Grief is a funny old bedfellow. I hate it. I hate the explosive unpredictability of it. But I also wallow in its now familiar depths. It is where I feel close to my father. Where I hear his voice the clearest.
There seems to be a comfort in my grief. The rawness of the grief means he is still nearby. His presence like a shadow in the corner of the room, or a fleeting movement out the corner of my eye. If I squeeze my eyelids shut tight and think hard, I can be back in my Dad’s garden. I can picture him pottering in the garden with the kids. The warmth of the sun on my face. His voice on the breeze as he guides my girls on how best to pot the tiny, fragile shoots he’s brought on with great care in his greenhouse over the previous few weeks. Their laughter as they play with the watering can and the dirt. His constant calm words teaching them about life, nature, science…. The educator in him never resting. Never allowing an opportunity to impart wisdom to pass him by.
There is a fear, that as time passes and the grief settles inside me and becomes less tumultuous, less violent, that I won’t be able to hear his voice or picture him quite so clearly. That with every passing day, he becomes fainter. Further away.
I feel safer living in the past and in the security of him, than in a future without him.
My sister and I have spent the last week starting to clear out my parents’ home. Having put off the inevitable for as long as possible, the house went on the market and sold almost immediately. This set off a bout of insomnia and breathlessness. A panic that things are moving too fast. That I’m just not ready.
But, time trundles on, doesn’t it? It is relentless and unwavering, even for those of us who are desperate for a pause button. A moment to cherish, or forget. A chance to savour something, to feel the importance of it and its impact for just one more second.
The skip arrived just as we were leaving my dad’s house to go up to the care home to visit my mother. The man called out from his towering cab and asked us which side of the drive we wanted him to leave it.
We don’t want it! This is not a situation I could ever imagine wanting.
We smiled and obligingly told him we didn’t mind. It didn’t matter. Wherever suited him.
Our father’s geniality. Behaviour learnt and inherited.
Mum was curled up in the same position I’d left her several weeks earlier. Her eyes still firmly closed. Her wrists fused into awkward angles. Her tiny frame hardly discernible beneath her flowery duvet. I stayed for a while. Stroking her hand and her forehead. Talking about anything and everything. Then I spent a long while, lost and watching. Taking in the familiar shape of her nose, the beautiful angle of her brows, the now overly prominent cheekbones. I found it calming, being able to drink in her beauty. Her physical presence still manages to offer some degree of comfort. For a while I watched as her eyeballs seemed to roll around beneath her eyelids. Busy. Frantic. Searching. I wondered what she was looking at. What memories she was trying to find on those eyelids.
I hoped they were happy ones.
We delayed the start of the skip filling for as long as possible. And then, we tentatively began with the things we could cope with. Garden rubbish was fine. Old canes that were still tied together and used as Sweet Pea climbing frames in many summers now past, were fine. An old cot and high chair we found in the garage, were fine.
But then it started getting a bit painful. Personal. Every item seemed to spark a memory.
We gave up for a while and opened the wine.
I knew this stage would be hard. The sleepless nights in the weeks preceding the skip arrival taught me that. But, I underestimated how hard. Going through drawers, emptying bookshelves, finding the dressing gown he wore in the days before he died. Each moment and each find was agony. A jolt of shock as reality hit. And hit again. And then hit again. Each time, the wound larger and more painful than the time before. Each jolt burning the scars deeper and longer. I felt as disorientated as I did in the days immediately after his death. Like I was simply hobbling through the minutes, the hours, the days. Existing in a thick fog of shock, but also close to him. So close I felt like I could reach out and touch him. His presence tantalisingly near.
I don’t think anyone can prepare you for the clearance of a life. It’s like childbirth, people give you a gentle smile, an understanding nod. Those who have been there and come through it are careful not to cause too much distress or trepidation by sharing their own stories. Their own venture back into the dark pit and familiar warmth of raw grief. A place that seems just as dark and just as terrifying the second time round.
Having to clear out evidence of a life lived, of a person loved, means separating much-loved and cherished belongings into one of three piles:
Every time something is put in the bin or the charity pile, the guilt is almost overwhelming. The memories are vivid and can take your breath away. But it’s not the guilt, or the memories that are the worst. There was a huge comfort in spending time in their home. The walls echoing with the sound of their life lived together. Books bulging out of the bookshelves, their wardrobes full of familiar clothes. Paintings that have adorned their walls since before I was born. So familiar and so ordinary, I hardly noticed them. It felt like you were cocooned in their world. That they both existed there somehow. That they were just in the next room, just a holler away.
But seeing those walls bare, the wall hooks redundant. Seeing the skip grow and swell with broken things from their broken lives. I realised that it’s not the guilt, or the memories that hurt the most. The worst part is wielding the eraser and using large brush strokes to rub out evidence of their lives. We are removing the physical evidence of their existence. It is so final.
There is no home for him to come home to now.
As time marches on, indifferently, I will not be able to wallow in the comfort of their home. I won’t be able to bury my face into his shirts and wail uncontrollably whilst at the same time taking deep breaths to try and savour the last faint aroma of him. I will no longer be able to take a pair of my dad’s socks and smile as I put them on. Or raid my mother’s well-stocked bathroom cabinets for a new bar of soap, or a tube of Savlon.
I will have to rely on my memories and sadly, it is inevitable that my memories will fade. My father will drift further and further away from me and if I’m honest, I am terrified of losing him again.
I will have to do what I hope my mother is doing. I will have to search the back of my eyelids for him and hope to God I find him there.