The Long Goodbye

‘Closure’; a much abused and overused word in these days of celebrity mag confessionals and all-too-public grief.  Even so, if the cap fits, I guess even an old curmudgeon like me has to wear it and closure was what my Dad’s funeral was supposed to bring me yesterday.  I’m not sure when this was supposed to happen or whether I was supposed to hear a thunderous cosmic slam as the portals of my Dad’s life closed for a final time, but whatever the case it didn’t happen.

I’m able to believe that for those more peripherally involved,  yesterday was a perfect opportunity to say goodbye to an old friend and I’m happy for that to be the case.  For myself, though, I am still faced with a house full of memories and photos and junk that will have to be cleared once Christmas and New Year are over and done with.  Whether or not I am able to put it all behind me once that is done remains to be seen.  Maybe my closure will come when I have cleared the house and walk away from it for the last time. Or not, as the case may be.

Saying goodbye to my Dad is proving to be an elastic process.  In most respects, I was saying goodbye when I last visited him in hospital on December 1st, just an hour or so before he died, and although the subsequent shenanigans with the Coroner’s Office, the post-mortem and the ensuing tests on tissue samples were irritating, they caused me stress mainly because I was starting to think that I wouldn’t be able to get my Dad buried before Christmas rather than due to any squeamishness about them carving lumps from his internal organs to try to ascertain what actually killed him in the end.

I wrote here last time about him dying of old age; his body just giving up on him after 87 years of reasonably faithful service.  Unsurprisingly, the post-mortem tests revealed a plethora of ailments that could have or did kill him – hypertensive heart disease, ischaemic colitis and so on, but by sheer chance, when I returned to the hospital where Dad died to collect his belongings, I ran into the very Doctor who had refused to sign off on cause of death, triggering the whole post-mortem farrago.  He had the good grace to shake my hand and express  his sympathies, so I quickly reconsidered my initial instinct which was to offer him a sarcastic ‘thank you’ for all the ludicrous delays I was now contending with.  I asked him if he knew of the post-mortem test results and he didn’t, so I told him.

When I mentioned the colitis, he nodded his head rapidly and expressed the view that this was what had probably killed Dad.  Ischaemic colitis is a condition that arises when the heart is not getting enough blood to the bowel and the whole colon essentially starts to disintegrate. This, he said, would also explain the chronic diarrhoea that plagued my Dad for the last 4 months of his life.

Well, gee Doc, glad that your curiosity has been satisfied and don’t worry about holding the whole process up for a week.  Oh well….

In the end, because of all the delays, there was something of an unseemly scramble to get my Dad buried before everyone disappeared into a blizzard of tinsel & turkey.  After problems with the medics and the  bureaucrats, it was time for problems with the parish priest.  This elderly gentleman is almost a stereotype of the  old-school, high church, aloof and slightly batty Church of England vicar.  Local rumours of ‘problems with the Diocese’ seem to indicate that he has been banished to this remote corner of Northamptonshire just to keep him out of the way.  Whether that’s the case or not, he presides over churches in two adjacent villages and nothing happens in those churches without his say-so.  In any case, my Dad had been on the Church Committee with Father W. (he’s very ‘high church’ and  likes to be called ‘Father’) and wouldn’t have wanted anyone else to conduct his funeral.

I have a bit of ‘previous’ with Father W.  He conducted my Mother’s funeral some 7 years ago and outraged me (though not my Dad) by treating it as an opportunity to deliver an extended commercial for the Church of England.  That day, his opening remark was ‘We are gathered here today to celebrate the life of Jesus Christ’ – guaranteed to raise my hackles – and it sort of meandered downhill from there.  I was torn between grief and anger and though I had ‘kept things together’ up until that point, I just broke down in floods of angry tears in the churchyard as my Mum’s coffin was lowered into the ground.  Of course, I understood even through my anger that Father W’s problem was that he didn’t know my Mother at all.    My parents had been commuters who worked in a neighbouring town and only spent weekends in the village. What’s more, they were off caravanning as soon as holiday time came around – and even more so once they retired.  More significantly still, they were not churchgoers,  so Father W. was always going to struggle to  say anything of consequence about my Mum or her life. Even so, all the dreary cant and endless invocations of various parts of the Holy Trinity just left me suffused with a cold rage and the whole thing just felt impersonal in the extreme.

Anyway, once my Mum died, Dad became much more involved with village life and especially with the Church.  His time serving on the Committee meant that he’d got to know Father W. pretty well, so I was more optimistic that we might get some personal reflections in amongst the usual ecclesiastical waffle.

However in order for any kind of service to take place, the funeral directors had to get hold of Father W. and this was easier said than done.  This is a man who is renowned for not answering his phone unless he’s so inclined, doesn’t have an answerphone and doesn’t use a mobile.  It took the funeral directors nearly 36 hours to track him down, but I have to say that when I finally did get to discuss the details of the service with him, he was sweetness and light personified.  Couldn’t have been more helpful and clearly had a warm regard for my Dad, so I approached the day of the funeral with a little less trepidation than had originally been the case.

