He dies 10.30 their time, 4.30 mine.
My cousin calls first with a repeated “I’m so sorry,” the word sorrysorrysorrysorry the only sense she can give me. Herself. As I listen, a freight train blows its mournful horn down in the valley. A bit of blues poetry to soften the onrushing facts: There are few people in this world who love me as I am, now there is one less. This is the shape of adult life. This is how we vanish.
Somebody says “Don’t worry about the ticket,” and breaks down; somebody brings jam and croissants, standing on my doorstep like a hopeful book seller, the consoling smile. Kindness incarnate. “Thank you,” I manage, slightly embarrassed, as if nothing has happened. Friends appear with tight faces, voices strain to a slightly higher pitch. A grown man I know bursts into tears, rages briefly about the loss of his own Dad, and I console him.
The words I speak with, feel with, are lines from a script I must learn quickly. I’ve got to flesh out my character, I’ve got to watch for my cues. What nuance can I bring to this flat line, what’s my motivation, what should I project to my audience? I’m afraid of going blank. I shower, continue to brush my teeth, wonder about the elaborate nature of clothing, all those buttons, zippers, the strapping in. A miracle in polyester. I am not focused on death or endings or closure or mortal horror. Actually, a set of double-doors swings open in my chest, the gentle swirl of air carrying off the fluff and sweet wrappers. Every thing is now important, the world teems with significance.
Then I’m riding to the airport, how simple to arrange the flying chair to move me towards my Dad dead Dad. The windshield magnifying the world beyond. The trees are very tall at seventy five miles per hour. The word “terminal” appears repeatedly – first a warning, then a jokey prediction. Suddenly “Terminal Two?” emerges, a sympathetic question. “Departures?” for sure. And look there, an exit sign.
The airport reads my mind. It is built for this very trip.
Up the bland concourse, the removal of shoes, keys, change, off to the gate, a plane, another airport, a glance at my ticket number, flight details, another gate, then rocketing out over the Atlantic. I sleep awake. My eyes open though closed, watching a movie, chicken or pasta, some wine for Christ’s sake, the shampoo-sized screw-top Merlot carrying a cheery picture of autumn leaves. Potatoes and creamy spinach, the block of undecided pie, somewhere between chocolate and cocoa. There is frayed carpet on the bulkhead. The stewardess is from Singapore.
Dawn comes red over the North Sea as I descend through the thickening fog, going down into another world. Nothing to see for minutes, the flashing wing lights, the smear of wet on the plastic port. The shift in emotional pressure as I begin my readjustment. Then a field, an early car on a child-sized play road, the electric whine of lowering wheels as the pilot mumbles the ladies to secure themselves. Who can’t think about the gasoline fireball at this point, who doesn’t see the wreckage tumbling and flaming across the runway, the banks of melting seats strewn through the trees and hedge rows? All those unclaimed bags.
Through rain we bump onto Newcastle, this final leg thinned down to balding Euro-salesmen, to this designated mourner, two American men talking about dog breeding. They look like Mormon’s, evangelical types, physically overdeveloped, washed clean in their crisp, blue blazers. I look bloated, incoherent, my eyes evil and slitted. I watch my every move: this hand picks up a bag, these feet shuffle through passport control, I lean against the Arab Emirates kiosk, a pair of yawning women in stylized headgear checking their phones, booting up their day. It is late November and the cheery Christmas tree is surrounded by mylar boxes, its blue lights twinkly on the flocked, wire limbs. The high-tech mobile posters promise a world they can never deliver, all those hysterical, terrifying smiles, all that meaningful communication.
I don’t recognize my cousin when she comes up to me, her face belonging to a much older woman. Pulled out of shape by grief. A hug. A stifled sob (hers). We drive the narrow roads wrong sided until the big green signs become familiar, begin directing me home. She tells me her version of events, the details strange, objective, as if she is reciting evidence to a judge. Clear, precise, she describes watching death as a “privilege.” She talks towards meaning. Towards understanding. Towards last moments. She wants to let me know the ease of it: “no pain, no pain at all,” she says, the Ward Sister gentle – impossibly gentle – smoothing his hair, wiping the blood away, leaving the room quickly and efficiently.
I want to believe her. I must believe her. I chew some gum, watch the black trees pass, the dawn lorries rumbling to the shops. I look at her tousled hair in profile. “Yep,” is all I have.
Past churches, cenotaphs, up the bumpy, pot-holed streets, the Coach and Horses pub on the corner, through the century-old iron garden gate, the front door. Home.
