In the first week of August, 2011, my father died after a long illness. He’d just made 93 when he was declared out. We hadn’t seen each other in a long time; my mother acted as ‘gatekeeper’ to that relationship and to describe her as a difficult person is polite. Once he’d died, she made short work of disappearing him physically. She removed him almost without trace; if you’d wanted to believe he hadn’t existed, you’d not have had to try too hard.
Just under a fortnight later, Dad was cremated with minimal notice and no service. I knew where he’d gone, but not where I was, and still have no words to describe my feelings. How to cope? I carried on working and, in fact, worked harder. I took on a six-day week. Insomnia invaded my nights, precious sleep interrupted by vivid dreams of my father. Frequently I saw him standing, holding a little boy with black hair and pale skin in his arms; both of them looking quite calmly at me, sometimes smiling.
So, my sleep was valuable, and Sunday mornings were my only chance to lie-in. Two days after my father’s unceremonious cremation, a Sunday morning, I was furious to be woken up before 7 a.m. by shouting. Of course, becoming furious made going back to sleep impossible. I climbed out of bed and, unable to see what was happening from my window, pulled on a jacket and went down to the garden. The noise was coming from a neighbor’s house, the voice was almost incoherent, the only intelligible word being ‘Help!’ I climbed on the garden bench, but could see nothing over the fence.
I ran round to the house and knocked on the door. The elderly husband answered in a confused state, I’d woken him up. His wife was calling, she’d fallen and couldn’t get up. She sounded as though she’d had a stroke, I called an ambulance and talked to her while her husband got dressed. The paramedics were with us in under five minutes and were fantastic. We watched while they worked tirelessly. Even while she slipped into unconsciousness, they spoke to her and treated her with the utmost dignity. Yet she drifted away, and we all saw her letting go. She was pronounced dead in hospital.
The husband came round to thank me. He sent flowers and chocolates. I was for a while the talk of the street, but I knew nothing of this. I’d had enough. I’d taken off, travelling light. With a sigh of relief (no-one wants to deal with a bereaved colleague) my boss had signed me off work on the compassionate leave I’d not asked for my father’s death. A good friend told me I was meant to see Irene out; it did feel right and it did go some way to helping me see Dad out, too.