Category: Death and grieving

Taking Reg’s remains to the dump

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Christmas past, with Reg’s ‘mushroom table’ beneath the tree

I went to the dump today, with the remains of my father-in-law. More accurately, I drove to the dump. My first drive in a while, and my first in many years in the towns where I used to live, and where I will soon live again.
Anxious about many things at present, and always anxious about driving, it took me a few attempts to reverse into a space, failing to get the car into reverse gear, and fearful that there would be men sniggering at me, and rolling their eyes. My imagination, of course. After attempting to get my husband to swap places, so he could perform the manoeuvre, he roundly told me that I would only get less nervous if I drove more often, and I deftly parked soon after.
I did not look behind me at the items in the back seat, the footwell, of the car. The green office chair, which had never been that comfortable, did not concern me. But the remains of my father-in-law did. Small, wooden items made by Reg Bradley, father-in-law from my first marriage. Little stools that he had made for my daughters when they were toddlers; a tile-topped low bench, which had served as a bedside table in the house we are leaving, and before that as a … what did we use it for? … in the house I lived in before, for twenty years, and where I raised my daughters.
Reg’s creations were square, sharp-cornered. Tights were often snagged, shins bruised. They were solid, well-made, and put together in his shed from timber bought for a song at auctions. They were popular amongst our friends, back in ’80s. They would say, ‘Would he make me one? I’ll pay him for it,’ and he’d make a coffee table, and only charge a fiver for it. Not much more than the cost of the wood, nails and glue that had gone to make it.
He made me a sewing box on legs for Christmas, one year. It had an insert, set in the top, with compartments lined in green baize. Win, my mother-in-law, added in a box of pins, a magnet for collecting pins, should they be spilled, a tape measure, and other sewing essentials.
Our flat, when the girls were tiny, and later our house, when they had grown a little, was filled with Reg’s woodwork. Reg did not live to see us in that house, in which he would have spent visits hammer in hand, workbench set up in the back yard. But he died of a heart attack (his second) in the time between us finding the house and moving into it.
When my first husband and I separated, we were each left with Reg Bradley coffee tables, tile-topped. The one that remained in the house where I stayed, with my girls, had bottle-green tiles on top with a mushroom motif, and was known as ‘the mushroom table’. Long after our daughters had outgrown the little stools, they were used as plant-stands, or to place coffee cups on, next to the armchair. One of them had ingenious, crossover legs, which allowed the stool to be collapsed flat; often when a child was sitting on it.
We are now in an in-between place, my second husband and I. We have nearly sold the house we have lived in for more than eight years, and have not quite bought another. In a strange symmetry, my husband has had a heart attack in this in-between space, as Reg did twenty-nine years ago. Though my husband has survived.
Time to let go of Reg. No reason to keep his remains. Many items have gone over the years: my sewing-box-on-legs; my daughter’s wooden Tardis with a torch inside that shone a light through the plastic dome in the top; the mushroom table (offered to my ex-husband, who had quite enough of Reg’s tables already). The dark-stained bathroom cabinet, later painted white, which was left in the house I once shared with Reg’s son and his granddaughters.
I did catch a glance, in the rearview mirror, of the stool with the collapsing legs, before my husband took it, and Reg’s other remains, to the relevant skip. I knew it was time to let them go. Hoping that someone might pick them up, those little stools and that tile-topped bench, and take them home.

Saying goodbye to Biscuit

When you have an old cat, you know they are on borrowed time. One day, you have to make that phone call, get the pet carrier from the shed. Your cat doesn’t struggle so much as they used to when you lift them in, though they do cry a little. You have that conversation with the vet who has known her for nearly eight years, with the nurse who recognises your voice when you phone to order your cat’s food. You know what the conversation will be. You are ready for it. You sign a form. You stay with the creature, now twenty-one years old, who has been your friend for the last thirteen years of your life. You owe it to her. The vet is kind; the nurses equally so. They apologise when they offer the card machine to enter your PIN number. They offer tissues. They say to take it easy today. You leave with an empty pet carrier and your dear friend’s purple velvet collar.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

There are people to tell – your children, now grown, who once lived with her and now have their own homes and cats of their own. The neighbour who, just a week ago, looked in on her and fed her when you were away. The friend who once stayed for a week to do the same. Then Facebook, you tell Facebook, and you know there are at least three people you know who have had to say goodbye to their dear friends in the past few weeks. You are not alone.

