February is over, we’re almost halfway through March and I feel like I can breathe again. I hadn’t realised I was holding my breath. But I must have been because suddenly there’s a little bit less of a squeezing feeling in my chest.
Last month marked four years since my Dad died, suddenly and unexpectedly, of advanced stage lung cancer that no-one knew he had. Last month marked four years since I last heard his voice, his laugh. Since our last ever conversation. I’m so thankful that I ended that phone call with the words “I love you”. Last month marked four years since I received a series of different, far more distressing, phone calls: the first one telling me he was poorly in hospital; the second, just a couple of short hours later, asking me for permission to turn off his life support machine; and the third and final one early the next morning, when the rest of the world was still quietly sleeping, to tell me he was gone. Last month marked four years since his last ever birthday, and his funeral.
This year’s February has been better than previous years though, I think. I’ve been consciously choosing to focus on all the happy memories I have of him rather than the sad ones; and whilst of course I have been thinking about him a lot, it hasn’t been all-consuming like it has been in past years. It’s felt…lighter. I’ve noticed each significant date as it’s passed of course – the anniversary of his death, his birthday, the anniversary of his funeral. I chose to keep myself busy on those days, not really allowing myself the time to think about him too much whilst still trying to acknowledge the importance these dates have in my life. Admittedly I have been distracted with the fire we experienced in our home mid-February but even so it’s felt different to previous years.
For so long now I’ve avoided anything to do with my Dad. Every thought, feeling and memory has gone into the cardboard box I started carrying on the day he died, and have been carrying around with me ever since.
Up until now I’ve been unable to watch movies that I associate with him or listen to any of the music that reminds me of him. They all went into the cardboard box too. Particular songs – ‘Hallelujah’ by Jeff Buckley, ‘I Don’t Wanna Miss A Thing’ by Aerosmith; ‘Always On My Mind’ by Willie Nelson; the entire musical of ‘Phantom Of The Opera’, anything by Meatloaf – had to be avoided at all costs. I even cut out whole genres: any kind of classical music was completely off the cards too. I felt sad about that as I love classical music. But listening to it just felt too painful and brought back too many memories that I wasn’t ready to remember. So into the box it went.
If one of those songs or pieces of music came on during a TV programme, it made me cry. Still does, sometimes. It used to be full-on, heart-wrenching, air-gulping sobs that I had no way of controlling, though those instances are few and far between now. More often it’s a single, solitary tear that squeezes out of the corner of my eye and slowly makes it’s way down my cheek, unbeknownst to anyone apart from perhaps my husband if he happens to be in a ‘noticing’ mood. I used to try and get through these things without crying, fighting myself inside my head the whole time. And then I realised that I don’t have to. I lost someone I love. It’s ok to feel sad about that.
Recently, I’ve found that I’m able to listen to Classic FM on the radio in my car again. I don’t know what made me try it, but something did and I’m glad. Pieces of music have played and my heart has squeezed tight for a moment and then I’ve been ok, able to listen to it. Occasionally I’ve turned it off part way through the piece, feeling overwhelmed, and then made myself turn it back on again and I’m pleased that I’ve been doing this too. I think it shows progress. Healing, in a way, I guess. Sometimes you have to go through the things that hurt the most in order to reach the other side: a ‘the obstacle is the way’ type of healing. (That’s a great book by the way, ‘The Obstacle Is The Way’ by Ryan Holiday).
I think perhaps the next stage will be to choose to listen to some of those other songs, to watch those movies, to get them out of the cardboard box and to allow myself to feel whatever I feel rather than being scared of those feelings. It’s ok to have big feelings – they’re nothing to be afraid of. Feeling those feelings might help release a little bit of their power, diluting them down with my tears until they become a part of the healing process instead of a barrier to it. I feel ready for that now, I think.
Opening the cardboard box has felt like too big of a thing to do up until now. There is so much stuff packed away inside it. I was worried it would all come bursting out, uncontrollably. I’m slowly learning that it won’t. That I can have a peek inside, take some things out to look at. I don’t have to unpack it all at once. I can always put things back in if I need to. Or I can let them go. Keeping them all in the cardboard box, carrying it around with me, letting it weigh me down, isn’t helpful for anybody. Letting go of memories and thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean I’m letting go of my Dad. It just means I’m letting go of all the clutter surrounding him that I don’t need any more.
There are no photographs of him in frames or on the walls in our house. I couldn’t bear to see him smiling down knowing that he’s not here any more. I’m realising that his absence is significant though and perhaps that needs to change too. I need to remember him happy, not hold on to imagined memories of him dying in a hospital bed.
