If you never forget where you were when you heard that your dad has died, I’m stuck forever with the mundanity of a residential side-road just outside Stamford; the first available backwater off the A1 when it came to returning a call whose content I knew before I even reached for my phone.
It didn’t matter that you couldn’t wait for me to reach you. Two hundred miles away for over 30 years, I’d always known the odds on my not being there were miniscule. What mattered was that my sister was; holding your hand at the nursing home while unseeing eyes flickered for the last time and cathedral bells pealed in the background.
Given the sorrow I felt when you’d told me months before how lonely you were becoming in your own house, I was more than content with that arrangement.
I continued my journey regardless. Stared you and death in the face together, stroked your cool cheek and thanked you for everything.
That was the easy part. The worst: engaging my stroke-ridden mother with small talk in an upstairs room while watching the body of the man to whom she’d been wed for 51 years, being slid into the back of a hearse in the forecourt below.
And now, back home, I sift through the mental rubble, as grief – hitting home as belatedly as people warn you it will – congeals around the usual outcrops.
I despair at the unknowing brevity of our last conversation last Tuesday: me on holiday, you weak and exhausted after treatment. “I’m a bit better,” you said quietly down the phone, “but I won’t stay on long.”
A bit better. I went fishing with barely a care in the world the following morning. I would never talk to you again and I smiled contentedly at catching three stupid trout.
Yet had I known that was our last contact, who would have ever got the phone out of my hand?
I think of the last time I saw you alive. Surrounded by impending death, I was still happy just to have you around, rants and all. Happy to see you among people, and close to mother, the pair of you spending evenings together in the bedsit-type suite that you’d turned into a home from home. A year or two of this, I told myself: the perfect ending.
All told, you were there just a matter of months, yet for all I might wish you back, would you thank me for it? Life was closing in and you were an old man increasingly unable to reconcile yourself with a body that could no longer run like clockwork. It took so much to make you happy and so little to make you angry these last 18 months, an imbalance that I fancy would have only intensified the longer you lived.
And I wrestle with the same awful perception that tormented me when my grandmother died. A sense of you being stranded in time, unable to move beyond 22nd August 2010 because the world has dropped you off and is moving on without you.
Yet if the Christian message is true, you’re the one who’s gone on ahead, and I’m the one playing catch-up. So I wrestle with perspectives.
Worst of all though, and there’s a moral here for those who swear by routine, is the period between 8.30 and 9pm: the time we’d speak on the phone every evening. Will it be weeks, months or even years before that thirty-minute spell comes and goes without me aching to hear those conversational bookends you used every time?
“Love to you all. Bye-bye. Bye-bye…”