On Sunday morning, not long after six o’clock, my stepfather died. He had, as Dylan Thomas recommended, raged against the dying of the light. He fought hard but, in the end, he went gentle into that good night. His son and daughter were with him and they were the ones who called to tell me. We cried for him and we spoke words of love and we remembered my mum, who was the great love of his life.
It was all rather beautiful, really. He had run his race. Only two days before, I had been hoping he would make his journey. He’d had enough. He hated the lockdown, having to sit in his little house all alone, and he’d got to that great age where everything hurts. I wanted him to be at peace.
So, for a moment, I thought: this will be all right. I’ll be able to send him on his way. Not quite with flags and trumpets, but with gratitude and relief. For a moment, I thought: I’ll get away with this one. I’ll be able to feel gladness instead of grief. I’ve done too much grief, in these last months. One of my oldest and dearest friends died, very suddenly, just before Christmas, and then my little bay mare, the companion of my heart, had to be put down in June. There’s been too much sadness. (And there is the world sadness too, the world deaths, as the ruthless Covid gathers its horrible harvest.)
My body said: I’m afraid it doesn’t quite work like that. It lost function, as if I were one of those machines where you press a button and it powers down. I felt as if I had run into a wall, or was walking through a fog. This is a big loss, said my body, and you can’t pretend you are going to get away with it. So my motor functions went on strike, as if waiting for my mind and spirit to catch up.
It is a big loss. He was the most lovely, gracious, funny man, a real old-fashioned gentleman, and he was the one who brought joy to my mother after a life which had too much sorrow in it. They lived, in the last years of her life, just down the way from me, and I went to their house every morning and cooked them breakfast, and we talked about everything under the sun and made jokes and discussed racing and politics. Those were some of the happiest mornings I remember, ever, which is odd really, because Mum was in pain a lot of the time. But there was always, always laughter in that house. And, in my memory, sunshine too.
Later in the day, I would often see his immaculate, upright figure, walking down the lime avenue with Edward, his merry little dog; or he would suddenly appear at the field with pockets full of apples for the red mare, carefully chopped up, just as she likes them. She adored him. In his last days, I would take him down to the field again to see her. His daughter had set up video calls for him, so I’d turn on the camera and give him a tour of the woods and the meadows and the horses. I even once did a little groundwork demonstration for him, so he could see that the red mare had lost none of her brilliance. Even though he was now five hundred miles away, it felt as if we were together again, as we used to be.
So, although I know that this was his time, and he was done, and he deserves his long rest, I miss him. Nothing will ever quite be the same. And I suppose it’s a little like losing my mum all over again.
I still, for the odd fleeting moment, thought I might be able to cling to the gladness, even though I was stumping about like an ancient woman and I had to cancel my appointments this week because my brain would not work. And then I went into my garden this morning and saw that someone had done some strimming. My lone peony, a beauty of the old school, which had bloomed so gloriously for so many years, lay wrecked and broken on the scorched earth. I broke. I fell to my knees and wept for my Dear Departed – for my mum, my dad, my lost mare, my gentle friend, my lovely stepfather. I cried, absurdly, for that broken flower.
You can’t go round, however much your frightened mind tells you that you can. You can’t go backwards, or left, or right. You can’t avoid the pain, like a spooked horse. You have to go through. I know this but I sometimes forget this. There’s no getting away with it. There is only feeling it.
My body knows this, I think, which is why it slowed down. It knows I have to do it one glacial step at a time. I can’t rush through and get the damn thing over with. (I almost always wish I could do this.) I have to accept that grief, my old friend, is back with me again. I have to welcome her in and let her sit down and allow her to stay until she’s ready to move on.
It’s because of the love, a wise friend said this morning. You grieve because you loved.
There is only the tiniest glimpse of glimmering consolation in that thought. It doesn’t make anything better, but it does make things right. There is a correctness in it. We humans love, and we grieve, and we love again. That’s the balance sheet; that’s the piper who must be paid.
I loved that good man, and now I must honour his loss.