“So what do you think of all this then?” she says, standing in the middle of the room.
“Put the kettle on,” I say.
The coal glows in the hearth, all very cozy as we drink our English tea. And Dad isn’t there. He never will be again. I half-expect to hear his creak through the bedroom floor, his whistle as he swings through the back door. But nothing. Of course. Except for the clank of the garden gate, the postman trudging up the path with his morning delivery, the familiar bills now tempered by the cream squares of condolence. Mum shows me his day-planner for the next year, May 12th clearly marked with “Goodbye to all that!” His retirement day after fifty years of work. Never reached.
Mum tells me her story, the images jumbled. He is taken away one Friday night, admitted to Ward 13, gowned, given morphine, the beginning of tests and bloodwork. Initial diagnosis: gallstones. By Tuesday they are sitting together in a room with a stranger in a white coat, scanning six pictures of Dad’s insides. In his experience it is –
Dad is dead by Wednesday morning. 10.30 theirs, 4.30 mine.
He dies so quickly it is impossible to believe. She has no trouble visiting him in hospital, the diligent wife supportive in her shock, groping for its significance, all those conversations about DNR’s and wills no longer a game.
“What were you thinking?” I say.
“Why. . . . Nothing, really. I don’t know.”
I believe her. There is no sense to it: a life process stops and there isn’t a single word or idea that can prevent it or make it something else. Dad’s body beyond his will, doing its own business, all those cells in silent malfunction. A universe inside, one outside, a vast, living skin with only the glimmer of human mind to barely recognize it. This woman bouncing out to the cancer ward on the bus, her face in the window knowing itself, the shops and cars scrawled over it in neat montage. That same face, in the kitchen window, later, blinking. A world transformed.
Talking, she slots together the scenes, a koan, a rosary, something to help her think. A single image of remarkable, unforgettable horror: at some stage Dad is wearing an oxygen mask, probably the last morning. Beneath it his labored breathing, his body struggling against the tubes in three sharp gulps, huffhuffhuff, she mimes. Relaxing. Three more drowning gasps. She has never seen anything like this before.
“Poor fellah,” she says. “His bones, you know? Saw bones I hadn’t seen in years.” The collar. The elbows. The flesh slack on his arms. She laughs, “And you know your Dad. He hadn’t shaved in days, he looked like Desperate Dan! His hair stuck up all stupid.” She stops suddenly.
She holds his hand and tells him stories of their life together, their shared world, and though numbed by morphine he squeezes her hand, a mute “go on, go on,” helped by the murmur of her voice, their history unspooling, until that point where he opens his eyes for the last time to fill the moment with her.
Then blood rushes into the mask.
Only a dribble according to my cousin, who is also there. But too much for Mum, who’d never seen anything pouring out of her husband. The head nurse arrives, quickly wipes it away, smoothes his hair to one side and leaves the room. And there is his death.
They say ta-ra, calling me six hours back in time listening to a freight train.
These things happened.
These things happen again in Mum’s ordering story. A woman, coming into the room of words, picking out the sounds that best suit the vision in her mind. The afternoon stretches on, gray, the same story as the hours refuse to register.
Mum wants limited visiting, close family, possibly friends, though she doesn’t really know or care by this point. She needs the whole thing sorted and finished. But I know Mum has reserved the body for me. A last look. We spend the gray day drinking tea, chuckling over the easy memories. Then we put on our shoes, take an umbrella, and off we go through the warren of streets, those stone-built houses crushed tight, soot-blacked, one hundred and twenty years old with their nice, new PVC windows. I feel nothing but hatred for all this vile England.
Anne, the funeral director, meets us briskly at the “Chapel of Rest.” She is solemn but jolly, her feet squashed into square-toed shoes. She looks like a farmer’s wife. With a Union Jack waistcoat she could be John Bull. She is swollen with life, picking up the slack, sorting out the D-certificate (as she calls it), hospital releases, the necessary export papers for human “cremains.” The bi-products of medical living.
Inside it’s freezing cold, a damp carpet on the floor, a corner lamp. It feels like a lock-up garage, like a workshop – which it is. All glowing orange because of the fake stained glass, a plastic sheet pressed over the window. A coffin on a trestle. The coffin. A pine box, much narrower than I expected. Anne pops off the lid, leans it against the wall, hovers a bit. I wish she would clear out. Mum peers into the coffin, sobs “Bye Pete,” and breaks. Anne takes her next door.
I’d seen the body when the lid came off.
