Alone in the house for the first time in days I feel a sadness descend and take me in its wings. I’m sad for Dad. It has come from pottering and tidying, I washed up a bowl and set it upside down on the board to drain, I folded a pair of his old pyjamas I had laundered and hung out on the little rickety rack which I found folded in the street one day. These pyjamas have a gayer, tartan pattern in reds and blues and I find them so pretty and cheering; but compared with the bigger, saggier, more worn out pair I’ve been wearing while writing at home they’re almost crunchy. I guess they’re newer and were bought towards the end of his life. Just a usual daytime fabric, not that special soft-flannel ear-fur homey plainness old flannelette pyjamas wear into.
I find I am wishing he had had more pairs of the ultra soft old worn ones, against his skin when he grew frail.
He had to be lifted in and out of bed. He could only swallow very soft foods. He had a little suction cup that attached to him to catch the urine. It led in a narrow flexing pipe over the edge of the hired hospital bed and down onto a flat pack on the floor which somehow reminded me of one of those foot-pumps for inflating a bed, or a half-deflated water bed itself, or sometimes the bladder out of a cask of wine which the two old men who lived in our old street used to let lie like a dog on the brick wall between them, companionably sharing as the afternoon passed away.
The euphemisms we use for death have enraged me since my father died. The sentimental poem chosen for the service while I was on a plane made me angry and sad:
Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there.
I do not sleep.
This fatuous deceit is bearable only if we take it literally. He is nowhere. Not in the vase of ashes. Not sleeping, waiting. He is gone, dead and gone. This person whom I loved no longer exists.
But the pyjamas. I folded them to take to Morocco. We are escaping family life, into our love. We are escaping turgid Christianity into the fire and nobility of ancient Islam, which sang to me from every all but corner of our house, throughout childhood, on Java where we lived between three mosques, and I can still sing by heart and by body the peeling keening mesmerising tunes which rang out seven times a day.
The funeral poem, written on the back of a brown paper bag by someone inspired by her landlady’s loss, in the War, of her son, ended badly – or worse. “I did not die” it lied, unsuccessfully. Well, yeah, I thought: yeah, you did. That is why we’re all standing here with these sharp lumps in our throats all the time. That is why we are holding this service, so formal, so inevitably pompous and off-putting. Because you died and are dead now, and will be dead forever. You died and that is why I booked a ticket late one night, near midnight, and left for the airport at four the next morning. Don’t lie to us, poetry/You dishonour yourself.
I wanted to go to Marrakech, just so that on Christmas morning we could wish each other a Marrakechmas. The pun took hold of my heart. But we chose Fez, because it is the most intact medieval Islamic city anywhere; it is the old world, the New City was added outside the walled medina in the early twelve hundreds. I folded my pyjamas to wear in our room there at night. Compared to the pyjamas I had just taken off, after a drowsy day writing by lamplight, they weren’t particularly tender under my palm as I stroked them smooth and lay them on top of the suitcase I’ll pack tomorrow. And I thought: if only Dad had had these soft pyjamas to wear every day. I wish he had not died with a chronic headache. I’m glad he died at home. I’m more than glad I was able through my family’s generosity to get home to their house to be with him, for six weeks because every week Dad would say, “Can’t you just stay another week,” and I hadn’t the heart to turn him down, to turn away, to just board the plane and go back to my Berlin life and let him die there alone – or without me – I needed to be there, to see him, and the headache came from an incident that happened while I was standing by his bed – his hospital bed at home – my mother only told me about it after he had died. We didn’t have the money for me to get back a second time. We’d decided I would see him while he was still living. But now he was gone I felt an ache and like a satellite whose rope was cut, I was just floating in cold featureless space, in endless space, miles from any world I knew, and I had to go home, and be among my terrible people, and hope we would be good to one another.
So I obeyed the overpowering instinct that said find the money, get home, they are my family, after everything: be with them. The brother who would have preferred I stayed away gave up enough of his frequent flyer points that a ticket could be booked. I flew, awake the whole way, and landed in a dinner party of twenty people and afterwards slept for fifteen hours. Then I spent a month keeping Mum company as she took up her skirts and stepped down into the river of widowhood. That was how it seemed to me, what I was doing.
The four weeks turned to three because one night my mother frightened me so much with her anger that I ran out of the house, my heart pounding, crouching in my car outside a cafe ringing a friend, to say can I come stay with you, can I come right now.
