My dad has been tucked away in his old office filing cabinet for the last 4 years now.
My mum hasn’t been able to bring herself to scatter his ashes for all this time, and so there he is kept, in a labelled plastic bag on top of his old tax return slips.
Except, I don’t think of him as being in there at all.
His physical presence is now nowhere to be seen. There are no gravestones, urns, or memorials for my dad. There are also no places where I think of him as being in, or feel closer to him in. My memory of him almost has no connection to physical things at all now. When I think about him, I rarely even think of his face.
Things were very different the first year after he died. My memory of his body was everywhere. Walking down a crowded street, I would be sure to see my father walking ahead of me through the bobbing heads in front. A raised piece of carpet in the corner of a room would make me think of imperfections, reminding me of unhelpful girl advice he once gave me. The froth on a flat white would remind me of being on his shoulders as a child and playing with his messy hair.
For me, this doesn’t happen anymore. I have even had a day here or there, I realise later, where I haven’t thought about my father at all.
But this isn’t bad. Or wrong. There are no rules about how to mourn. How to remember somebody. Or what we should do to celebrate someone’s memory. This is something you learn when you lose somebody close to you. Death teaches us a lot of emotional lessons, and I’ve since become much more forgiving of people. Time becomes more valuable. Problems you once thought were big become smaller. And, most importantly for me, you learn to enjoy small moments more (these are the things that I cherish most about my dad).
After hearing stories about other people losing parents, I realise I am one of the fortunate ones. My dad did not take his own life. He didn’t suffer for a long time or in great pain. And despite still being young, he’d already lead a rich life. He never lost his independence, which I’d learnt was his greatest fear from a late night conversation we once had laying on the couch eating week-old freschetta pizza (which probably did no favours for his health) while watching crap TV. I also spent a lot of time with him. This is a privilege in this day and age.
Seeing a grey hair in the mirror, I am slowly becoming physically more like him. In certain photographs of myself, and mannerisms I have adopted from him, I can see a great deal of him. This never stops being strange. But with time I will become more comfortable with this.
The most difficult thing is realising he’s missing out on life that he should still be here for.
I can remember seeing Andy Murray winning Wimbledon and then going straight to the bathroom to cry my eyes out. My dad wasn’t even a big tennis fan. But the idea that things were still happening without my father – that he was now outside of everything – is something I still struggle with.
There are still plenty of things about death that I don’t understand. But there are also things about life that I don’t understand. Since my dad, death is now part of that same conversation. It’s no longer a dark figure in the distance. It’s now something very normal. Even mundane. Death is throwing away underwear and filling out gym membership cancellation forms.
When it first happens it feels like you’ve taken a drug. You don’t know what to do with it, so you swallow it whole. And now you’ve got this terrible thing swimming inside you. You don’t know how it affects you (other people are better at answering this). You don’t know how long this unwanted visitor plans on staying.
At 24, it’s still here. And it’s still terrible. But I’ve now spent a lot of time with it. I’ve now got a better grasp of knowing when I’ll feel sad and I when I won’t. It’s like it’s made itself at home but things are allowed to grow over it. Its presence no longer makes me stop as I walk past it. It will always be there, but I won’t define myself by it.
To finish this, I want to change something about the way we talk about death.
After my dad died, a lot of people would say to ‘make him proud’. This was often a leaving comment, and was always said with the best of intentions. (Any effort to discuss this heavy topic is always appreciated, especially in our culture, which is often geared towards silencing all mention of death).
However, we shouldn’t say this.
Instead, we should say ‘make your family/friends proud’.
These are the people who we can still eat old pizza on the couch with while watching crap TV.