As my regular readers will know – are there any of you out there? – my father died late last year. I wrote about it here briefly, reflecting on his absence. That was in the very early days after his death, and I was still adjusting to the new normal. Now, I have no desire to become a professional grief merchant, or seeker after sympathy; Dad was nearly 70, and had lived a pretty good life. Even back then, though, I had one wary eye on Christmas, and how that would be without him.
I am the child of what was hilariously called in my younger days a “broken home”. My parents separated when I was very young, and this was still a matter of comment when I was a boy. That I have grown up with two very loving sets of parents and a deep sense of contentment was not always perceived from the outside by those who had matured in more conventional settings. Anyway, what all of this meant was that Christmas was a multi-centre affair, and for thirty-odd years, it was (well, it remains) a simple routine: Christmas Eve was spent with my father and stepmother, with the traditional festive fare and presents, and then I returned to my mother and stepfather for round two on the day itself. It helped that they lived only streets apart in the same town.
I am a man who likes familiarity and order. I’ve never liked change, particularly, so this unyielding routine suited me very well. But when Dad went last November, I was very conscious that Christmas 2017 would be at least in one respect wholly altered. No matter what we did, no matter how closely we cleaved to the old ways, he wouldn’t be there. We all said brave things, we all agreed we would have a great time, that we would “do him proud”. There was change, too; for the first time in ages, my stepmother’s brother would be with us (he works in Saudi Arabia), and my brother’s partner’s daughter would also be there. (I can provide a flow chart for anyone who is getting confused. Modern families, eh?)
We kept as much of the familiar as we could. The long table was laid with intricate care, the best crockery and cutlery were laid out, and everything was very traditional. There were nine of us squeezed around it – squeezed is unfair, actually – and the baby (my brother’s) in the corner, and we had a lovely and sumptuous evening with the best food and drink you could hope for. We all overindulged, but that’s what Christmas is for, surely. If there is an afterlife – and I’m pretty sure there isn’t – then I would like to think that my father would have looked down from it and have approved.
But his absence was thunderous. He wasn’t a voluble man. Quite the opposite, actually: softly-spoken, rather shy by temperament, not easy to get to know. My stepmother is the social dynamo, always on the go, warm, friendly, chatty. It was always she who had to be dragged from the steaming kitchen to come and eat her food rather than fussing over the rest of us. Dad was the quiet presence in the corner, installed at his usual place and trying to stay out of the way.
There were exceptions. When the cocktail hour came around, he was your man, even if he wasn’t at his best. He’d heave himself out of his seat and head for the freezer for the gin and vodka – very dry martinis for him and me, a vesper for my stepmother – and would return with the fruits of his labour. Towards the end, he’d return slowly (one of the side effects of his particular form of cancer was osteoporosis and his back was bad, as was his broken right femur), but that was his area of expertise.
He was always more of a listener than a talker. At big gatherings like Christmas, he absorbed, and made the occasional contribution, usually witty. Sometimes he would tell a story, more often than not at someone else’s prompting, but he wasn’t the centre of attention. I suppose for all of these reasons I had thought that we would get through Christmas all right. We’d miss him, of course, of course, and it would be tremendously sad that he wasn’t there, but we’d get through.
In a sense, we did. We had a very enjoyable evening, observed the usual traditions, and welcomed new members of the clan (my brother’s fiancée and daughter and my sister’s boyfriend). We didn’t stint ourselves. As Christmas demands, we overate and overdrank. We smiled and laughed and celebrated, and, on my part at least, we didn’t cry.
Perhaps that was the mistake. Perhaps we tried too hard. The old man wasn’t there, and never will be again. And if the realisation was delayed, God, it was savage. I went into a decline which lasted at least a week and from which I’m not fully recovered. It’s difficult to pinpoint the pain of absence. If I cut myself, I can say, Ow, that hurts, and that’s where it hurts. But if it’s a case of, Ow, that hurts, because something isn’t there any more, then I think it’s more nebulous.
As I said at the beginning, I don’t want to become a professional grief merchant, nor do I claim any special sympathy. Parents die, and that is the order of things. It must heap Pelion on Ossa in terms of grief for the order to be reversed: to bury a child must be grief unbound. I have friends who have been through that and it must be a daily struggle just to get out of bed. I don’t have children, nor do I want any, but I am fairly sure I don’t have that strength of character.
I’m lucky, too. My father’s death was swift and peaceful. It could have been squalid and painful, and that would have been so much worse. Cancer is pitiless, a demonstration, surely, of why there is no God. Parenthesis: Stephen Fry was asked by Gay Byrne what he would say if he died and discovered there was a God. He replied he’d treat him with contempt and say “Bone cancer in children: what’s that about?” Anyway, my father went quietly into that gentle night, and we were with him as he bowed out. It was the first death I have witnessed.
What am I trying to say? Everything, I suppose, and nothing. Dad, we missed you at Christmas. We always will. To any of you who have been bereaved recently, I would just say: there is no ‘ordinary’ way to react. It’s hard, damned hard, and life is like that. If it gets easier, I’ll let you know.