Apt that in the English Lake District, home of the Romantic Poets, the skies are heavy, Kendal’s streets are grey, and our sombre mood, when we turn the key in my dad’s small bungalow a couple of hours later.
There is much to do, and I don’t know how much time I have before the hospital in Tenerife rings to say the tests are back, and they will begin radiotherapy.
There are people to ring, contracts to cancel, authorities to inform, lawyers to pay, newspapers to stop, banks to deal with, mail to redirect, and all the dozens of small, heartbreaking tasks a family death entails.
In the bottom of his wardrobe my father kept one of those steel home filing systems which were popular before computers. He frequently reminded me that when he went I would find all the documents I needed there. There aren’t that many. My father was a man of simplicity, and over recent years becoming even more so, giving a lot of his possessions to the charity shops which line Kendal’s main street. His intention was to lighten the load we now face.
On the top is a letter he had written in 2009. By then he was 86. I don’t think he thought that he would live as long as he did. The letter lists just about everything we need to deal with, including telephone numbers, right down to cancelling the service contract for his vacuum cleaner.
In the next days I ring some of those numbers, only to find that the person has died in the meantime.
It’s his instructions for his funeral which puzzle me. No church, no priests. The emphasis is his. I fall asleep wondering how that is to be done.
The next day at the hospital we collect the death certificate. The cause of death is identified as cancer of the esophagus, undetected and not diagnosed until it took his life.
At the undertakers I convey his instructions; cremation, and what will happen with his ashes. We come to his instructions about his funeral, which will be in the small chapel at the crematorium, a place familiar to me. I explain his wishes, there are seconds of dead air, and then I hear myself saying that I will conduct the service myself.
If daddy had died before Dot I would not have heard that voice, it wouldn’t have occurred to me that I could do something like that. Dot’s parting gift. It’s a year and a half since I gave the eulogy and at her funeral. I know I can do this, and something inside of me knows this is how he would want it. My father’s imprint on this earth, so far as I know, was very light. There are still mysteries about his life. He was the most private person I have ever known, and this simple ceremony is what he wanted. The date is set for a week ahead.
We muddle through that week. It’s busy. At times it’s fraught or tense, or simply depressing. I am fortunate that I have something my sons cannot have, the strong sense of my mother’s presence. It’s almost forty years since she died, and three days before my father died would have been their 70th wedding anniversary. My sons never knew their grandmother, and in his own way, daddy tried to do double duty to make up for that.
So many things in this bungalow are memories of my mother that I feel as if I am losing her all over again.
The day comes. It is appropriately stormy and gloomy. It’s a small family gathering, very intimate. I am grateful for the support, for people travelling a long way in horrible weather to pay their last respects.
It’s done. I found a flight, although there is still no word from the hospital, so I cannot follow my father’s wishes about his ashes until a later date. I have chosen May 20th, the anniversary of my mother’s death to do it.
All that remains is for the furniture to be collected. After it’s gone, Austin and I clean up as best we can, and go to spend our last night in a local hotel. The rain has been unceasing and a bitter wind howls along the river outside. I wake up in the morning to find the waters worryingly close to my window, and the staff talk about evacuating. We load up Austin’s car with the mementos of their granddad which Austin and Guy wanted to keep, and he sets off for London. I call a cab and head to the station.
Even by Lake District standards, the short trip to Oxenholme Station is scary. We were, literally, soaked to the skin whilst loading the car, and the taxi driver, a regular, who I know to be very experienced, has doubts that we will make it. Roads are flooding everywhere.
Eventually, I catch a train, not the one booked, which is delayed by the weather. Austin is stopped by police on a flooded road, pleads to be allowed through, and makes it.
Storm Desmond has arrived, and I feel like a rat leaving a sinking ship. It all seems apt.
Storm Desmond battered the British Isles (mainly Ireland, northern England and Scotland from 3rd to 8th December 2015, causing devastating flooding in Cumbria. I glimpsed just a little of the beginning of it from the train window that day.