(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.
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Last week we gathered for my father’s funeral. Though sad, still sad, it was a very happy occasion. He had asked that we lay on a party that he would’ve loved to be at. We certainly did that and he was greatly missed. My brother and sister both spoke at the service and I wrote the piece following this introduction, which was printed in the Order of Service.
My parents divorced many years ago and both went on to have very happy and successful relationships with other wonderful people. They remained great friends. That past and beautifully revised relationship was not marked during the service and I wished that there had been a way to acknowledge it. So, whilst this piece is about my Dad, it is also a way of honouring my Mum, their time together and the wonderful childhood they both made for us.
Black Rocks and Sparkling Seas
Since Dad died, my memories of him have all included water: cold and brown, foaming across rock worn into dark hollows by the river; beaches where the lure of the sea meant there wasn’t time to lie in the sun; boats decked with good cheer and uncertain destinations – sailing boats, motor boats, rowing boats. My first time snorkelling, my last time diving. A childhood in which adventure thrived.
The car was packed. Mum and Dad in the front, us three in the back; no seats, the luggage made the seats. Tents and bags sculpted to resemble a place for us to sit rather than a disaster waiting to happen. It was covered with three blue sleeping bags that would make our scant beds once we arrived. I am not sure how long the journey was but we seemed to slide about on top of the luggage for days, getting hotter and hotter as we headed South, finally crossing on the tatty ferry to Porquerolles. Then, it wasn’t the luxurious resort it reportedly is now. It was a beautiful, rough little island with beaches and a campsite, a town with a square where an old man and a monkey vaguely harassed visitors and shops which sold harsh red wine by the plastic litre bottle.
We camped with two other families; ten or so children become a feral tribe, barefoot and brown for what seemed like a whole carefree summer. Dad, then long-haired and medallion-wearing, spent hours in the sea with us, chasing, throwing, racing, pulling rafts, crashing and diving through the surf. He was shoulders to stand on and dive from; an inexhaustible engine towing us across the waves; an accomplice in those long and happy weeks of beach life.
A few years ago, Dad and I went on a dive at Black Rock in Brighton. It was a fairly grim October day, there was a vicious surge. Visibility was around one metre. Don’t even ask about the temperature of the water. At around ten metres depth we got to see the tracks of the bizarre Victorian railway that for a while cruised above the sea along the Brighton front. It wasn’t quite the same as the snorkelling that Dad had taught us on those French holidays – seeing a bright green octopus fifteen metres below in crystal clear water of Porquerolles, then diving for sea urchins which we ate with a teaspoon on the beach. But it had the same sense of adventure, of things being possible. Dad was the first diver in the family, engaging keenly with laborious BSAC training in Reading pool and off a brownish beach in Swanage. We all caught the bug eventually – though we smartly took up the sport in light-weight tropical waters.
Dad took Joe sailing in Scotland and the Channel Islands, in companionship with his brother Sim and his friend David and their sons. Happy adventures on top of the sea rather than in or under it – though tales leaked after the fact reveal that it was occasionally a fairly close-run thing.
On trips to Wales, we would walk for hours, finding rivers to swim and streams to dam. Damming a stream could become an epic mission of opportunistic engineering, using mud, branches, moss, stones; a library of local materials pressed into experiment and service. I can still feel the bite of cold in the bones of my wrist, the wet cuff of a coat a zinging reminder once the return leg of the walk resumed. There was one river where dad would sit above us, blocking the flow of water that fell from a narrow channel of rock. Once we were in the right spot he’d unplug the flow and it would come whooshing onto us – the daft thrill of anticipating a sudden surge of freezing, sinus-warping unpleasantness; we loved it.
As well as building or being a dam he’d take us to look at them. The three of us squinting into a sun that bleached our vision as if the sight were already a fading polaroid. I do remember being impressed with the various sizes. But I also remember not having a clue as to why we were there. Of course, now I see it. We were there to wonder. And what a gift. Life is an adventure, life is full of wonder. Look at it children, look at it with joy and see what you can make of it.
What a blessing. With all my heart, thank you Dad. For all of it.
The heat keeps on, pressing my skin, the continuity is a reminder of where I was just a few days ago. Though time stretches strangely in strange times, makes it seem like I am remembering an epochal, ancient past or a current, fleeting dream.
I was revisiting a place I knew well, my childhood home was not three miles away. A landscape that I love: beech woods, fields and lanes, buildings of red brick and flint. Too many cars but enough space. I could walk once more in the woods, sheltering from the heat and collecting my thoughts. The woods have always been a place to think, to re-order myself. I get the same sense of grounded wonder in a cathedral, a similarly cool and elegantly spanned space. The beech woods and the cathedral create a modicum of awe that sets the tone, then leave us alone, content to let private reverie occupy our attention. With hindsight, I have understood that this, in part, in distant childhood years is what my father was offering me, all three of us, on our baffling day trips to see dams and bridges. Look at the grace of this structure, look how it achieves itself so effortlessly. Look.
