…. This is quite old. My mum has also gone since I wrote this. But I was thinking of my dad the other day (I was using his tools) and I remembered this and thought I’d post it ….
People say grief doesn’t move in straight lines it moves in waves. What’s not always said is that the waves are more like the kind you get on a pond than in the sea. A pond can be flat for a while; the ducks go back to tending their nests, the frogs creep out to test their voices. And then something – a smell, a place, a memory of something shared – goes plop, and a stone hits the water.
Sometimes it doesn’t even seem to take a stone. Something will bubble up from nowhere, like methane from the mud, and off go the circles. Unlike a pond, the waves don’t always diminish as they move outwards. Sometimes they get bigger and the waves from one loss can touch off another until the pond is not a pond anymore, it’s a whirlpool and it feels like you’re drowning – and all because someone was wearing the same aftershave, or you heard a song, or saw a place name on a map.
The stone for me this time was wrapping paper, or maybe Sellotape. Suddenly it was Christmas and I was back in that small house, in the tiny hallway outside the shut door of the living room (the front room we used to call it, although it was at the back). That door was never closed. Never ever. Except for one time a year. And that was the time when Mum and Dad would shut themselves in to wrap Christmas presents. What exquisite torture it was to be an eight-year-old and to stand in pyjamas in that hallway and press my ear to the door and listen for the rustle of paper and the screech of my dad’s Sellotape dispenser.
Dad was a careful wrapper. His gifts, no matter what they were – a chocolate selection box, a Scalextric set, even a bag of marbles – all looked beautiful by the time he’d finished. He wrapped with care. Mum says he used to use a ruler. (How would he use a ruler?)
Dad did everything with care. He was gentle and warm and kind and funny, and I miss him so very, very much. I miss his arms, so big and soft, and how they would enfold me. I miss the smell of him and the warmth of him. His smile, his laugh and the way that he stood between me and anything that was bad in the world. He was my champion and my best friend. And he was the ground. He held me up.
Waves upon waves. Missing my dad, I found myself thinking about Gena for the first time in weeks. Gena was my friend. We didn’t know each other for a long time. We weren’t old school friends or anything like that, but Gena was there for me in one of the very darkest periods of my life. And I don’t know if I’d be here if it wasn’t for her.
She was what people call a free spirit (although she’d scoff and groan and roll her eyes at an expression like that). A musician. She had hair that was sometimes pink, sometimes black, most often the colour of copper. She played keyboards and guitar and wore Dr Marten’s boots before they were revived. And she sang. Boy did she sing. She sang jazz. She sang punk rock. She sang wild, crazy songs that she wrote herself – some of them fizzing with anger, some weird, and some haunting and sad.
And she did gutsy things that I dreamed of doing but didn’t dare. She bought a plane ticket, dropped everything in London and took her guitar to New York. She sang in bars and slept on sofas until months later, after September the eleventh, she came home. Sadder.
She taught me to sing Elvis songs and Sinatra. She used to say that people worried too much about what kind of voice they had or how well they could carry a tune. For her it was always about the song. If you believed it and you sang it with all your heart, it didn’t matter what kind of voice you had; people would feel the connection and would respond. She made me test the theory once by standing on a desk and belting out New York, New York to a room full of strangers. It was one of the most terrifying things I’ve ever done – and possibly one of the least popular music events of all time. To this day I still don’t know how she got me to do it.
I’m not sure her theory worked for me. (I didn’t seem to make many connections.) But it worked for her. Her voice was not what’s generally considered a beautiful voice. It wasn’t conventional. Her voice had gravel in it, grit – and she didn’t have a huge range. But she sang with her whole heart.
Once, at a party, in a friend’s kitchen she sang Stormy Weather. She just stood there next to the sink holding a bottle of beer and sang it. No backing. People stopped talking to listen. A few looked like they would cry. It was one of the saddest, loneliest performances I’d ever heard, and it was beautiful. But I missed the significance of it. Stupidly. I just didn’t think.
And then I got married. Gena came to the wedding in a dress and boots. And for a wedding present she gave us a big book of songs, jazz standards. I’ve got it right here.
And then I never saw her again.
My wife and I had our first child and, as sometimes happens, we became preoccupied. We lost touch with people. It was at least two years before I tried to find Gena again. By then she had gone.
Now sometimes I listen back to her recordings and I kick myself. It’s all there. In her crazy songs (…don’t turn away, it’s the least you can do. Catch me, I’m falling…) and in her voice. The story, her pain, it was all there all along. Stormy Weather. There in plain sight. But I didn’t see it and I didn’t help. I was too wrapped up in myself.
Gena, I miss you. I’m sorry I wasn’t there for you like you were for me. I missed it. I just didn’t see. Forgive me.
There is a poem by Rupert Brooke called ‘Dust’. I first saw it in an old second-hand book. Brooke seems to be writing about romantic love, but the poem always reminds me of my dad. Maybe that’s because I’ve seen his ashes — grey dust in a polythene bag inside a small green box. Dad liked boxes. He liked things neat. And there he is. Dust. Waiting for my mother, still going strong three years later. Waiting for their six decades of marriage to resume again, their ashes to mingle as we scatter them together – as we plan to do – on the sea off the beach where we spent so many holidays.
The poem starts:
“When the white flame in us is gone,
And we that lost the world’s delight
Stiffen in darkness, left alone
To crumble in our separate night;”
But it’s the sixth stanza that always gets me. The first time I read it made me gasp. I thought of my dad and of how much I want to see him again.
“Nor ever rest, nor ever lie,
Till, beyond thinking, out of view,
One mote of all the dust that’s I
Shall meet one atom that was you.”
I think it’s the possibility that hurts so much. And wanting it so.
I miss him so much.