I’ve just noticed the date. 30th October 2010.
It gave me a jolt because it’s the first time for 42 years that I haven’t been well aware the 30th October was approaching.
Forty-two years ago today I was a 12 year old sitting in a classroom when the headmistress came to the door, had a few words with my teacher, and hoicked me out of class.
In her study, I found my elder sister already seated and the headmistress told us our mother had called and we both had to go home. We knew what that meant. Our dad had been ill with cancer for nearly two years and in the last week it had become clear he was close to death.
In those days, cancer wasn’t mentioned – my mother says she never heard the word spoken by a doctor until after my father’s death. Routines weren’t often disrupted for the dying or bereaved. As kids, we continued to go to school even though something cataclysmic was happening to our family that week. Maintaining routine and some aspects of normality was seen as sensible back then. (I was packed off to school the day after the funeral – correctly I feel – even though I was in a stupor. Sitting around at home would not have served any better purpose. Going to school reassured me that though life had taken a definite turn for the worse, it would go on.)
I don’t remember how we got to the bus stop where we took the bus home but I remember plodding down the lane with my sister and seeing mum in the window of our house. She was crying, her blonde head pressing against the glass, and our spirits sunk even lower.
The 30th of October was – ever after it seemed – seared into my heart as pretty much the end my 12-year-old world. October,since, has always been my worst month; the month of colds or chills, dispiriting grey skies, the month when the winter seems to loom depressingly close, stretching out forever.
Every year I noticed and thought a bit about the 30th of October. My mother and I would always speak on the phone. “You know what day it is?” “Sure. Of course.”
I’d think of my rumbustious dad, the strong, handsome air force guy who fought the nazis across Africa and up through Italy, loved to party, didn’t marry and settle down till he was in his forties and was always – always – photographed smiling with a bunch of pals, a drink in one hand and a cigarette in the other.
It seemed to me that his life was as fun and glamorous as his death was brutal and painful.
Year in, year out, I lived my life – as we all do – and had great times and less great times. But through it all, year in, year out, the 30th of October would never let me go.
And then today, I noticed – completely unaware – that it’s the 30th. This weekend I booked a flight, looking at dates. That didn’t trigger the usual awareness. I invited friends to dinner on the 31st. That didn’t ring the usual bell either. At the beginning of October, when I usually take account of the fact that that month is beginning, I was busy thinking of my olives, of the local oysters I love to eat between now and Christmas, of the wild mushrooms I’ll collect with friends in the forest around Sault, here in Provence, and Mont Ventoux.
And so I’ve realised today that after nearly half a century (ouch!) I have finally “got over” my father’s death. People say to the bereaved “Oh you’ll get over it” or they say of the bereaved ‘You’d really think s/he’d be over it by now’. Or the bereaved themselves ask painfully “How long before I get over it?”
The answer is that you don’t get over it. You slowly incorporate it. It’s not something you leave ‘behind’ – it quite naturally becomes part of who you are. Grief takes as long as it takes. For one thing, it’s not linear. You have peaks and troughs. You forget, then you remember. There’s no point resisting it and no point wallowing in it either. Just let it resolve itself in time.
I called my mother this morning to tell her I’ve booked a flight and will arrive to see her in England next Tuesday. In the 42 years since she first became a widow (and single mother) aged 37, she’s been widowed again after a 16 year marriage, lost a fiancé in open heart surgery and has now had a boyfriend – aged 86! – for 16 years. For her, my dad was the sole father of her children but as things turned out he was just one of her life partners. For me, he was my only dad! Today, for the first time, she didn’t mention the date. Neither did I. I was oblivious.
I don’t know if she, like me, had forgotten. If I remember, I’ll ask her when I see her. But I have this strange feeling now that I’ve remembered belatedly. It’s a feeling of grass growing slowly over a tomb, obliterating scarred earth.
There’s no formula for overcoming grief. You can live with it on a low level for a very long time. And then it seems you can notice one day that it’s resolved. Because grief is not linear, it can come and go for decades and there’s nothing wrong with that. If you’ve loved someone and they’ve played an important part in your life you will inevitably miss them. Unless that feeling becomes disabling, it’s perfectly normal. It’s perfectly normal too that one day you may think Ooh, I’d almost forgotten…, give the missing person some affectionate thought – and then peacefully resume what you were doing.