Once my thoughts had been reordered on the short walks of this recent visit, I went back to the newer, harder to navigate terrain – smaller and infinitely more vast. A hot room, my dad so thin, the rugged, narrow mountains of his knees rising sharply from his shallow body. The sheer, spare cliffs of his beautiful face. The heat, the heat. The creaking of wooden floors and the electric fan rumbling like thunder edging the unfamiliar horizons. Space stretched too so that the horizons, for some time, were met in this narrow view.
The heavy victorian gothic of the hospice building did not do as a good job as the beech trees of keeping the unusual heat at bay, at least on the sunny side of the building. But it held us all gently, kindly, kept us together and cared for us as we said goodbye to my father over a rapidly changing week this June. Over days that included his birthday, which was also the day he accepted that death was coming, then ordered a gin and tonic for himself, his partner and for me. And only a few days later, Father’s day. The day he died.
After he died, when it was time to leave, I found it hard. I wanted to stay in that dark wooden interior, the gentle embrace of ancient luxury repurposed into a kind of universal love for those suffering at the end of their lives and those suffering at the end of another’s. The care that enclosed me and my siblings, and dad’s partner, had also enclosed him, keeping us all together. It was hard to leave him there, though he had gone.
My dad was an architect, a rock climber, a diver, a sailor, a lover of songs sung with heart. In these later years, for the ever-present joy of sport, he played croquet, one of the most entertainingly vicious games there is – schadenfreude is almost written into the croquet rule book.
He loved with a big and generous heart, if not always with the quickest sense of another’s needs. But he cared deeply and with great, throat-catching emotion about those he loved. He believed in his family. He believed with atheist conviction in the true importance of fairness, liberty and equality. He was a great thrower of parties and a marvellous host.
Sometimes in his time at the hospice he asked us to leave him. It was hard for one of the gifted hosts of the world to be unable to attend to and join his guests. I knew he wanted us with him but it was difficult to rest when his thoughts were on us. So we spent time in the beautiful grounds, in the woods, and in the rooms provided for us – the people visiting a loved one. In that time, my daughter sent me a link to a film she has made as a choreographer and dancer. It is a beautiful piece called Kintsukuroi/Golden Repair. The piece is dedicated at the end to my father, Philip Allison.
That is in itself, a form of golden repair. A way of making the cracks and scars beautiful. To know, from his actions and from evidence of photos and papers on his work table, how much pride he had in his grandchildren, how he looked for ways to support them in their reaching for value, how he sought ways that he could nourish them in their claims to a life of beautiful meaning. And to see that love and respect come back to him. To watch my daughters becoming magnificently themselves with his love and support even as I watch him slide quietly away.
This is a common time, a universal time. We have all said goodbye to someone we love. And we all stumble through helping each other to navigate the sad days and long nights of goodbye. And so many people, in our sadness are pouring their own gold to help make the repairs. Letters and memories, messages from people who loved dad or who care about us. They offer such kindness. I am thankful for all of it.
I would also like to particularly offer my deep gratitude to the Sue Ryder hospice in Nettlebed for their beautiful humanity. I will be trying to think of a way to fundraise and support their work.
I send my love to my brother Joe and my sister Thea. I am so glad we were there together with dad.
And Lilian and Phoebe. Beloved
It’s morning, the day is my friend, I inhabit it calmly. Not badgered by lists and plans that require me to stretch it beyond its natural limits. The day doesn’t always respond kindly to this rough usage, it becomes withdrawn and places its wonders before more receptive eyes.
Standing just now in the kitchen, clearing the draining board, I stopped to look with a modest measure of longing and hope at the empty bird feeder that two days ago I hooked up on a bare branch. It is, I fear, a difficult spot for the birds to find, over cement, between two houses. But I can see it both from the kitchen window and here where I sit to write. I was out all yesterday and haven’t seen any birds today. But the lady who sold me seed said they will find it, and if they don’t, I’ll move it.
As I gazed upward to the bare branches where it hangs, there was a third reminder this morning of the ravages of grief. An album of songs written about it was featured on the background radio, for those grieving, for loss. One song was called My Heart Goes Out To You.
Two days ago, my eighteen year old daughter lost a friend. Earlier this morning, the second reminder, she came in to my room and we sat on the bed and talked about death. Lots of it, lots of versions. Our final absence from life, how we deal with the death of others. I asked her to try to come to terms with death, to think about it often, to disempower the fear of it. As with many teenagers, as with my younger self, she has often been afraid of dying, of losing a loved one and of the grief that follows. We talked about how rehearsing these fears can make it feel as if one has predicted, as if a premonition made one know that the news of a death was due.
We talked, because she feels an ache in her heart for the parents of her friend, of the difference between empathy and sympathy. I feel a fierce love for the passion and care that my daughters bring to life, their concerns for the world, their anger at injustice. But perhaps our sympathy, in respecting the boundaries of emotions, in not claiming them for ourselves, is the more useful gift than empathy that can drown us. We are no good to others if we let a taste of the pain they suffer consume us as well.
We talked about the waste of living life in fear of death. We decided that was like going on a dream holiday and ruining it by spending the whole time fretfully imagining the plane ride home.
