My very own wayback machine

gemma-evans-64661-unsplashWhen I was a smallie, I always thought of being a grown-up as a finished state, a perfected art, no more polishing, no more learning. I thought of this in a good and a bad way: The good was that I would feel settled, secure and done. The bad was that this state was unchangeable, and if I happened to cross the threshold into Real Solid Adulthood at a time of sadness or difficulty, that I would be stuck like that to the end of my days, like a scrunched up face locked in place by a vengeful wind. This worried me, Little Me, but I was lucky to have school years that were mostly bearable and sometimes even joyful, twenties that were deeply compelling and interesting, and I always had confidence that far surpassed my abilities, which kept my spirit buoyed.

In recent years though, for various reasons, that confidence dwindled, ebbed away, and distilled itself into a small and ever-receding pool. Youthful confidence is boundless or non-existent, it rarely falls in between the two. I was either crippled by doubt or defiantly steadfast in my ambition and correctness. As age crept up, though, so too did my need to pause and question before an action, and so grew my hesitancy.

A great love of mine, a great comfort at difficult times, was my ability to talk to strangers. Not always in a deep way, but just to chat at a supermarket till or in the nook of a bus shelter on an October evening. Like my mother and her’s before her, I see it as a gift; a love of conversing, of sharing, of offloading. For someone with a troubled heart or mind, it is a moment to break a pattern of constant, compulsive thought. For someone with a happy mind, it is an opportunity to engage joyfully with the world around them. For me it was both. Even now in moments where I feel a need to be alone, to be silent, I never begrudge another the ability to greet me or strike up a conversation on a bus or a plane. I know their need, and it is more often than not one of seeking joy or seeking comfort, and I would deny neither.

In these recent years of confidence-ebbing, I found these moments became less and less common for me. I questioned myself before talking, I found doubt in conversations with strangers, fear in moments that had previously brought communion. Part of it came from living abroad, from feeling unstable in a foreign language or accent, but part of it was also the approach of Real Solid Adulthood, of thinking “this is the way adults behave, and I am an adult now.” Adults have difficult things that happen to them, and they are stoic and silent because of these things. Adults carry on about their business and adults manage their turmoil deep in their bellies, which actually isn’t really managing it at all.

After a job change that was rather a large kick in the arse, and the death of my Dad, which is one of the largest kicks in the arse you can get to be fair, I felt resigned to this new way of behaving. The Alice that spoke to people, who was excited to tell and hear new things, to be open and enthused, that was an Alice of youth, and that time was over now, and I was ok with it. I often pondered it, sat quietly thinking how funny it was that these swathes of our personalities could just disappear but this was what Little Me had prepared me for: That Adulthood would arrive, and the shutters would descend and that would be that.

I became, in a way, stagnant. I don’t mean this as an airy metaphor. I literally moved less. My presence stilled to a sluggish heave. I drank more wine, I ate more food, I became slower, a drawn-out lurch towards hibernation, but this was what adulthood was, wasn’t it? You moved less, you became more proper, you dealt with those things, those huge life-changing things that everyone said you’d never get over and you just never got over them and that’s why I was how I was now. That’s how you were, that’s how people were. Those losses, those pains, those devastating blows, why *would* you get up in the same way after them? I would live now under their shadow, like I always thought I would, but it was funny all the same to see it happen, to watch such a bright colour get erased from my palette.

The good things in life went on, of course, still love, still food, still family and friends, still travel and books and song, but that sense of outreach, that sense of a stranger as a friend continued to wane. More doubt and more anxiety crept in to quiet corners, and I stiffened myself mentally to bolster against it. I was trying to keep the same measures, the same surroundings, and the same reactions and just carry on through whatever was happening, this adjustment to adulthood. No pausing, no stopping, just carry on, keep going and get it dealt with.

Time, (as much as I fucking hate a cliche), truly is a healer, and also an oracle, a beautiful witch, a blessed God. As much as I tried to carry on with my normal way of doing things, I came to a point where I knew that progress was only possible through change, and that for me, change meant a pause, a stop, a calmer approach to life. More focus, more reading, more routine, and more normality. I knuckled down to work I love, went back to studying, and began to move. I ran clumsily again, I did yoga despite not really being able to touch past my knees, and I swam and spent hours in rotisserie level saunas. I dunked my head under water and held my breath, reacquainting myself with my own silence. I began to run faster, and with more ease, my lungs becoming less of an enemy and more of an engine. I stopped drinking, and started to try to listen when my body was high or low or tired or riddled with anxiety. I just tried to be, in me, in that moment, with myself and whatever was surrounding me. I could only do this recently, to have tried this even 6 months ago would have been as unthinkable as flying to the moon.

Three days ago, I went for a run during the day, sweaty and difficult on a freezing North Sea promenade. Afterwards, I stopped for a coffee in a little shop near a circular green lapped by trams. As I sat at the table, my glasses steamed up from the welcoming heat, I began to chat to the waitress, we laughed and pinged snippets back and forth, and when she walked away, a woman sitting in a far corner acknowledged me, and we smiled at each other, glad of our place in a warm and cosy spot on a freezing day. Glad of each other. My gift has come back, my ability to interact, and without even realising it I fixed myself. A chat to a stranger as glorious as a sign from the heavens. A “hello” is a blessing.




The things I did not expect

DSC_0140I expected to cry.

A lot.

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.