I expected to cry.
All the time, in fact.
I expected crying and sleepless nights and I’d read so many things about people thinking they saw their dead parent on a street or in a café or down the back of Tesco, like a low-brow Don’t Look Now.
I expected sadness and weeping and missing and oh-so-many tears right from the get-go, but what I did not expect was the shock of waking up one morning in a new world that I had never visited before. Going to bed one night, and waking in a room freshly painted in a colour you don’t like on a street you’ve never been on in a country you’ve never heard of and your phone battery’s gone and you can’t find your bag and when you look in the mirror it’s not your face. That’s what my father’s death was to me.
In November, I visited Washington. I’d always wanted to go there. I was weak with excitement before the trip, and my regular fear of flying poked its head above the parapet but no more so than usual. I was ready, and extremely excited about heading to political mecca the week after the presidential elections. The first 3 days were spent in wall-to-wall meetings with barely a minute to breathe; I drank coffee, ate Thanksgiving lunches that stopped all my clothes from fitting within 48 hours, and I slept a precise 7 hours a night, exhausted from new faces and buzzed chats but with not a minute to spare for rest.
On day 4, I headed off across DC for a few days of solo adventuring and museum visits, and in the aftermath of the noise and bustle of the previous days, in an entirely new city, and on the cusp of it being 11 months since I had seen my Dad, something went awry in my brain.
The morning started as mornings generally do in a new place; a brief and perfunctory breakfast at a European-themed pastry place, an hour spent trying to figure out which method of public transport I could waste more time on, and then I arrived at Arlington Cemetery, the first stop on my tour.
My knowledge of Arlington stemmed largely from news reports and the X-Files. As I walked through the visitor centre, past the guards and welcome staff, I spotted the train that would take me around the grounds, each one of those 624 acres. After a short wait where a few other visitors hopped aboard, we moved off. I felt like a successful adult woman on a very lovely business trip having a little break to visit someplace I’d always wanted to see. I felt happy. I did not feel as if a bowling ball of granite sadness was about to smash me in the face. It was.
The day was warm and the sky was sharp and blue. The train pulled itself up the inclines of Arlington. At the first descent, a shot rang out and as I looked down over the lip of the hill, the family of a soldier stood around a graveside. A boy returned from war, a boy come home. The tears rolled down my face. They wouldn’t stop for hours.
More than 400,000 people lie in Arlington. After I’d gotten off the tiny toy train due to uncontrollable, mortifying sobs, I walked past what felt like most of those people. Through the Nurses Section, up to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, over to the Challenger Memorial and on to the mast of the USS Maine. My tears had calmed but were relentless. By this point it had turned into the kind of crying that makes no sound; I didn’t shake or wail, I didn’t sink to the ground or do any of the things I’d seen on TV that looked like they would be par for the course when the death of your Dad finally caught up with you in a foreign country whilst entirely on your own.
The tears continued to run as I made my way out of the cemetery towards the Women’s Memorial. I asked a young security guy how long it would take me to walk to the Lincoln Memorial from where we were; “oof, about three hours I guess”, he said. Young Americans may have the world at their feet, but they haven’t used those feet very much, as the walk turned out to be a swift 20 minutes across the Potomac. I cried as I tried to listen to Wilson Philips to drown out the sadness. I cried as I climbed the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. By the time I’d made my way up the Mall, and into the Air and Space Museum, I’d tuckered myself out, and was ready to lie on the ground and sleep. Joan Didion in her memoir on grief following the death of her husband focuses for pages on the derangement of grief and the physical symptoms: “Somatic distress occurring in waves lasting from 20 minutes to an hour at a time, a feeling of tightness in the throat, choking with shortness of breath, need for sighing and an empty feeling in the abdomen, lack of muscular power and intense subjective distress.”