My Dad organised my Mum’s funeral, so I’ve never been so intimately involved in the process before.  I spent the night beforehand alone at my Dad’s bungalow, partly to get a head start on any urgent administrative issues  that I would need to deal with before Christmas and partly to be on hand in case anyone rang about the funeral.  During Dad’s final illness, I spent quite a lot of time on my own in the house and I have to say I found it a very spooky experience.  Not spooky as in ghosts, just uncomfortable and too solitary for the way I was feeling.  It’s never been a house for which I had any particular fondness – I didn’t grow up there and was living in Copenhagen when my parents moved to the village in 1976.  The house is an anodyne 1970’s bungalow with small rooms, thin walls and woeful decor that my folks somehow never got around to changing.  This was a sign of their use of it more or less as a ‘pied-à-terre’  – somewhere they could just dump the accumulated detritus of their lives whilst they got on with work or with holidaying,  and it really remained that way until my Mum died in 2004. 

By that point,  Dad was too old to make any major changes, though as part of his ‘moving on’ process, he did at least have the hopelessly dilapidated kitchen replaced with one of the usual identikit modern versions.  However, for him, the kitchen was the room in which he felt least comfortable.  That had been my Mother’s domain and until she died,  I would doubt if he cooked more than a handful of meals for himself in nearly 40 years – no wonder he came to rely so completely on microwaveable ‘ready meals’ from the supermarket.

The part of the house in which my Dad felt most comfortable after Mum died wasn’t actually in the house at all, but was the garden.  Except in the dead of winter, Dad would spend hours out there every day and he loved it dearly.  I arrived in fading daylight and looked out on to a bleak and chilly landscape in which some of his gardening tools still lay out on the patio where he had left them.  The bird table and its associated feeders looked empty and forlorn – the garden itself seemed to be in mourning.  A pot on the patio had been blown over by the wind and a random impulse sent me out into the fading winter light to set it upright again.  As I did so, the phone began ringing in the house and before I could get to it, the answerphone kicked in.  I stood, transfixed, as my Dad’s familiar baritone voice echoed along the empty hallway; a proverbial ‘shivers up the spine’ moment for me.  One of my first tasks that evening was to re-record the outgoing message – I just didn’t want to hear that (literally) disembodied voice again.

Overnight storms matched my mood as winds buffeted the house throughout the night.  However, the morning of the funeral dawned cloudless and calm with a watery sun struggling to offer some warmth in the December chill.

The Partner & the Princess were travelling down from Birmingham and other friends were coming from even further afield.  Two of my closest friends flew down to Luton from Glasgow and  were the first to arrive.  Soon the house began to fill up with friends and I was kept busy making cups of tea and coffee and climbing into a suit and tie – never my attire of choice, but there was never any other option here.

Soon enough it was time to take the short stroll down to the village church.  It’s a stocky building with a square tower, built from the honey-coloured local stone and can be seen from pretty much anywhere in the village.  Various people were milling about outside including – extraordinarily – my half-Danish ex-girlfriend with whom I’d been living in Copenhagen when Mum and Dad first moved into their bungalow.  I hadn’t seen her for well over ten years and although she had mailed me to say that she was coming,  it was still slightly astonishing to see her chatting to the Princess as though they’d known one another for years.

There was a surprisingly large ‘walk-up’ attendance from the village – people who my Dad had known from Church and other social events.  I predicted an attendance of about 30 and it was instead nearly 50.  Father W. was dressed for the weather in a voluminous black cape and biretta.  We shook hands as we waited outside for the coffin to be brought into the church, then followed it in.

As the first hymn ended, I was wondering what kind of show we were going to get from Father W. and to begin with the portents were not good.  In the most reasonable and mellifluous of sing-song tones, he worked his way through what seemed like a series of interconnected prayers and homilies that appeared to make some sense to him, though I soon tuned out and waited patiently for him to finish.

In the end,  I decided that his approach was akin to the improvisations of a jazz musician;  someone like John Coltrane would carry round in his head a repertoire of stock riffs and phrases that he would mix up and weave together into apparently seamless solos and it occurred to me that Father W. was essentially doing the same thing.  Here he was with his soft, gentle voice and his  cut-glass accent, spinning together random sections of  comforting doggerel into what he obviously hoped would be  a message of faith and hope and salvation via Mother Church.

Eventually, he finished and gave an offhand introduction to ‘ a member of the family.’  The  Partner got up to read the Eulogy that I had written to deliver myself until I was persuaded otherwise by a number of people.  They were right because I’m fairly sure that I would have been unable to get through it without breaking down.  The Partner did a magnificent job, telling the story of a few select episodes from my Dad’s life; there was a little sadness, a little humour and a lot of pride for a life well lived. 

The Partner sat down – no applause; it’s too traditional a church for that – and we waited.  Father W. had retreated to a seat near the choir-stalls and though we couldn’t see his face, there was the unmistakable feeling around the church that the old bugger had dropped off.  The Princess wasn’t about to wait, so she got up and launched into a Victor Hugo poem, which is essentially an extended metaphor about watching a ship recede from the shoreline towards the horizon, before finally making the point that on another shoreline, someone else is watching it arrive.  Simple, but effective and she read it very clearly in a strong enough voice to guarantee that Father W. would be woken from his nap.

