I never got to say goodbye to my father. He died in September, just hours before my flight left London for Durban, South Africa.
I had rushed back to London after completing the Cotswold Way, bought my plane ticket and hoped I would make it back in time to say goodbye. But I was too late.
When I arrived home there was no trace left of my father. His room had been stripped bare. My mother had placed his soiled pyjamas, medicine and toiletries in black bin liners and put them out on the pavement for the day’s trash collection. The windows were wide open to remove the remaining stench of death.
The only clue to my father’s suffering and death lay in the blood stain on the mattress. That was all that was left of him.
Bereavement is one of those things that until it happens to you, it’s impossible to imagine what it’s like.
From the moment I heard about his death I felt plunged into unknown territory, a world where there was no guide, no route to follow. In many ways it has been a journey into the heart of darkness; my heart of darkness.
For the first few days I felt numb. I had a sense of disbelief that this was happening to me and was simply going through the motions. All the while I was waiting for the reality of the situation to hit home and engulf me in grief.
Back at the family home we sat round reminiscing about the ‘bad old days’, swapping stories about my father.
We laughed over his extreme hate for Margaret Thatcher and the fact that he was never on time for work or church. We remembered hours spent at the shooting range on Saturday afternoons, all the train rides we took and the holidays to war-torn Rhodesia.
It’s Complicated: Mourning the Death of my Father
Friends had warned me that it’s even harder dealing with the loss of a parent with whom you had a complicated relationship. And I can see why. Had I known only love for my father and felt loved by him, his loss from my life would be enormous. That kind of grief I understand.
But I’m not mourning what we had.
As a child and a teenager I hated my father. I hated him because he was hardly ever home and when he was he was angry and distant. He was never violent, but his outbursts of anger left us all feeling as if we’d had our skin stripped with a whip. I hated him because we often went hungry and there was never enough money.
But mostly I hated him because he made my mother miserable. And the more depressed she was, the more wretched our lives felt.
My brother’s eulogy probably said it best. He described my father as a ‘man of his time’, someone who had lived through the deprivation of war-time England as a child and never quite recovered. We’re used to stories of men of that time not being able to express their emotions and not being able to communicate with their wives and children in particular.
I stopped hating him years ago. With the help of a good therapist, my anger turned into pity for him and sadness for us.
I am mourning the relationship we didn’t have. I am mourning all those lost opportunities to develop a father/daughter relationship and create good experiences and memories together. I am mourning what could have been and what will never be.
My Father’s Funeral
My father’s funeral felt like a rite of passage that I had to go through in order to experience some form of transformation, acceptance and healing.
Until I saw the coffin in front of me in the church it was easy to think that he hadn’t really left this earth but was just someplace else. At home, I kept on expecting him to appear in the doorway and call my mother away to attend to him or tell us to keep the noise down.
It was the sight of the priest committing the body and the coffin, the smell of incense and the sound of Pachelbel’s Canon in D played on the church organ that finally brought it home to me.
As Father Dane said a prayer and scattered holy water over the coffin I realised that this was the last time I would be in the presence of my father. I stared at the coffin and felt the tears well up in my eyes until everything was a blur. And then I began to sob, great heaving sobs that came up from my belly and made my shoulders heave.
It was as if I was watching a film on fast-forward of my life with my father. There he was, hands around my neck trying to strangle me, standing in the kitchen doorway watching us eat dinner and finding fault with each one of us round the table. I saw his face red and distorted from shouting, eyes bulging and veins popping in his neck.
I remembered the time I was so annoyed with him I kicked him in the groin, and his constant threat that he would see us all in the gutter. I saw him cleaning his guns, pointing them at us as we watched television, could hear the soundtrack of endless arguments. Scenes flashed in my mind’s eye of me begging for money for school provisions, for new clothes, and going to bed hungry because there was no food.
And while I sobbed, I kept on thinking, ‘What a waste.’ What a waste of a father and daughter relationship, what a waste of love, what a waste of time.
Then I felt calm as I thought, ‘It’s finally over.’ What’s gone is gone, what’s done is done. He can no longer hurt us, irritate us, deprive us. He had his chance to be a father and a husband and he wasted it. We can never get that time back. It’s all over, it’s happened, it’s gone. He has finally gone.
I’m left feeling sad and guilty. Guilty for not being able to remember anything loving about him. Guilty for not really knowing what I felt for my father. Was it love? Or was it just tolerance and pity?
I have regrets too. I regret not asking him more about his family history and his life before he met my mother. I regret not knowing him better and him not knowing me.
If I’d had the Chance to Say Goodbye
What would I have said to him if I’d had the chance to say goodbye? Would I have asked him why he didn’t appreciate his family? If he loved us? Perhaps I would have sat by his bedside and waited for the ‘Sorry’ that I so desperately wanted to hear. Or told him how sad I was that we’d never been close.
No, remembering how he was for all those years, there is only one thing I could have wished him.
If I’d said goodbye to my father, I think I would have taken his hand in mine and very gently said, ‘Dad, the torment is over. Be at peace.’
You can read about my father’s legacy in a post I wrote before he died: What is Your Legacy?