It is covered by white, ruffly satin, like an oversized sheet, something a choir boy would wear. I sense he is probably naked underneath. Only the face pokes out of that bag. My Dad’s face. His approximation. It seems spilled, the skin tight in the wrong places, spreading in strange ways, like it has melted then reset. It must be tough reshaping a face you don’t know. His original, bent nose is now straight, Roman-hooked, the skin around it yanked down. Under the trimmed mustache, the top lip pulls back to reveal his front teeth. He looks apprehensive, uncertain, biting his lip before making a jump. The skin is sunken around the eyes and they nestle in their sockets.
I don’t touch him. I can’t. I dread the coldness of that pale, dough skin. There is panic skittering towards me, I can’t believe what I am seeing, though I can, and suddenly cornered I want to shout out. Is he there? Is he watching me looking at him, waiting for me to say something? To sum us up? Is he judging me?
“So you’re finally gone, mate? Look what they’ve done to you, eh? You’re different now for sure, eh?” I want to laugh, crack a joke about how farcical this all is. But there is nothing to share it with. I stay a little longer, feel a howl coming on. But I am overcome by silence, the stiffness. By the dummy in the box. Nothing reverent here, nothing hallowed. This is not the picture in my head. But there he is. My Dad. All alone in the corner of a room.
At Anne’s house Mum is pulled together. We step out into the rain, share the umbrella across the market place, and there, on a shop wall, I notice a broken drainpipe gurgling away. It is cast-iron, certainly Victorian, bolted to the rough sandstone, it’s end cracked off long ago. The rainwater pours down the wall, the stone deep green, mossy, like the bottom of a forest stream. A large, happy fern grows out of the wall. Naturally. I nudge Mum. “Well, there it is.” She does not speak.
I leave her at home, go out aimless though not, guided by the cuddle of my big, warm past, sucking in the sounds of the corner shop, the cricket green, Hutchy’s back gate, Bella’s yard, down to the bottom of Milburn bank where the snowdrifts ran, good sledging. Decades ago. What is this? My growing-up architecture? My explainer?
I trudge the old railway line, alone, the fields held tight by their fences, criss-crossed by roads, every way I turn somehow closed off. The clouds hang odd and heavy, like cannon balls, the afternoon light slipping into lead. I can’t find a place to cry though the tears come a little. A sudden choke, “Dad,” slips past my lips.
There’s a pub where we should’ve had that pint.
There’s a field where we could’ve kicked a ball for longer than we did.
There’s the wood I chose to wander, lonely, with a Penguin Wordsworth in my pocket.
My grand epiphany. Without profundity. Just a burning in my throat, and the nagging sense I should get out of the rain. Stupid bugger.
A bus goes down the road, red, double decked, swaying gently, the inside well lit and warm.
When I hear Dad is in the hospital I start a eulogy. Dramatic terms, teary upturned faces, glistening eyes, my words a balm. I want Horation ode, I want Brando’s Mark Antony, I want to charm the tribe. I stop immediately because it’s a shocking betrayal. But now. . . .
Now there is expectation. I have to be impressive. I’m the only-son, the only child, on loan from America, I have to pull off the grand finale. The other show-stopper. What’s up my eulogy sleeve? Surely not the banal phrase shot across the box, dearly beloved etcetera? This must fill a gap and leave the crowd satisfied. This must be a vital performance. A worthy entertainment.
Guilt, of course. I can’t help that. I’m using death as an ego salve, a chance to strut and brag. It is horrible. But not wrong. In fact, it is all quite right. This is the son speaking for the father, one man bidding farewell to another, the other, that great shadowy persona who leaves a breath mark on it all. Okay then.
Just a word or two.
In the late-night moments, when the only sound is the moan of wind around the gable end, I sit in bed scribbling. I take notes, cross out ideas, ball up pages and bounce them off the wall. And by morning I have half-thought things, badly phrased ghosts of grand ideas. Nothing, in fact. I am surprised by my own lack of creativity. I leaf through some poetry in the hope of finding immediate inspiration, a sort of emotional plagiarism. Oh, here comes Walt Whitman with his grand Kosmos catalogues, looking at the clod beneath your boot. Nice, but it sounds too much like the dog turds Dad grumbled about. And all the stuff about soaring hawks? He wasn’t much of a bird fancier.
So back to the bookshelves.
Owen? Sassoon? Too much death.
Auden? Abstract and posh.
Hardy, Housman? Too old fashioned.
Desperate, I end up with Dylan Thomas.