The girls ask questions about him. A lot. They never really knew him. The only memories they have of him are from my husband and I’s wedding nearly five years ago, when they were seven and a half (Ella), six (Mimi), and four and a half (Lola) years old. They remember the day he died – that I was crying a lot and was very sad. There is only one photo in existence of my Dad and my girls together and that is something I deeply regret. It was taken in February 2014, just four months before the wedding, when he came to visit for the afternoon. It was the first time I’d seen him in person in almost four years. He was only here for a few hours but those few hours meant everything to me.
We had a complicated relationship. I still haven’t fully untangled it and maybe I never will. I thought perhaps it would be a good idea to write down some of the memories I have of him, some of the threads of the feelings I have about us. I’m quite sure that this probably won’t be of any interest to most people reading this and that’s ok. I’m not writing it for you, I’m writing it for me. My ‘why’ for creating this blog in the first place was as a visual and written diary, a space to tell our story. And even though he’s not here any more, he’s still very much a part of MY story. It feels right to document it, to begin to unravel it in this way.
Memories (in no particular order):
~ The smell of cigarette smoke. When I walk past someone in the street with a lit cigarette I’m instantly transported. Sometimes it completely repulses me and I feel sick to my stomach, holding my breath until I’ve passed by the offending person, not breathing until I feel like I might burst. And sometimes I inhale it as deeply as I possibly can, trying to breathe him in with every ounce of my being in an attempt to get closer to him again.
~ Dad cooking a full English breakfast on a Sunday morning, opera blaring from the speakers. And then, with the late afternoon sun streaming in through the windows, him preparing a roast dinner (lamb, studded with whole garlic cloves and sprigs of rosemary, hasselback roast potatoes) in a sunshine yellow and cobalt blue kitchen. I can see it now. It’s almost as if I’m there.
~ Running upstairs ahead of him to the front door of the flat in London and being confused as to why it was already open. Dad’s panicked shout from the entrance hall a floor below telling me to stay where I was and not touch anything. The realisation that we’d been burgled. Suddenly noticing the axe-marks that had split the door in two. Police crowding into the lounge. Mess everywhere.
~ The long drive on a Friday evening, cocooned in the car together. Travelling around the M25, stuck in traffic for hours on end. The Archers. Classic FM. We had a deal: he got to listen to his favourite things on the way there and then on a Sunday evening, when he was taking me home, I got to listen to the Top 40 and we’d time it just right so that I could hear what was number 1 as we pulled up in front of my Mum’s house.
~ Him arriving at my home on a Friday evening, standing on the doormat smelling of rain and stale cigarettes and meeting rooms and aftershave. He seemed so big and tall to my small size and I used to reach up and and pat his belly, making him laugh. He had an unmistakeable gravelly, throaty laugh that was all his own.
~ Watching ‘Children In Need’ on TV, curled up in his ancient, aging, squishy old armchair in the flat, begging him to phone in and donate £10 to help the children who so desperately needed our help. Sitting in that same armchair watching ‘Labyrinth’ and ‘The Neverending Story’, or playing Super Mario Bros and The Legend Of Zelda on the SNES. I never wanted to go into the final room face the big baddie unless he was there with me.
~ Doing the Times Cryptic Crossword with him; the stacks and stacks of CDs that made up his enormous and much loved music collection; whiskey and water (no ice); playing cards; going to the theatre; holidays in Spain; visiting Grannie in Leamington Spa, hosting dinner parties with friends; his giant jar full of 20p coins; collecting his dry cleaning together; the speech he made at my wedding; his yellow jumper…
These memories are like pieces of a jigsaw, scattered on a table in front of me. Some are face up and I can see them clearly. Others remain face down and I’m unable to see the picture yet. I hope that one day I’ll be able to turn them all over and connect them all together, to see the big picture of who he was. To know him. I feel like I never really knew him. Not properly. There are so many things I wish I’d asked him about whilst he was still here. I just wasn’t interested. I was too caught up in myself to be curious about the man that made half of me – I thought I’d have time to get to know him further down the line, once I’d figured myself out. I didn’t get that time and it’s one of my biggest regrets that I didn’t pay more attention or have more conversations with him whilst he was alive.
