I am a creature of habit, much like my father, which is how come I was stirring a risotto when I found out he’d broken his ninety-year habit of staying alive. Some people nowadays think you can leave risotto alone, here, we do things the long way round.
My sister called. She calls a lot, with a flair for doing so when I am doing something. I didn’t pick up but she kept ringing, then the landline and then my mobile again. This is not an unusual pattern. The banalities of life, laundry for instance, burn as brightly in her mind as the big stuff – so that was what I was expecting – something like “I’ve got Mum’s towels,” but instead she said our father had died. The prior months had been so consumed by the logistics, costs and consequences of his survival that I had quite forgotten this was where it was always heading. For all the fatalism and dark humour, near misses, planning and pragmatism, it still came as a surprise.
Death was not so much the elephant in the room but the room itself was all elephant, or the room – Dad’s room in the care home – was within the elephant – you can look at it any number of ways – and getting stuck in and then rebuilding metaphors and analogies is what I do – not for fun so much as automatically. The more I write – or my brain writes — which it does even and perhaps especially when I am not at a keyboard or within reach of a pencil – the more I have come to suspect that the drive to write was formed to make sense of the world. The primary sources of such behaviours are primal fears of abandonment which in early childhood mean prolonged absence and, by extension, death of a primary caregiver. So now that has finally happened, fifty odd years on from when the notion first rattled my cage, and here I am writing about it. What do you know? I wonder about free will sometimes. Sometimes it seems like life has nothing to do with ‘us’ at all.
I went into the front room, sat with Mum and told her that her husband of sixty-five years had died – there was no easy way to frame it and she is deaf so it’s hard to be subtle but what she said was—
“I didn’t think he was that ill!”
Which — given that he had been that ill for four years, left the very room in which we sat on a stretcher and had only been visible through a window and then through masks in a medicalized institution which did a fair job of looking like budget hotel – how could you think he was anything but “that ill.” I had to laugh, but then thirty seconds earlier I was surprised too. Still, “that ill.” How ill do you want him?
At the long edge of life, at least in this house, mortality became so normalized, or maybe so hidden under the minutiae, the moment of passing is so completely outnumbered by the billion moments of its planning and avoidance and conception that we just said ‘oh, death, that thing…’ like it was something we had meant to pack only to realise we had left it elsewhere but then of course, thank God, we start to cry.
I should say that what I am talking about is a difference category of bereavement from that attending deaths premature, sudden or somehow wrong. At ninety, under these conditions – on whose behalf would one be resisting such a truth? Not Dad’s – whose last months were everything he never wanted though he made the best of it. Not mine – who had so many times had to accept my own wish that this day should come – this wish becoming a rational conclusion so frequent, so divested of its innate charge that you couldn’t call the attendant feeling or the lack thereof ‘guilty.’
We went to see for ourselves. They had laid him out nicely in the home, in his bedroom tucked into the bed he had never been able to rise from. Flowers in his hands. The night staff almost bashful, waiving the regulations. They could have made us do a flow test in the carpark as per and we would have accepted that but I am thankful that they didn’t. You don’t need fresh material for grievance while grieving. It will get in the way.
“Oh” said Mum. No way to deny what was before her. She took his dead hands in hers and said, “you did your best.” That was almost too much for me because it was true and I think an example of real, practical love and its component forgiveness and it wasn’t long before we were back in the car and I was wondering if anyone could say as much of me.
I dropped Mum at home and bought a bottle of good scotch from the shop just as they were closing since this was Dad’s favourite drink and it looked like a long night. Then I went back and heated up the risotto and despite my absence or perhaps because of it – like it too had a parent called away from home– it was fine and so perhaps would I be.