There’s the clearing away of things: her little fleece blanket on the sofa; the fur-covered cushion on the chair by the window; her food and water bowls; the stick with feathers on that she still played with up to a week before she died; the litter tray; the litter; her bag of food in the cupboard; the treats that she loved so much you wrote ‘Kitty crack’ on the shopping list each week.

You know it was the right thing to do, that it would have been wrong to put her through any more, and yet…

The next day, and the day after that, she is not on her spot on the sofa, she is not on her chair by the window, she is not getting under your feet in the kitchen, she is not crying her unbelievably loud cry at all hours of the day and night, she is not lying on your legs when you stretch out on the sofa, she is not stretching out her paw to rest on the TV remote control, occasionally changing channels or bringing up strange information boxes on the screen, she is not sitting out in the sun or taking a slow walk round the orchard, stopping to sniff at things.

You fill out a form. It asks if you own a pet. You click No.

Nostalgia – a longing for a past that is not our own

“I heard the news today, oh boy…” of the death of George Martin. The cacophony at the end of The Beatles’ ‘A Day in the Life’ is magnificent, and I was hoping to hear that; the track that BBC 6 Music chose to play first, though, was ‘In My Life’, a nostalgic song.

I have been thinking about nostalgia recently, with the loss of so many of my cultural heroes this year. Also, because I was involved in the production of a poetry collection about the experiences and memorials of soldiers in World War I – Memorandum: Poems for the Fallen by Vanessa Gebbie. It’s an immensely moving collection, which brought me to tears more than once as I was editing it. It has also brought a rush of responses from readers, the poems resounding with their own family histories. It’s interesting to me, as it is a kind of removed history. My parents arrived in England from Ireland in the 1940s and 1950s, and although my father arrived in 1944, and later did National Service in England, Ireland was neutral during the war. My family’s war experiences were different from those of an English, or in Vanessa Gebbie’s case, Welsh, family.

There is a photograph that sits on the cover of my cousin’s pamphlet, The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918, by Guss O’Halloran. It is of Pte Patrick O’Halloran, 1st Battalion Connacht Rangers, saying goodbye to his sister Bridget and mother Mary at Ennistymon Railway Station early in 1914. He died at the 2nd battle of Ypres the following year. It is an intensely moving picture. Bridget is avoiding Patrick’s gaze as they hold hands; he is leaning out of the train window, she is on the platform. Patrick looks a lot like my cousin Guss. Mary’s face is obscured by Bridget, though her sorrow must have been as great. Guss has written ‘The Last Goodbye’ across the photograph. It can be viewed, along with the pamphlet, as a PDF on the Clare Library website: The Men from North Clare and the Great War 1914-1918

I didn’t know these people, nor know of them till recent years. Nor did I know of the part that Irish soldiers played in the conflict until I read Sebastian Barry’s A Long Long Way. And being raised in an Irish family in England, I was steeped in  nostalgia that was not from my own past, my own experiences. When Irish friends and family came round, there would be singing and the playing of records of sentimental songs about Ireland; the homesickness in the room would be palpable. An immense sadness, a longing for their homeland. It is not surprising that the origin of the word nostalgia is expressed in terms of pain. From the Concise OED:

Nostalgia – n. a sentimental longing or wistful affection for a period in the past … acute homesickness, from the Greek nostos “return home” and algos “pain”.