In the last months of his life Dad had a carer who lived with them, and she loved him and he also loved her. Her husband would come home from work every evening and climb the stairs to shake Dad’s hand solemnly. Meanwhile the rest of the world talked over him. Every few days a nurse, or sometimes two nurses, came to give the carer time off after she’d been woken every night til four by Dad’s raging thirst and Mum’s call through the baby monitor: Tiiina. Tiiina.
These supplement nurses from a palliative care service run by the state were sometimes lovely. Two of them turned up at Dad’s funeral and one of these came up to me almost unrecognisable with grief, her face contorting, saying what a lovely man he had been, what a loss it was. Yes – often. True. He could be lovely, and had a fundamental sweetness that everybody saw, especially in his last years after the stroke. But some of the temporary nurses were careless and callous and half-awake. One I had to reprimand after she sat scrolling her phone until her hours were done, only rousing when he asked for something in particular. Find something to do, I said: the household’s overloaded. I had just arrived, then, from Berlin and it was really none of my business. But I saw all their systems and workloads from the outside and brought my fresh energy. One day two of these hearty nurses hauled him too fast up the bed from where he sank every day into a coil crushing his sore feet against the railed foot of the bed. The gas-lift bed. The single. And so they wrenched him higher onto his pillows and smashed his eggshell head against the headboard. I felt the shock go through me. I cried out Careful! He’s very frail! Take care!
My mother, trapped behind a lifetime’s politeness with strangers and staff, laughed with them. They said, Oops! and they actually laughed. But I said, it’s serious! It’s very serious! He is so fragile, can’t you see how frail he is. He’s so unwell. Be respectful. Don’t at least cause him any more pain than what he –
The cancer was eating him now almost visibly, from the inside as if he ought to grow more transparent. He died one night very slowly, and when my mother rang me after midnight our time she said my name and I knew. I heard the groping for self-conscious courage infecting her voice, the terrible curse of self-consciousness that makes life more death-like. Within a few days, in the tropics, I was there and we began our vigilant grief. When he’d been dead three weeks and burned away to ash, I mentioned the nurses one day and she said, yes: he always complained, after that, of headaches. Well, she said, he rarely complained. He was so sweet-natured. But he had – my heart swelled and my eyes blurred and stung – he had a headache for all the paltry rest of his life. Because of those women. Oh, Dad. The golden surfer boy, the strong man who stood on the steps in his grey suit at some University function and one woman, who came up at the wake to tell me this, had seen him there for the first time, she said, “I said to my girlfriend – who’s that? And she said, That’s Peter Jorss. Isn’t he delicious.”
He was. He had a pettable sweetness, a roguish painful humour, a terrifying temper. Dad. I don’t have a pet name sweet enough for a loved one frail and approaching death, approaching it shyly, unable to speak of it. He died in pain. He lived in pain. He ‘often complained of a headache,’ she said, as though it said something only about the slackness of the nurses and nothing about his overwhelming experience.
My mother can’t bear and sometimes torments herself with the fact that he could never get close enough – to her – they were in separate beds now side by side, and there was a gap which she with her recently replaced hip could not tolerate, they were both in such pain and she berates herself that she can never get close to him now, and all he wanted to was to be by her, and I tell her each time about the time he managed to get right up next to her and how his thin hand disappeared under the belly of her shirt, and he tucked himself into her like a koala or possum baby and was making tiny humming sounds of suckling satisfaction and good cheer. Dad. I wish I could have worked out that you needed softer clothing. I wish I had been able to prevent the injury to your skull, almost exposed still after the chemo that (it sometimes seemed) was really what killed him, what killed him and ate him. I wish I could be by you now, just be by you and be gentle with you, offer you something soft off a small spoon, be patient as you gathered your concentration, heroically to tackle another pulpy mouthful that took you three minutes of revolving. Just to sit with you, as far too few times I did, just watching and being there. So that when occasionally you opened sleepy blue eyes, “so blue!” my mother always said, and now consumed by fire, your lashes burned, your hands, your speckled skin, but when you saw me sitting there your loving and beatific smile overspread your face, every time, in a moment, though in repose it fell into suffering’s creases, and I smiled back, each time, and we both said, “Hello,” and maybe you said, sometimes, “Hello, darling,” or, “Hello, pet,” in your voice which is now not a sound in the world, in this far too crowded world from which some people are missing, we just smiled at each other, I wish we could, I wish you were.