Filth, death and the gift of a wreath
It’s late October, 2011. I’m sitting on the filthy floor of my father’s council flat. It’s a few days since his death, and I’ve rushed back from overseas. My older brother and I are tasked with the grim job of cleaning, removing, deciding, and neatly packaging up a life. It isn’t pretty or neat. But, it’s unexpectedly tender. I’m wondering when it’s going to sink in properly. When I’m going to really cry. I’m feeling like I don’t feel anything I should be feeling. I wonder whether I’m doing this right. I feel guilty. When we leave for the day, we feel acrid and stained. When I get back to my mum’s house I shower and scrub before I can face my children.
We go back in the next day and the next. The flat no longer makes me retch. I sit longer now, now I’ve called the men’s shelter who will take away the furniture they can use, and now we’ve made 8 trips to the dump. There are old papers and photos I’ve never seen before. There are photos of me and my brothers with pudding-bowl haircuts and schoolkid smiles. He kept them. He kept everything. There are old love letters, and notes about steam trains, and riddles and beer mats. There are rather a lot of letters from HM Prison. There are bailiffs and words-of-honour and fines and promises. There are beer mats. There are all the cards I ever sent him. There are the internal organs of a hundred typewriters. There are bits and there are bobs.
We’re at the funeral director’s. They do eco funerals, but we’re all certain that wouldn’t be him. More conventional, please. Straightforward. Do we want a wreath from the florist? No, I say, with the most certainty I’ve had for days. No. He wouldn’t want that. He would only borrow flowers from roadside gardens to mark a birth or bouquet-some occasion. He steered clear of florists. I’ll make one to put on top of the coffin.
It’s the night before the funeral. It’s 11pm and I’m not done. I’ve pinched pine branches from his garden wilderness and hydrangeas from the neighbour. I’ve wound the wreath with typewriter ribbon; black and red. I’ve tucked in treasures from his papers. A drawing. A Butcome Bitter beermat. A Great Western Railways souvenir. I write a poem. I’m still not crying.
It’s the funeral. A small crowd gathers and my daughters watch the hearse with fascination. They don’t really know who’s in it. My heart jumps into my mouth. I don’t cry.
We sing abide with me. I nearly cry. I always nearly cry when I sing hymns.
I stand up and read my poem. Three quarters of the way through, I cry. The celebrant, and my brother, come up to hold my arms. I carry on…just.
Afterwards, my girls blow giant bubbles as people leave. Afterwards, I am relieved. A long time afterwards, I come to realise this:
I’ve spent three decades not knowing him. Feeling the bare minimum. Lending the tiniest corner of my heart to him, and then only twice a year. And yet, by dying, he finally let me in. I got to know him. I got to excavate his values and his beliefs. I got to see his joy and his shame. And he has given me a gift.
This is the gift: I never want to end up like that. I imagine dying tomorrow, and my family never seeing the light inside me fully. I imagine how pissed off I would be, up there in heaven. So I make a vow to inside-out myself. I make a vow to help others do the same. This is the gift. Any time I feel like hiding in all my smallness and inadequacy, I bring out his gift. I’d rather weave my own wreath, glorious in its flaws and quirks and all its colours, than leave my daughters to piece together a puzzle, or to buy a ready-to-wear one from a florist.
Originally published at www.joannabradshaw.com.