We are suckers for nostalgia, from the ubiquitous Keep Calm and Carry On posters to Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife. I must confess to watching the latter – largely undemanding, at times moving, and depicting the time when I was born and was an infant. It does feel like my past – the clothes the children wear being those I see in old photos of me and my family.

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

Leslie Ronald Harding, photo with kind permission of Jacquie Kirby

I am currently working on a poem based on a photo of a boy to whom I have no connection. A friend pointed it out to me on Facebook, knowing that I have been writing about the decline of the orchards in Kent. I have had some contact with the person that posted it – it’s of her uncle as a child, leaning on a cherry ladder in the now-felled orchard down the road from where I live. It was taken sometime between 1914 and 1920, she thinks, and I became a little obsessed with finding out about him. His history is not mine, nor the history of the orchards. I only moved to this part of Kent in 2008. It is not as if I grew up with the sight of sheep grazing beneath fruit trees, nor did my family occupy cherry orchards for a few weeks each summer to pick the fruit. Yet I am sad that these things are disappearing.

I wonder what it would be like to live in the present, to be concerned only with what is going on now, not to pine for a past that is not mine, not ours.

I do think that being an outsider helps us to see things more clearly, to record them. Being neither fully Irish nor English has given me an outsider’s view, standing aside and watching, not fully engaged with a nostalgia that is not mine to own.

Oh no love, you’re not alone. Remembering David Bowie

I started writing this post some months ago. It sat half-finished in a notebook, the flow interrupted by the train journey, on which I was writing, coming to an end. I kept meaning to finish it, get it up on this blog, but it seemed like there would always be time.

IMG_0053The news of the death of David Bowie came two days ago, on waking, announced on Radio 4. Sleepless during the night, I had put the radio on, then fallen back to sleep, waking again just before 7.00 a.m. Then the news. Mishearing it as David Byrne at first, then the true name was unmistakable. There is – was – only one David Bowie. Switching to 6 Music, in floods of tears, Shaun Keaveny and Matt Everitt sounded so shocked, knocked sideways, and then came a day of Bowie songs, the airwaves taken over by his music, stories of in-the-flesh encounters and, for most of us, the personal relationship we had with Bowie and his music, him talking to us in our bedrooms, alone or with friends. For a man who was so protective of his private self, who presented several public persona, we all knew him. He made us feel part of it: “Oh no love, you’re not alone,” he sang, shouted out, in ‘Rock and Roll Suicide’, and we felt that someone understood.

I could not bear to write this  post on the day I learned of his death. The day was lost in tears and and disbelief. But here is what I wrote in my notebook, dated 8/6/15. I present it here unedited:

Our all girls grammar school was decidedly liberal about some things. The compulsory wearing of hats was abolished in our second year (bottle green, round felt in winter; straw boaters in summer). We could wear any style of skirt we liked, as long as it was bottle green. And the decorating of form rooms was allowed by some teachers.

In Class 2H, 1972-73, we had Mr Stokes as our form teacher. Tall, lugubrious, bearded, in a dark pin-striped three piece suit with a watch chain stretching between his waistcoat pockets, we thought we were in for a no-fun year. Mr Stokes turned out to be a sweetie. He won us over with chocolate treats at Christmas and Easter, and by allowing posters on the back wall of Room H. One of these was a double page of Bowie from a teen magazine. Some years away from being named the Thin White Duke, he was super-skinny, hair razor-cut and orange, pale-skinned, made-up, and wearing a kind of short knitted jumpsuit with leggings of the same orange and red stripes. ‘Snow-white tan,’ like Ziggy Stardust. He wasn’t looking out at us, as David Cassidy was, on the same wall, wholesome and pretty, or Michael Jackson, in the days before plastic surgery and skin bleach. He was facing right, half-crouched in performance.

