I follow my mother’s car back home from the hospital; his things in a brown paper bag on the passenger seat next to me. I need to be there for her when she first opens the door, and we walk in together, silently acknowledging the absence of a man whose presence defined us all. The lingering smell of the fine cigars that were a background to my childhood is a bitter reminder of the illness that has robbed a man of his retirement, a woman of her soul mate, my children of their beloved grandfather. I haven’t cried yet, but my heart is in pieces as I walk round the house touching his spectacles, his whisky glass, his newspaper with the crossword half filled out. How can someone simply disappear? How is it possible that a man with such intelligence, such skill and such passion for life can cease to exist in a heartbeat? I can’t fathom it.
My sisters arrive, each with their own take on grief, and we join my mother in the kitchen. We are drinking gin at just past noon and our mid-week gathering is so unusual it feels like Christmas. We talk of how glad we were that it was swift, that the horror of these last few days is over, and that he is no longer in pain. We realise we must let others know, and my eldest sister takes the phone to call our uncle. She dials and immediately tells him the news is bad, “he died this morning”. There is a pause. “Oh I do apologise”, she says, and puts the phone down. She looks aghast. “It was the wrong number”. We burst out laughing and can’t stop, clutching our sides and spilling our gin, a near-manic release of tension. In the midst of this hysteria the phone rings and my younger sister answers it; “can I speak with Dr Greenwood, please?” It is a sales call. “Are you a medium?” she says. “No? Then you will find it difficult“. Her audacity launches us back into peals of laughter, and I marvel at the strength of women, who see humour in tragedy and hope in despair.
A series of visitors come and go all day and we congregate in the sitting room, drinking tea and perching on footstools; studiously avoiding my father’s chair. The elephant in the room. Huge and unwieldy, it goes with nothing, but yields unsurpassed comfort which justifies its presence. As children, it was with immense daring we would sink into its battered arms, leaping up the instant he appeared in the doorway to reclaim his throne. The visitors all say we must be relieved. Must we? Can’t we be angry? Or devastated? I am both. But still I cannot cry.