I stop the car. I want a moment to myself. To be still. The space next to me is empty for all of 30 seconds. In a flash of recognition I see family members. We have aged. We have all aged. She has died. We are all here to gather together because she has died. When I see them there is a lurch inside me, a feeling of momentary horror. My moments peace, my chance to stop for a second or two and just be. It’s gone. Selfish thought. True thought. I wanted it. I thought I needed it.
I think about her. I loved her. I really did. The frail bones and the quiet days of the last few visits nothing against the memory of the life lived, the warmth of a shared joke, the endless cups of tea, the treats, the trips, the gentle curiosity and the time at the age of 25 I pretty much broke down in her front room because I was so lonely and fed up and she didn’t make me feel awkward or stupid.
I steel myself for the awkwardness of a reunion. The stiff hugs and handshakes I can never master. It doesn’t happen like that though. We know why we are here and it’s suddenly ok. I am out of the car, I am cold, but I am glad. We laugh, we talk. I talk, a bit too much, a bit too keenly, but I want to talk, I want it to be ok, I want today to be ok, I want today to be great. Like she was. I want to put people at ease, I want people to feel at ease. I want her to be with us. I want her to be with us because she’d like that. All of us, laughing and smiling and teasing.
The day has already been long. The day has already been an uphill struggle, a trudging route march through surliness and strategic complements designed to put me off my guard. I’ve had to fight today, to sink my teeth into flesh and shake it, to run to stand still, to weigh up how to talk, how to respond, what tack to take. It’s exhausting. It’s draining. I wish I could pretend it didn’t matter, but today it did. I haven’t stopped to think of this moment. I haven’t gathered my mind at all and now I feel like I’m stood at the top of a hill about to career down it. About to head down a waterslide, blindfolded. Cold water. Darkness. The ladder behind me has gone.
Time ticks on. We wait, we mill, we wonder who is coming, How we all have aged. How we amaze ourselves as we look around and see those people we haven’t seen since our childhood. How they have aged we remark. How we have aged we think. Time ticks on.
We mill, we chat, then the doors open. People loiter, anxiously. There is an etiquette apparently. No one has explained it. Someone says something about ‘family first’ but family don’t seem to here and for a moment it seems like no one will go in.
Music plays. I don’t think of music when I think of her. She always gave you her full attention. Music was something she enjoyed in private. Something to keep her company. She was such good company. I think of her, on her own, years on her own, refusing a television, reading, thinking, musing, wondering. I know she was lonely sometimes. I know she was lonely at the end. This makes me cry. Her dying doesn’t make me cry as much loneliness. I see her favourite carer. I think that she wasn’t as lonely as some people are and I feel a bit happier.
I think about it all. It’s too big for me, this day. Too much today has been about the shuddering, shattering reality underneath the dreams we’d like to live. The rhythm of payments, the back and forth of incoming and outgoings, the balance of security, each debt and debit weighed in balance on the scales, all of this in doubt. Life is fragile. Life is frightening, but we cling to it, we skate on the ice, never sure of when it will break but we skate on.
I calm myself. All this seems small now. We have a life lived in front of us. All the detail and small print and the interpretations and argument over outcomes and possibilities stops for us all at some point. I think of life like a chain, each person’s experience overlapping with the next like a link. I think of how she was a connection to a world I could never know any more. Of Lyon’s tea rooms, black and white films, of celebrity Stanleys like Matthew’s and Mortenson (the former ‘self regarding’ the latter more approved of apparently,) of soot blackened Manchester and of handsome service men who would take your heart and walk it on the promenade of a breezy, beautiful bustling seaside town for the rest of his life and wouldn’t live, like you would, to see the brash optimism of your hometown turn from graceful art deco inspired civilised freshness, all green paint and civic pride to a faded, tatty remnant of some other time, all woozy and staggering uncertainly.
I speak. I speak second. The first speech is calm, measured and beautifully well prepared. This was your son. It was everything you thought he was and he does you proud. I don’t know what I’m doing on the lectern. I don’t like the lectern. I’m really not the kind of person to stand still and speak but I do. I can’t remember what I say. I’m good at speaking, but speaking feels like a deception. I’m good at persuading, explaining, cajoling but there’s nothing to explain, no-one needs persuading. There’s no argument with anyone. You can’t debate away the end. I want to say how much I loved you as a person. Your knowledge of art and history, your gentle conversation, full of facts and stories. Your interest in things. I wanted to you to know I liked you, not just because you spoiled me, but because you were like a friend. Not just because you’d press £20 into my hand, but because you made me feel wanted and loved by all that we did. I wanted you to know that. I don’t know if I said that. I have no idea.
The minister has a benevolent look as I step down and take my seat. Then he tells us to take a memory and hold it dear to us. I don’t actually know what he is - he has a collar, but someone said this was non denominational service. I shook his hand at the beginning, but I couldn’t process the information properly. I can’t focus, I can’t think of a memory. All I can do is look around, look at the people around, heads bowed, or staring past the space at front into the middle distance. I wonder what they are thinking. Right now, I’d like to borrow a thought from them, because I’m getting restless. I need a thought, a memory, but my mind is racing too quick and I can’t stop it to focus. It’s producing an absurd mix of strange dreamlike images and everything I try to fix on morphs into something else. I wonder at the thoughts of this reverend, this vicar, this strange man who leads a life of death and marriage, a schizophrenic leap from joyous beginnings to sad endings. I wonder if he is thinking pious and wise thoughts or if his mask is fixed to cover the same mundanity that goes through everyone’s head in their working lives. I shouldn’t be wondering this. I should be remembering.
Then he makes a strange gesture with his arm held out and fingers crooked. Some kind of blessing or a signal to someone else. I don’t know. The curtains close. So soon. It’s like everything from all the memories I could latch onto happening at once, like I’m going to visit on an autumn evening, like I’m a child in the garden, like I’m taking an arm to steady her, like I’m following round a department store, like I’m wanting to stay for another week and not go to school, like we’re being naughty and sharing a cake when we’ve already had an ice cream, like I’m laughing at the lock on the back door’s ludicrous mechanism, like I’m being told to put my coat on in case it rains, like I’m watching her watching my little boy and thinking of my dad watching her watch me and how I must have reminded her of my dad and so on and so on and it’s all there, all at once.
I cry and my sister hugs me tight. She’s all shoulders and hair, firm and solid and I need her. Just for a second. Just for a moment. I need to cry. I need not to celebrate or remember or follow someone’s instructions on how to think or deal or feel, I just need to drop into the abyss and have someone pull me out. The darkness is like oxygen.
Outside there is more conversation and people are thanked for coming. I don’t know what to do, whether it’s my place to do this or not. I don’t know if they know what to do. I wonder if you ever get the hang of this sort of thing. I suppose, rather grimly, that you do.
I wonder, rather macabrely why we pretend that live isn’t the same as death, why we can’t just accept that life is fleeting and precious and why we wrap ourselves up in so many layers of complete and utter pretence. Why we give it so much pseudo meaning, when really, it’s just essentially that moment of oblivion and being pulled out of it by knowing someone is holding you. It’s just the warmth of someone else, the smile, the hand on the shoulder, the sharing of the burden.
That’s all that matters. I’ll miss her. I was lucky to have her for so long.