This post was going to be my first monthly Arthurian piece (on the Welsh text Y Gododdin) but that post will have to wait. Something more important has happened, and I must write about it.
Last week I lost my stepdad, David. Actually, I never called him ‘stepdad’ whilst he was alive, but that’s what it has been easiest to call him since death when telling people about his passing. Ever since our first meeting when I was young, I’d called him my StepQueen – an epithet he took great delight in. Every year on Father’s Day we’d joke about how the greeting card companies were missing a trick, and that we should design a line of cards for the growing market of modern, alternative families, as ‘stepfather’ cards just didn’t seem to cut it for our situation.
The first time I met David I was presented with a bleach-blonde Irish hairdresser… wearing cowboy boots! He was friendly and talkative, emitting a natural warmth, and completely lovable. We were soon firm friends, and a few years later both I and his late sister were Best ‘Men’ at his and my dad’s wedding. Having a somewhat rocky relationship with my dad, David was this amazing third parent, keeping us both in check. Throughout a skyrocketing career in which he moved into an events role that made the most of his shining personality and winning way with people, he was still a fabulous StepQueen, and always so caring and attentive to me and everyone around him.
Once he took me to Dublin, his hometown, and introduced me to his other sister and nephews. I remember vividly enjoying my first ‘proper’ Guinness at the Guinness factory, watching the seals play in Howth harbour, playing videogames with his nephews and then later, falling asleep in front of the fire. It was a truly happy time.
When he and my dad separated last year and David found a new partner and a new lease of life, I was happy as long as he was happy – and he was, so I was.
Not too long after this, David was diagnosed with cancer. It was advanced, but he was determined to stay positive, as you would expect. He started chemotherapy, but it made him very ill, so treatment had to be stopped. Throughout all this, whenever I spoke to him he was his usual happy and caring self. Then, last week he suffered a stroke, and never really properly recovered. He passed away on Thursday 26th July.
Grief is a funny old thing. We all experience it at some point, because dying is the final and inevitable outcome of living, and sharing close connections with other human beings is such an essential part of being human. I would guess that the inner emotion of grief hasn’t changed too much throughout human history. The hardest part, for me at least, is the complete and total cut-off of all communication. It just stops, and for most of us this happens without so much as a sign-off, or a goodbye hug. In our hyper-technological age, in which we have so many different ways of keeping in contact with our friends and family, this is an especially difficult concept to come to terms with. It seems unthinkable that this person’s voice isn’t just at the end of your phone anymore, or that you’ll never see their name pop-up in your email inbox, or get a text message from them. They have become completely out of reach.
I’m sure I’m not alone in saying that there are very few of my loved ones that I actually see in person on a daily basis. Just two, actually. And my cat. Life is so busy, and working full-time whilst doing a Masters part-time makes for very little time to fit in socialising, even with those I hold dearest. David was one of those people I saw every couple of months. We’d meet up for a drink in his local pub, have a good old natter, get our busy lives off our chests and have a giggle. The rest of the time we kept in touch via mobile, usually text messages. I’ve lost someone very close to me before who, unlike David, I spoke to every day, and this situation is just as strange, but differently so. As I didn’t speak to David every day, in some ways this hiatus in communication sort of feels normal, but there is the expectation that at some point, in the near future, I’ll text him or he’ll text me, because this has been the pattern of our relationship. But of course, this won’t happen.
I think that this is part of why funerals are such an important rite of passage for the living to experience. They provide a finality to the situation of death, a permanence to this changed state of your relationship with the departed. It’s almost possible to believe the death hasn’t happened up until the point of the funeral, because our subconscious minds are so good at tricking us into expecting old routines to continue, even when our waking thoughts are very much aware that things have changed in a dramatic way. The funeral is a time for closure for the living. In theory at least.
Grief is really quite a headf*ck, if you’ll excuse the term. No other describes it as adequately. It’s fairly easy to understand why medieval damsels in forests impale themselves on the sword of their beloved after he’s killed in combat, or why Orpheus dives down into the underworld to reclaim his love from the hereafter (not that I’m implying that I intend to do either of these things). It’s quite unimaginable, when someone very close to you dies, to go on without them. The most surreal thing is that your life, on the whole, remains unchanged. You still wake up in the morning, have your breakfast, brush your teeth and go to work like you always used to before. But there’s this new emptiness that wasn’t there before, and it niggles at your consciousness all the time. From experience I know that this eventually fades. You get on with your life, and then it’ll be the unexpected prompts – a familiar smell, a shared song, even someone walking down the street with the same haircut, that will remind you that this person isn’t there anymore. But eventually you can look at these things with a smile, rather than tears.
So there isn’t really anything medieval about this post at all – sorry to those who expected some hearty medieval fare. I promise my next post will have all the medieval you can handle. It’s just an homage to someone dear, a few thoughts about grief, and a final note of hope: Grief ends, life continues, and we all have to die eventually, so let’s make with the living while we’re still alive and leave happy memories in the hearts of those we love when it’s our time to go.
16th September 1960 – 26th July 2012