The impetus for writing Twice the Speed of Dark was an experiment I did with caring about death. I was struck, like many, by the difference between the news response to victims of the Boston Marathon bombing and the contiguous relentless and mostly ignored deaths from terrorist bombs in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wondered about the people who were dying in market place bombs and bus bombs. In real time, (though not able to account for every death) I wrote portraits, to imagine the victims in life, to try and understand the reality of their death. The gifts of this process was an awakening of a kind of love for strangers and the marvellous discovery that what I wanted to be was a writer. But it was gruelling. It made me so sad to dwell on loss, to think about the dead and the families that would mourn them. I kept it up for a few weeks, but there was no conclusion and I had to stop. Even when I came to write Twice the Speed of Dark around the same idea, I could find no satisfactory conclusion. (The book centres on a woman grieving for her child. I came to understand that there was no coincidence in the timing. I began writing it a year after my step brother died suddenly. A year after feeling and observing the harrowing of grief in my family.)
Today is Holocaust Memorial day, the first reminder of grief. It is easy to become overwhelmed by what that means.
In my early twenties I read a book of poetry by Kevin Gilbert, an Aboriginal born into the Wiradjuri nation. He was an artist and activist as well as a poet. My sister bought me the book when we were together on a trip to Australia.The poems are full of ferocious, political soul fury, and heavy with loss. They made me cry.
Appropriately, it came to mind this morning. I have an associated memory of when I first read the poems, a moment of angry self-admonition. A harsh but perhaps reasonable insight suddenly that no one needed my tears. I couldn’t do anything to help the aboriginal people by showing how deeply I felt their pain. Yes, perhaps this is harsh. But I am fine with a bit of harsh now and then, it can be useful. Because there is some truth in it. The emotions of others matter, but not because I can feel them too. In this political context, perhaps I have no right to feel that pain, perhaps it is an indulgence. I don’t know for sure. It felt a little as if I was taking away something more, taking emotions that were not mine, and making them mine. Really what I needed to do was give. Give strength or love, if it would be useful. Particularly in this context, that of politics as well as soul, give actions.
I think as I have got older that I see it slightly differently. Sympathy may sometimes be a more useful and even respectful response, but it is possible to have empathy for us all. For the human animal. For the sisterhood and brotherhood of people without the delineation of creed or nationality. For the faltering glories and harrowing failures that will exist as long as we do. It’s for all of us to carry that.
And for those dealing with personal losses, my heart goes out to you.
There are still no birds, it would’ve been nice to finish this by describing the first arrival, a sparrow maybe, or a starling. But I still gaze, with my small measure of hope and longing and wait until they come.
Kevin Gilbert – http://www.austlit.edu.au/austlit/page/A33538
Twice the Speed of Dark – https://unbound.com/books/twice-the-speed-of-dark
“Filigree ghost patterns of love and grief had crept across Anna’s hollowed insides, like lichen, like salt crystals blooming on the innards of a calcified cave.” Twice the Speed of Dark, chapter one
My funding has got to 64% almost entirely at the hands of friends and family and people who know me. I am stunned by the good will and generosity. It leaves me with 36% to find, mostly from people who will only be interested because they like the sound of the book rather than they want to support its writer. It has always been clear to me that this point would come, I just thought it would come later and be a much much bigger chunk of the total. So I feel in a very good position to face a somewhat daunting task.
I have come to the conclusion that I need to make my book, which features a lot of death, sound more appealing. It is, it turns out, impossible to describe one’s own book as uplifting or life-affirming without feeling a little bit disgusted with oneself, however much of a handy short-cut that would turn out to be. But it would also be slightly inaccurate.
I am not quite sure how I would describe the positive feeling that Twice the Speed of Dark may hopefully provide. But here is where it originates. Before I knew I wanted to write books, I was an artist. One day, thinking about the discrepancy between the way the news reported the deaths that occurred during the Boston Marathon and those that occurred with grinding regularity every other day in Afghanistan and Iraq, I came up with the idea of writing, in as close to real time as I could manage, portraits for the people from those places who only appeared in the news as a tally of casualties. So as an art project I started writing a blog, where I would take a news event, time and date, number of casualties, and write a short portrait of each of them, so that I might understand, in a way that the news didn’t explain, what their death might mean.
I kept at it for a couple of months. It was often sad and a little gruelling, even though I didn’t get any where near to covering all of the killings that happened. But what it also did was awaken a huge sense of love and empathy for the strangers around me. The first time it hit me I was going down the long escalator at Victoria underground station. I was idly looking at the people coming up in the opposite direction and it hit me hard, these ordinary people, with their rich and varied lives, they would be the ones hidden in that cold tally of deaths.
Love for a stranger is a curious thing. By definition it has to be unconditional. Perhaps it is a love that remains powerless, I am not sure what it would compel me to sacrifice. But at that moment, feeling a surge of connection to my fellow travellers, knowing with all of my heart that we are the same whatever differences life had made of us, it felt like a strong and mighty good thing. I just don’t know what handful of words describe that feeling and how I would incorporate it into a tempting sales pitch.
This art project became Twice the Speed of Dark, and it is Anna, the book’s central character who writes the portraits in an act of caring and accounting for the lives of distant strangers. This love for strangers is part of what helps Anna to free herself from the burdens of grief.