David Bowie was exotic, alien, strange, yet an ordinary boy from Bromley. We thought, in those days, that he wore a coloured contact lens to make one eye look different. I learned only this week that his unusually large pupil, diminished iris, was the result of a playground accident. But then there were, and remain, so many secrets, so much misinformation about this enigmatic singer, performer, composer, actor.

What I can say is, in 1973, he was the most exciting thing on my horizon. If I could get away with watching Top of the Pops (my mum said it was ‘pure rubbish’), he might appear singing ‘Life on Mars’, strangely contorted and with bad dentistry, and absolutely mesmerising to my 13-year-old self.

There was a cabinet at the top of one the staircases at school, which was given over to different classes to make displays, and our theme was Life on Mars. We hadn’t quite got the meaning of the song, so took the title literally, and created a planet surface populated by little rubber aliens that you could buy from sweet shops, with holes in the bottom to balance them on fingers or use as pencil tops.

David Bowie’s songs and albums bring back such memories, such feelings. I remember the track listings of The Fall and Rise of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars and Aladdin Sane, which I still own on vinyl. with stickers of my name and address on, for when I took them to parties. One person was not so careful, and I accidentally came home from a party with two copies of Ziggy Stardust, unable to reunite it with its owner.

Diamond Dogs, borrowed from a friend, reminds me of the death of another friend. I had been listening to it constantly during her short illness and following her death, and can now no longer bear to hear it. I can’t see the cover, or hear the opening track, without being thrown back 40 years to that time, that grief.

David Bowie, and other music of that era, is associated with seminal moments, suicidal thoughts, feelings of sorrow and embarrassment, first kisses, love, betrayal, and the Sunday boredom of ’70s teenagehood.

There the notebook entry ended. Thank you, David Bowie, for making me feel like I was not alone. May you rest in peace.

Love and death

I am the servant of a 20-year-old cat. Each day, I live with the knowledge that she won’t be around forever. A recent dream found me carrying her in a cardboard box, across a field, on her last journey to the vet. My daughters fell in at my side (Biscuit is the last pet we all owned/served before they left home). The sun was shining, and I said to Biscuit, ‘What a beautiful day for your last day in this world.’ I woke sobbing, and went to check on the old girl, who was sleeping peacefully, but not finally, on the sofa.

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

Biscuit enjoys her new blanket

It was a comforting dream, knowing that I will do my best for Biscuit, as I have for two other cats – not letting her go on any longer than is right for her; being with her when the needle goes in.

With the first cat I took on the final journey, I let her go on for far too long: injections every three weeks to relieve her arthritic back legs, which she struggled to lift over the litter tray. I kept her going for me, and I vowed never to do this for another cat. My struggle was with the acceptance of death, with letting go.

As the child of migrants, death was something experienced via visits from uncles or aunts who, somehow, had heard the news from Ireland in the days when few of us had telephones in the house. My maternal grandmother’s death was something I barely understood. I had only met her two or three times, and I knew that there was ‘no love lost’ between my mother and her mother. Mum was kind of upset, but in a closed-down, angry way. She said there was no way she could go to the funeral in Ireland, with the five of us children to look after; I think she didn’t want to go, and we were the excuse. There was a tradition of closing the curtains when someone died, out of respect, and there was no telly allowed either. I found the loss of children’s TV that day greater than that of my nan. I also didn’t know how to feel about the death of someone who should have been close, but whom I barely knew.

My first experience of a death that truly affected me was of a pet. Prince, our little cross-breed dog with a bit of Jack Russell and a lot of ‘the devil’ in him, took it into his head to keep running beyond the house of the neighbour who gave him a biscuit every day, and ran and ran with me in pursuit. The more I chased, the faster he ran, eventually into the path of a car. He was still, but his eyes were open and he was breathing when the car driver stopped, picked him up and took the two of us home. Prince disappeared to the vet’s in a neighbour’s car, and I never saw him again. I thought it was my fault, and my mum did not comfort me, so lost in her own grief for an animal she seemed to love more than her own mother.

