on one side and his head pulled back. He reminded me of the Tollund Man; he didn’t look like Dad. I didn’t go inside the bedroom. I wanted to remember him as he was. It was a decision I didn’t expect to have to make. I thought, somehow, that death was all white sheets and white pillows and calm acceptance and smooth, serene, dead faces. In stark contrast, Dad, from what I could see, did not go gentle into that good night. And I loved him all the more for it.
But I didn’t, and don’t think I ever will, come to terms with or ‘accept’ Dad’s death. I don’t see why I should. I’m pointlessly bloody furious it happened, to be honest, and I’m angry that my sister and I don’t have parents any more. This is all exhaustingly futile, because it did happen and Mum, too, died three years later. And they left a gap I don’t want filled, because it is a gap hewn by their love.