As indeed he was.  Thankfully, at this point, he launched into some warm and seemingly heartfelt comments about my Dad that seemed to reflect the person we had all known.  After that, it was more holy-rolling extemporisation from him, a New Testament reading that passed me by completely and a second hymn, then the organist struck  up ‘Nimrod‘ from Elgar’s ‘Enigma Variations’, which was the music to which my parents left the church at their wedding back in 1948 and to which my Dad left it now. 

Quite a few of the village folks left at this point, but there were still about 30 at the graveside for the interment.   This is the point at which I lost it at my Mum’s funeral and pretty much the same thing happened here.  What I realised is that I am fine until I see someone else breaking up and then I can’t hold back the tears.  This time it didn’t happen until the coffin was in the grave and people were scattering dried rose petals on top of the coffin.  My friend Jenifer came walking towards me and I could see her face crumpling into tears as she got to me.  Before we knew it, we were hanging on to each other for dear life and the tears were flowing. 

Holcot Church – journey’s end for both of my parents.

Afterwards, everyone convened at ‘The George’, an old coaching inn in the nearby village of Brixworth – well, I say ‘everyone’, but Father W. never showed and there were hardly any of the villagers there either.   They’d been at the church for my Dad but really had no interest in the incoming mob from ‘furren parts’ , so didn’t show up at the pub, which is actually fair enough as far as I’m concerned.  The rest of us – Birmingham friends, Glasgow friends,  the partner’s relatives, my old school friend John who now lives in Shropshire and my ex-flame from Copenhagen – made the best of things on a freezing day and as is often the case, the mood was cheery – and the home-made Leek & Potato Soup was terrific.

As for closure….we went back to the house after the ‘reception’ and Jenifer remarked on how full of memories and photos and a lifetime of accumulated ‘stuff’ the house is.  My Dad’s presence fairly screams from the walls. 

So, no closure yet and not for a good while I suspect.  For now, because I face an immense task in sorting and clearing the house and dealing with Dad’s affairs, I decided that in order to have any kind of Christmas at all, the best thing to do was simply to shut everything non-essential down and lock up the house until the New Year.  As I’ve said here previously, my feeling is that there will be precious little of the accumulated stuff of my parents’  lives that I will take away with me, but who knows what I will find once I start delving?  I plan to clear the house over an extended period – for one thing I haven’t yet decided whether to sell or rent it – and I want to do it in a considered fashion, rather than treat it as an exercise in clearance on an industrial scale.

When I finally walk away, that will be all that I take into the future for the benefit of any grandchildren I may yet have and for their descendants.  At that point, there just might be some closure, but I suspect that there will be none until then.

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4 responses to “The Long Goodbye

  1. Richard Strelitz

    Hi Andy,
    Another heartfelt yet heart wrenching piece. After reading your previous blog it struck me that while we had professionals to help with weddings and help with births, there are no professionals to assist in this most disruptive passage. Not a lawyer to help settle the estate, but someone to guide you through the travails and barriers you’ve so astutely , acutely described. When I mentioned this to a friend, they remarked that getting through the process helped provide focus amidst the gathering chaos. I’m not sure I agree; I wish that this line of speculation were entirely academics.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts

  2. Thanks again for your insights, Richard. I think it’s difficult to ‘counsel’ people because every person’s experience of this time is different. Other people have siblings to help them through the whole process, but as can happen, that in itself can become an extra source of stress and conflict, particularly where money or property is involved. After the funeral, my ex-girlfriend was telling me that her estranged half-sister had contested their father’s will because she had only been left a small bequest when compared to the ex- and her brother. At least I don’t have any of that stuff to contend with, but whilst that’s a major bonus on one level, my status as ‘last man standing’ – as mentioned in the piece – means that the buck starts and stops with me alone. I’m sure that there will be squalls ahead, but at the minute I’m trying to view it as a challenge that will probably kill off what’s left of my Peter Pan tendencies to avoid responsibilities wherever possible! Doing as good a job as I can will probably be part of my grieving process – a way of saying both ‘Thank you’ and ‘Goodbye’ to my folks. One of the most striking aspects of all of this is how alone and exposed I feel, despite heartfelt support from my nearest & dearest and from friends. We are not a big family, nor a close one; neither my Dad’s brother or sister were at the funeral (one estranged, the other disappeared to live in Australia 30-something years ago and has scarcely been heard from since)and, to all intents and purposes there’s now only the Princess and myself left. As with the period of my Dad’s illness, I’m finding that lifting one’s eyes to the horizon is often counter-productive – you just get overwhelmed by the immensity of the task that lies ahead. Better under the circumstances to just keep your head down and live your life day-to-day. Eventually, everything will get done and I will be able to get on with the rest of my life. Fingers crossed that I’m right about that much anyway. Once again, I do appreciate your thoughts – thanks again.

  3. Andy – I’m sorry to hear of your father’s death. Best wishes, Dominic

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