If I had the chance to speak with him again I would ask him so many questions. I’d ask him where else in the world did he want to travel to (despite his utter terror of flying)? What did he want to be when he was a little boy dreaming of growing up? What was his favourite childhood memory? What regrets did he have? If he could only eat one meal for the rest of his life what would it be? What was his greatest ambition? If he had the chance to go back and be any age again, when would he go back to? What was his most favourite film of all time? What causes was he passionate about? What were his biggest fears? What was his greatest triumph? And so many other things besides.
I’ll never know the answers to those questions and that’s something I have to live with and learn from. So that the ‘not-knowing’ doesn’t take over, I often find myself listing all of the things I do know about him. I know that his favourite colour was orange and his favourite flowers were daffodils. I know he loved to read – he used to work in publishing at one point and each of the various houses he lived in were always crammed full of books. I used to run my fingers along the spines of them, my eyes slowly absorbing the titles, wondering what stories they held inside that were too old for me at the time. I know he loved to cook. I remember the taste of his lasagne, his kedgeree, and the rows of cookbooks on the shelf in the kitchen. I know he struggled with his own demons of addiction and depression: the extroverted, larger than life character he portrayed to the outside world being very different to the version of himself he was when he was on his own at home. I know he loved frogs – his collection of frog trinkets was a sight to behold. I know he was a fantastic storyteller and that he loved art and music.
I have nothing of his bar a few pieces of art he used to have hung on his wall. My stepmum still has the majority of it all. I very much hope that I will be able to own it one day: his extensive and eclectic music collection; his beloved books; family photo-albums stuffed full of aged black and white images of people who’s names I don’t know; the thin chain he used to wear around his neck with the symbol from Mojacar; his handwritten recipe folder… all the parts of him that are so very personal. I feel like I’ll know him better if I can go through all of his belongings, if I can immerse myself in his stories.
I’m slowly working on visiting all of the places I associate with him – a pilgrimage of sorts I guess. I’ve been to the flat in Westbourne Grove that he lived in when I was small – I used to go and stay with him there every other weekend and it holds many fond memories. I wasn’t brave enough to actually ring the bell and ask to look round though. I’ve also been to the house in Baron’s Court that he moved to when I was about ten or eleven (I think). Again, I couldn’t find the courage to speak to the owners so I just stood outside for a while, remembering.
Whilst on our mini road-trip last year we took a little detour and stopped by the pub in Somerset – The Podymore Inn – that he used to run before I even existed. We met up with one of his oldest friends, Tony, whom I spent a couple of hours chatting to, learning from and reminiscing with.
There are so many other places: Ilkley in Yorkshire; his home in Bures and the pub he ran in Coggeshall in Essex; holidays he’s been on to Cuba and the Dominican Republic. And the big one is the Inca Trail to Macchu Picchu in Peru. That was his ‘trip of a lifetime’ and I remember so clearly the way his eyes lit up in excitement when he told me he had booked to go – he was like a little boy, nervous and excited to be heading off on a solo adventure to the land of the sun gods. I’d love to see it for myself and I have a feeling it will be a milestone birthday trip for me a few years down the line.
Just writing this has been therapeutic. Writing always is. As I said before (and I’m going to reiterate now to reinforce it in my own mind) I’m slowly realising that it’s ok to take things out of the box and examine them and feel them. I can always choose to put them back if it’s too hard in the moment, I can always try again another time, look again at a later date. They’re not going anywhere. Or, I can choose to look at them and then leave them in plain sight, out in the open. After all, there’s nothing to hide. There never was.
Those painful feelings are just that – feelings. Nothing more and nothing less. The meanings I’ve given them are what makes it feel hard, are what gives them their power. I can make the memories mean whatever I want them to mean – it’s my choice. It always has been. I can allow myself to feel them, allow them to pass through. Letting the feelings go doesn’t mean I’m letting him go. I think maybe that’s what I’ve been scared of all this time. I’m going to say it again: Letting the feelings go doesn’t mean I’m letting him go. Examining the memories doesn’t mean they’ll dissipate and be lost forever. They’re not smoke. I don’t need to protect them or keep them safe any more. I never did. Letting the feelings go just means that I’m choosing to live rather than grieve. And that doesn’t mean that the grief isn’t there – of course it is and maybe it always will be in some way. I can just choose how much space I want to give it.
By keeping the lid of the cardboard box so firmly closed and by holding it so tightly in my arms I think part of me thought that perhaps it was a way of holding on to him that bit longer. I was scared of losing him all over again if I opened it. But of course that’s not true. He’s already gone. And yet he’s still always there. He goes with me wherever I go, just like all the other people I love, both those I’ve lost and those who are still here. He’s not in the cardboard box any more. He’s right here in my heart, where he belongs.