I’d walked 26 kilometres that day, wandering in and out of museums, traversing Washington in my keening state. On that final stretch, as the sun dropped behind Capitol Hill, my sciatic nerve in my right leg burned through my skin, my right foot numb. I felt no recognition of myself. My life had changed and my brain had finally caught up. The learning would now begin.
Earlier on in my grief, maybe after 4 months or so, I was planning to head out on a Sunday evening with pals for a birthday celebration, and I looked through a stack of one-size-fits-all birthday cards that I keep in a cupboard in the hall. They’re handy for strangers and more recent friends, the kind you make later in life. As I rifled through, trying to decide between a demure garden scene or a watercolour teddy bear, I found stuck in between them all the last birthday card signed to me by Dad. The oversized capital D of his signature. The slight scrawl and messiness. I slunk from squat to splayed legs, bawling into my cards, hysterical with sobs and bellowing air like a stranded whale.
I was thrilled. I had done it. I was grieving. This was it, right? This was the sadness, the unmentionable depth of loss that I was supposed to be feeling. After three long hours of weeping on a wooden floor, I rose triumphant. I had fucking grieved. I was on my way out of this mess, and soon my life would be back to the way it was before. I was sure I would feel normal again.
In the days leading up to his death, the thing that stands out more than anything is banality. The banality of sitting in a hospital room for 10 hours a day. We never stayed the whole night. I think we felt that if we did, it would’ve been admitting to ourselves that these may be our last hours with him and that was why we were clinging to every one. Instead, we paced ourselves: If we stayed there a lot, but not entirely, then there was less panic, less of a sense of an ending.
He was only really sick for three weeks. The word cancer was only present in one of those. In that final week, when the diagnosis began to form, we faced the full run of TV medical show moments: the questions about resuscitation, the meeting in a doctor’s office when they tell you there’s nothing else that they can do. I cried, but not ridiculously so. In my head, I was prostrate on the ground, smashing my fists against the doctor’s ankles, but in real life it was all quite sedate, I think.
After that meeting, I went to lunch with my Mother. She insisted on keeping ourselves fed as my sister was arriving from London that evening, now that the news had taken a turn for the worst. We sat in a nearby restaurant, and I remember thinking that I was so proud of my body for keeping me going through this. My mind was splintered and paralysed with anxiety, I had no concept of linear time, my abdomen was concrete, and my digestive system had stalled like an old clock.
I remember ordering soup, and when it arrived with bread I felt thankful that some carbohydrates might stop me from completely disintegrating into a heap of iron filings. My saliva had disappeared, and each mouthful of bread had to be downed with a spoonful of soup and a swig of water to force it down into my belly. The ability to live through that moment and that day and that week still baffles me. How did we not die? How did the absolute bizareness of the loss of such a person not just kill us all stone dead with him? I still struggle with it. A moment of forgetting what way is up or down, what my place is now without him, or how frame him in a discussion while holding on to my own sense of myself.
It’s been almost 18 months now. Some days, I feel a more vague sense of missing, like I have misplaced an earring or a brooch. Other days, it feels like I’m waiting on a visit from him, like he is about to arrive and I can’t quite fathom what’s taking him so long. On the worst days, it is like losing a sense. A diminishing of sight, a dulling of hearing, an inability to distinguish by touch. That’s what my father’s death is to me.
But there was no fear in him, and because of this, there is not really any fear in us either. Around the time of the diagnosis, a young doctor came to his bed to tell him that they’d need to pass Dad on to another team. The atmosphere was tense, I didn’t know how Dad would react to this. It wasn’t distressing to him, thanks to the careful delivery of the doctor, but it was a shift in an unknown direction, and there was a distinct awareness that things were becoming more serious. Dad’s reaction to the clearly upset young doctor was to thank him for being so kind as to tell him, and then instruct him to go out and have a pint as he’d had a tough day. Kindness and consideration even in the midst of the tempest. Resilience. Love. Care. That’s what my father’s death was to me, and it is in the company of those things that I grieve, thanks to him.