What we lost
My summer is all beach. Even now, with the kids back at school and kinder, we sneak away to the sea for weekends, swim in rivers in evenings pinked with cloud, don’t bother to brush the sand from the car, or put the camping gear away, pretending we can stretch it out forever.
Last year, for the first time, we started our annual summer holiday early and spent Christmas day at the beach. There were shells on red wool hung from trees, a fire stuffed full of camp ovens, after-lunch swims—it was raucous and sandy and nearly perfect. With no phone reception for the two weeks we are away, we slow, look up, listen. We exist in a bubble of river and salty skin, fire smoke and the sound of the waves to send us to sleep.
This year it was a protective bubble, and one we had prepared to fall apart in, because twenty-five days before Christmas, my father-in-law, G, died.
This is neither obituary nor eulogy—those words were written and spoken with elegance and heart and sorrow on the day we farewelled G. My mother-in-law asked if I wanted to speak and I said no—daughter-in-law is a strange role to play. But words are my currency and I find myself cracking a little at the edges, undone by all the words I didn’t say.
The aftermath of death is full of the practical. It’s easy to evade grief in the business of arranging funerals. Even before, the business of dying at home, merciful and beautiful in so many ways, is also a roster of logistics, of visits from the palliative care nurse, of medications, of vigil. Of balancing, with tenderness and compassion, those who wanted to visit and talk, with the quiet of the house, G’s exhaustion, that of all of us.
The end was both quicker and slower than any of us expected. Quick in that weeks were suddenly gone, time eaten up like the stretch of road between our place and Bendigo. And slow, unbearably so, in the gaps between an increase in pain and the relief of morphine, in the long seconds between his breaths in those last days. My mother-in-law, my husband and his sister all sat with him, reminisced with him. One day, on his request, my mother-in-law made him eggs just like his own mother had done, mashed in a cup with little squares of bread.
He’s never asked for them before, H said. He’s thinking of his mum. He’s getting ready to go.
We wept, were pleased when he ate, smiled at the boyishness of him, imagined the child in place of the dying man.
I was witness to the most tender of care: my mother-in-law gently shaving the pale skin of her husband’s face, You’re a good looking man, G, she’d say. My husband and his sister nursing their dad right up until the end—surely the hardest job, and the finest.
I am inept at grief. A pleaser, and a helper both, I struggle to be with sadness, my own and that of others. So I filled the space where I might have lain next to G in that bed in the room overlooking the gums and the cockies and the cloudless Bendigo sky. I filled it with iced water, cool face-washers, assembling chicken sandwiches, quietly making the arrangements the palliative care nurse gently told us to make. Now I wish I hadn’t filled it so.
Here are the things I might have said:
I wanted to impress you, G, sixteen years ago when I was pierced and dreadlocked and terrified and exhilarated at the idea of coming home with your son, the football jock, and what you all might think of me. You were funny, practical – a footy dad. I thought I’d be everything wrong.
You were so damn smart. I wish I’d asked you more.
Your hands on the fragile skulls of the girls after they were born. Your astonishment. Your pride. You couldn’t believe how beautiful they all were. It’s not fair that you won’t see Gracie’s long legs bounding down the basketball court, she’s just like you, Ad reckons. Your chest would’ve puffed up with pride to see Etta run out for her first Auskick session this April.
The sound of your truck in our driveway, more-so in those years when your depression bound you to a darkened room, but you’d somehow find a way to crank the truck down the highway and arrive, pale and wobbly, but there.
And I made Adam tell the story at the funeral – my favourite: when he and I were still new, sleeping in the van in the driveway of your friends’ place in Port Fairy. We all walked down to the festival together, and you disappeared for a bit then came back with your face painted like a tiger. There were no kids with us, you’d lined up by yourself, a moustached man in his fifties, and H was so cross, thought you were ridiculous, and that only made us laugh harder.
You were the proudest dad. Of course, that frustrated me at times, that your golden son could do no wrong, but I get it. I do. Like you said near the end, he was your best mate. He’s a bit lost without you, G. He’s ok, he laughs about things you might say, and he’s been building things and fixing things around the house, stuff he hasn’t got around to for years—you’d be impressed. But it’s an immense thing, you being gone, without edges, no way to gauge how deep or long or big the loss will be, how it will bruise, where it might end.
Each day is one further from November the 30th, or one closer to the day it will be your birthday, Father’s day, the anniversary of your death. I wonder if that is when it will feel real?
I’m learning that I can be assailed by tears. Sitting in the shallows with Etta last weekend on Norman Bay, watching Gracie on her new surfboard for the first time, I thought of you.
Poppy would have loved to be here watching this, I said.
Did he come here with us when I was a baby?
No, I said, and realised I didn’t know if you’d ever been.
The reaction was physical, a slap in the chest by a rogue wave.
Someone will remember, will have that fact to share and pass on. But what of all the things we never thought to ask you? What about all those tiny moments that are now lost?
Today, following threads for an essay I’m working on, I came across the writer, E.B. White. I remembered, and tears caught me again. On one of the last days, words were nearly past you then, Ad was lying with you, talking about your wonderful nurse, Charlotte. You just listened as he drifted to talk of Charlotte’s Web and he tried to remember the author’s name. You mumbled something as he spoke, and he soothed you, gave you ice cubes, could make no sense of the sounds you tried to form. Later, the forgotten name like a burr, he Googled it and laughed. You, to the end a bottomless pit of facts and dates and names and trivia, you were saying E.B. White. It was one of the last things you said.
Are you trying to point me in a direction, G? Ad reckons you’re not too subtle. That’s what he said when I had to pull over and text him as I headed back home to the kids on the night of the day that you died. He’d put me in the car, we’d held each other hard, and he’d fiddled with Spotify. It was a random mix, but the second song was Throw Your Arms Around Me, the only song you’d requested for your own funeral. I don’t think I even had tears yet, then. But I couldn’t drive for the force of it, heaving to pull air into my lungs.
The kids are better at it. They are practical and full of questions: where is Poppy now? Where is his brain? When will I die? When will you? We aim for honesty, openness—careful to dispel the slight misunderstandings that have occurred along the way, the result of little ears overhearing big conversations. For a time, Etta tells everyone that Poppy died because of a lump on his back, which is both true and not true, and we try and tease out the subtleties, then roll our eyes at our own ineptitude. They miss you, G.
It’s cooler this week, you’d be glad of the respite from the heat. Summer will be done soon. Eventually we’ll get on with the business of the house, and the move, how to do each new thing without you. We’ll be okay, we’re looking after each other, looking after H. But I know now that avoiding looking into the space that you left will not help. So I’m here now, and I’ll stay for a bit, sitting with you and all that we lost.