Jesus. But there is something about the boozy orator that fits. His pub-sense, filled with the clunk of pint glasses, the skittering crunch of peanuts. Beery myths. This is Dad’s familiar world, an ecology of men complaining about lives and daily failures, punctuated by accidental beauty: like finding a bag of kittens in a shop doorway, or, how once, a penny plunked down on the bar fell on its edge, rolled until it hit the floor and then continued on its way.
So I wing it. . . .
Flowers come on the funeral morning, a bunch from the girls at the fruiterers, from my cousin, Auntie Alice up the hill, from Old Ian (the ancient neighbor to her left), and Young Ian, the neighbor to her right. My wife sends forty-five roses because it would’ve been their wedding anniversary only a few days after Dad died.
The other eulogist comes. Davey: Eighty two years old, with his briefcase, trench coat, and Russian hat. Almost unchanged, except for the slight head tremor, a droop in the eye. He’ll speak and leave directly because he has to meet an official at the railway station. Always involved – local politics, senior-citizen rights, building the revolution. Retired after 40 years of laying bricks, he still fights on. Everything in his realm of possibility. Even death. He tells me about his operation, how complications set in, how he slips away, floating down that tunnel towards bright light. A great sense of peace and calm, no fear at all. Willingly on his way. But there is a voice, calling him from the other end, so he turns back to see what she wants. It is a nurse. So he returns to consciousness.
“A powerful voice,” he says, “to bring me all the way back.”
We’re led to the Daimler by Anne, the hearse in front carrying Dad’s chunky coffin. No cars parked on the street today, everyone kindly somewhere else so we could squeeze the hearse in and out. Nobody says a word. Mum begins crying when we turn the first corner: she sees it all. Car, coffin, departing husband. A policewoman directs traffic, making sure we have right of way. As we drive through the tight streets people stare in at us, looking to see who we are. Who is gone this time.
Sodden fields. Crumbling towns, derelict, but still filled with living people. The smooth, silky hum of the transmission. The crematorium, 2.55pm, on time for our appointment. As we drive up to the chapel a broad crescent of people stand waiting, and I see the crowd ripple as they catch sight of us. They are mostly late aged men, scores of them, with gray hair, gray faces, black overcoats and polished shoes. These are the men, and some women, from years of political meetings, years of marches and protests, now turning out. And I feel immense pride to be a part of that, to be a witness. This is how the famous must feel, to be singular, extraordinary. To be a magical image in somebody else’s experience.
We stop at the chapel doors, all movements weirdly clear, deliberate. Mum suddenly hugs a stranger in the cold afternoon. Whispered things. Sub-audible shuffling. Then to the door, passing through the crowd, the hoisted coffin, an usher nipping inside the control room to tap a red-lit button on the computer console. The Mahler swells before us.
Davey speaks first. A strong, generous speech kicked off with a bit of Maxim Gorki, then back to their union days, back to the Miner’s Strike of 1982, when Dad was involved with the picket lines, fleeing police cavalry, running illegal money from French Communists to help bring Christmas to the starving families on the coalfields. They called Dad “Santa Claus” that year. Magnificent stuff.
Then me. I am on. I find the lectern, I find my voice, wake to the words I am saying. I am in charge now. Glancing up from my tatty notes I see the faces out there: some relatives, friends, but mostly strangers to me. And I let go of the guilt. . . .
After, I return to the pew, hear crying, sniffing, the gray-men and women now red-eyed. I have reached them all. A moment of silence. Mahler again, and off we go. There are wreaths outside the chapel. Not for us. Another body is waiting for the off, another set of people waiting with mechanical patience and dread.
“Fine words,” says Mum. The first of many good reviews.
I leave two days later, the crisis, the catastrophe shrunken down to a small urn for Dad’s ashes. My carry-on souvenir, the size of a salt-cellar made of nicely whorled mahogany. There isn’t much to say now, pleasantries, the wish for a good trip. Mum and I are like friendly ghosts, slightly embarrassed to be at the wrong haunting. Outside, the rain has turned to snow, swirling prettily around the street lamps, piling up on the fence-tops. I hug her, promise to call, and slip out the door in a blast of arctic wind. My last raw view: Mum standing alone beneath the ticking clock, its pendulum slicing back and forth above her head.