I didn’t go to funerals as a child, except for one where the father of school friend had died, and the children’s choir, of which I was a member, sang at his service. Even then, I just felt sorry for the girl, not sadness about her father’s passing.

My first funeral of someone I knew well was for a girl I worked with in Woolworth’s, who was just 15 when she died of leukaemia. Even then, a mix-up over the church meant that my friends and I arrived just as everyone was coming out of the service. We then went on the crematorium, where I watched this box disappear through a set of curtains, unable to connect it with my friend.

In my mid-twenties I experienced the devastating death of a friend, Julie, who took her own life, just days after the birth of my second child. The people around me thought it best that I didn’t go to the funeral. My sister arranged for a beautiful flower arrangement to be sent on my behalf. My mum came to stay for a few days, seeing my grief. But no one said, ‘I’ll look after the baby; you go and say your goodbyes.’ For a long time, I didn’t believe she was dead.

It took me 15 years to come to believe that Julie wasn’t coming back. I was seeing a psychotherapist at the time, and I said that this girl’s death was something I needed to deal with. I said nothing during the 50 minute session; I just cried and cried, let out all the tears that I should have shed when she died. I finally believed that she had gone.

I didn’t go to my father’s funeral, partly because I was very ill at the time, but mostly because I was angry with him, and had been for years and years. I don’t regret missing this. It was the right thing to do for me, and I believe that funerals are for those that are left behind, not to mark respect for the dead. I heard there were disagreements about the service: Mum wanted them to play ‘Walk Tall’, made famous by Val Doonican. It was a song that Dad sung when he was drunk, swaying in the doorway of the living room after a good session in the White Horse. My siblings didn’t want to be reminded of those times, nor were the lyrics appropriate: “That’s what my mother told me when I was about knee high…” My dad wasn’t brought up by his mother. He didn’t get to know her at all before he was 16.

It was my father’s death that led me to have my own will drawn up. I was a single parent at the time, and with no partner to assure my wishes were met, I didn’t want my mum saying I should have a Catholic funeral, or that I should buried when I wanted to be cremated, or that said burial should take place in the town in which I was raised. I was 40, and it was the first time I had squared up to the possibility of death.

I have few problems with death these days. My favourite TV programme is Six Feet Under; I am now watching it for the third time. I find it strangely comforting, especially at times of great sorrow. I watched it at the rate of two episodes a day when my friend Karen was dying of cancer. It helped me to cry in the way I should have done when Julie took her life all those years ago. And here’s the biggest thing – I offered to deliver the eulogy at Karen’s funeral. I knew that I was the best-placed person to do this. It was the hardest thing, but when I heard the non-religious celebrant talking about my friend, clearly knowing nothing about her, it stirred me on to give my account of the real Karen.

I missed her terribly, but I did believe she was dead. Much of this was through seeing her in the last few weeks of her life. On one visit, I took her for what turned out to be the last visit to our favourite cafe. She could barely walk, but somehow we got there. Here is an extract from ‘Where the High Street meets Star Hill’, the prose piece that ends strange fruits, the poetry collection I published in her memory, to raise funds for Macmillan Cancer Support:

November, two weeks on from diagnosis, she is home, and my husband Bob and I arrive to take her out to Norma’s cafe. She is skeletal, yellow-tinged, wonders whether she’ll be able to make it to the car, to the cafe, but somehow we get there. Two cappucinos, mine a decaff, and she fancies a packet of Quavers, so that’s what I get her. She is exhausted after twenty minutes, so Bob goes to get the car, to bring it as close as possible. She asks to sit outside in the cold air. She has spent weeks indoors, staring out the window, too tired for TV, bored of the radio. ‘I do love you, Karen,’ I say. She giggles. She and I don’t say things like that to each other. ‘I love you too,’ she says, and gives me a peck on the cheek.

strange fruits is available from www.culturedllama.co.uk All profits from its sale go to Macmillan Cancer Support.

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