(Or: Applying The Essentialising Filter ™️ of bereavement)
It is now a month since my father died. Grief came in unanticipated form, insinuating itself subtly, damply, into the walls, floors and ceilings, draped light as a sea fret over the roof tiles and filming the windows. It is as though my present and my past are living under gauzy occupation.
One afternoon at the hospice, shortly before Dad died, I wandered through the gardens lured by an elusive thought that glimmered in my peripheral vision, or appeared hazily in the unfocused space between my eyes and the plants. I chased it like a gormless cat, wittering through trees and past flowerbeds, trying to hook imaginary dragonflies out of the air. I had a sense of anxiety that took me a while to catch. Moving, pacing about, allowed the fragments to coalesce: Is there anything I need to know from Dad? Is there anything I will regret when he is no longer here to ask?
I thought about this for some time. My conclusion was that I already knew what I needed to know. I knew about our relationship; I had, after all, witnessed it, helped make it. I had told him often enough that I loved him – he couldn’t doubt it. There was no family history that seemed crucial enough to uncover. His privacy was not suddenly up for public revelation. What I did not know about him was not for me to know.
People often talk of regrets when a loved one dies. My wondering amongst the gardens of the hospice was, it turns out, a futile attempt to catch this before it could happen to me. As so often in life, I am smart-arse enough to imagine I can improve on the natural order and then discover with surprise that the natural order is more wily, more subtle, more complex than my speculations had allowed.
The gauzy shroud of grief acts as a 360-world filter. It transforms not how the insta-squares of the surface look but what we see inside; in the walls, the floors, the ceilings. In the marrow and the heart. I have spent many hours this last month thinking that Dad was so much better, so much more than I had realised. How I regretted my cloddish lack of appreciation. These thoughts are the lures that lead to biting onto the hook of guilt.
The newly dead are transformed through the membranous filter that comes between life and death. They become essential, pure, shriven of the clunky mechanics of actually being alive. When we think of them we may not call to mind the annoyances or the disappointments. It would seem churlish to do so. It is as though the faults in our connection, if they ever existed, can be laid as errors at our own feet. In realising this, I have managed to avoid guilt. But my view has shifted. I know more about my Dad now than I did before he died, because I see him in his essential form.
I am left struggling with a feeling close to outrage that things will go back to normal. This process is so fundamental, so insinuating, so life-changing. Going through such a time it is hard to realise there will not be some kind of result at the end. At the very least a beautiful insight: a sense of purpose perhaps, a wish fulfilled, a change of fortune. But no. Life will go on as normal, there’s no prize for having been bereaved. It serves no end. Grief is not a process that leads somewhere, it is an interruption. When I get past my somewhat childish annoyance that this horrible effort is not part of a bigger plan, I know really that this is ok. I watch over myself with curiosity as the sway and swing of life changes me. I am not made better or worse but I am tempered by it. And I am still blessed.
As I stopped writing this, presuming it complete, I had an idea that there may after all be a reward. The fundamental shift I have experienced in the soul of my life, the groaning dread at going ‘back to normal’, these could after all lead to a change. I dread returning to consuming chores, scratching my head to come up with alluring ways to bend the people of social media into potential buyers for a book that hasn’t come out yet. I dread deciding whether I need to get another cleaning job to pay for the second-hand car that I bought on a credit card so that I could have the freedom to visit Dad whenever necessary. I dread giving up the freedom that car has brought. I dread all the bloody thinking about it, about money, about leveraging what could be called progress from next to nothing – ideas and pennies. This big, fundamental shift, the trick-turns of new ways of seeing, the Essentialising Filter of death make it entirely possible to imagine refusing to do these chores. Just don’t. Do what matters: write, read, earn a bit of cash. Breath in, hang out with loved ones. Let progress look after itself. What matters is in the bones, in the eaves, in the air. I can feel the weight of it shifting inside. I can see it, glinting, precious, in my peripheral vision.