And so, escape. Check in, the trickle of passengers hugging coffee, bored cleaners clashing their brooms and pans. But at the gate I’m informed the airport has been closed. All flights are cancelled due to snow. The clerk apologizes, assuring me things will get better. When? Shortly, she says. They might be able to get me to Brussels, but beyond that, no guarantees. I might have to go through Frankfurt, or another city, or another country. The prospect of being stranded deep in Europe terrifies me. A sudden image of an airport hotel somewhere in Germany – clean, efficient, something like heaven, the day spent pretending to read the local paper, studying the condiments as I eat my complimentary sausage.
A gang of travelers leave the gate, heading for their charter in the fluorescent snow. I’m jealous, angry at being left behind. But their bus returns and I take satisfaction in their disappointed faces. The gate does eventually open, we bus to the plane, I take my seat in the back, watching a man methodically de-ice the wings, the tail, the wheels. Our child-pilot pops outside for an inspection, leaving the front door wide open. Blue chemical shushes against my port. A plow grinds by with a spinning, orange light. We sit. We get coffee. The testy captain informs us we are stuck behind a frozen snow berm. The cabin gets colder. I miss my original connection. A gaggle of happy young people chat amongst themselves, some are trying for Copenhagen, some are trying for Rome.
I need the United States.
And suddenly, release. Doors slammed, engines revved, all buckled in and up, out, over the North Sea, into the massive snow clouds rolling from the Bay of Biscay. On landing in Brussels I’m hailed to the front of the plane, where with a fistful of boarding passes a beautiful woman whisks me into a fast car, and we speed together across the wet runways, slip through the backdoors, up the secret stairs. She tells me I must rush to make my connection, forty two gates away. “Good luck, sir” she offers. I wonder if I should kiss this angel. But I run instead, backpack flapping, copper in my mouth, all thoughts of death gone in my headlong sprint.
That Christmas I immerse myself in “Lost,” watch all one hundred and twenty episodes, sitting like a couch god as their mini-lives play for me alone. I feel immense sympathy for them all, I understand the mystery and confusion of their glittering world as they scurry towards the story’s end. And, as if on cue, I shatter completely during the season finale, break down into delicious, gulping sobs I simply cannot stop. Such is the release from a broken heart.
On Christmas Day I watch my daughter take her sweet time unwrapping gifts. She stops to look at me. “Are you sad, Papa?” she asks. Yes, love. “I miss Grandpa, too,” she offers.
I can’t help but think of all the lonely souls out there. Mum, of course.
Before our afternoon dinner I pick up the phone to see how she’s doing. Daily contact now, our voices shivering over the ether, laden with need, three thousand miles apart. I sit like a lonely clairvoyant, summoning her face: I’d invited her over to the States for the holiday season, but it was simply too soon, too complicated. She’d made the decision to spend the day by herself, to spend this one in mourning, with his ghost fresh at the table.
As we talk I conjure: Mum up early this Christmas morning, the day stretching before her with its great weight, an undeniable fact. She switches on the tree lights. No presents to unwrap this morning. No carols on the radio, no cheery, restrained address from the Archbishop of Canterbury. The electric kettle the only noise in the tomb, the pop of its button, the shush of steaming water on a teabag.
Coal on the fire. Silence.
A glance at the clock to see ten minutes pass like a glacial age. Silence.
Mum diligently makes her Christmas dinner, peels her two vegetables, sets the chicken breast she’d got from the butcher on Christmas Eve neatly into its pan. She eats alone, sat in Dad’s chair, embraced by the empty house, tears running down her face. She pushes each sawed-off morsel into her mouth, chewing mechanically, some idea that strength has to be kept up. For what? Snow clearing? Gate fixing? Slowly, the plate empties. A gurgle of the tummy, happy it’s not another sandwich.
His ashes sit on the floor, still in their midget coffin, just beside the table leg. She’s gotten into the habit of tapping the box first thing, saying “Morning” to the cinders.
“I don’t know where to put him,” she says. “He can’t go under the sink, poor soul. Not with the polish and the scrubbers.” We laugh at that. We work out a plan, a compromise: some bone remainder will go out in the Spring, tossed on the garden to push the holly and the bulbs. There is a lot of him left.
“It’s dark now,” she says.
“It’ll be over soon. An early night?”
“Aye,” she sniffs, her nod invisible.
“Next one will be better.”
“Yes. . . .”
I put the phone down on this picture: Mum eating alone on a Christmas day, crying, holding together all that emptiness. The longest day in the world is over now, the only end to go back up the stairs, to climb alone into the bed and hope for sleep to blunt those hours.
My guests arrive. I step outside to cut some fronds off our big pine tree, the air cold and icy. And when I place them in the centre of our festive table, they breathe back the frozen night.