The family don’t know, but I took photographs. I photographed his hands next to my hands, and I photographed his face. The contemporary impulse, I suppose, and in the absence of useful formalities.
As for holding up: yes, I’m very sad, it will stay with me for a long time and I will always miss him but it’s not such a bitter ragged sadness as came from seeing him suffering for so long; there’s something of relief and release to it also. These clichés stand for transtemporal truths.
I can't explain but the moment of his death was almost euphoric for me: somehow, just before he died I found myself washing my hair and face and hands in the sink in his room, using Hand-San, all big-eyed and excitable, as if I was getting ready for a party, and then as soon as I lay down to have a rest in the armchair, just as the CD stopped, in fact, he took his last breath—or at least I thought it was—and stopped breathing.
I sat beside him and put my hand on his chest, and it was hard to tell if he was breathing or not because the air-filled pressure relief mattress was also in motion. Also my eyes played tricks, insisting on the movement of his diaphragm, because the lack of it was novelty beyond experience. And then, just as I was sure he was still, that is, dead, he took one last, deep breath, like a practical joke—haha, got you!—which sent me jumping to ring for the nurse.
Then, what can I tell you? There was shock and realisation, yeah, but between you and me I was so glad that I got to be there, just me, alone with him, my father, when he died. I was greedy for it; it was an intimacy that I coveted. I stayed with his body for about an hour.
And then I went home to Tom’s Mum's house and laid awake all night feeling extraordinary: proud of him for dying so well, proud of myself for doing the right thing, and like an initiate into the great mysteries; and my skull was full with butterflies, flowers and stars.
S’funny, I was talking to my mother about the funeral, saying I would have to see the cemetery first before deciding how the coffin would be got to the graveside, if not by the cart since the coffin makers say that even professional pallbearers prefer not to shoulder a coffin for more than about 80 yards. And she said ‘tough is good, you are burying your father, it shouldn’t be easy, I see no reason why you can't stop and take rests.’ I know her aesthetic of old, I mean, no doubt in her mind’s eye she could see a whole weeping village trailing up a mountain road behind an almost vertical casket—but I woke in the middle of the night to tell her that I think she's wrong; besides which it’s not her call. Tough was his loneliness, his brief institutionalisation. Tough was not knowing how to deal with it all, the years of missing him but not knowing how to come near to him through his veil of tears and booze. So I say the next part should be about change and release and lightness.
As to the arrangements: no embalming etc., no more messing around with him at all if I can help it from now on. A willow coffin, to be carried to the cemetery on a flower-decked Steptoe cart pulled by a black and white shirehorse. No ‘DAD’ picked out in chrysanthemums, you understand, only ribbon-tied bunches of wildflowers. No headstone, but a Rowan tree to be planted as memorial—oh, and he is to be buried with his harmonica. No fire engine for a hearse, and I can’t get a marching ragtime band like he asked for, they’re all booked months in advance but as it turns out on the day, a number of elderly black people will stop and take their hats off as we process past them, as if they’re the only people left in London who still know how to behave.
Tom and I went to pick out his threads and grave goods, another intimacy consoling and conspiratorial. There’s no way of knowing what happened once we’d handed them over though as the coffin was closed. Also, a month or so after the funeral, there was a newspaper scandal about Co-operative Funerals milking economies of scale by stacking frozen naked corpses one on top of the other in these massive cold storage depots and sometimes sending the wrong body to funerals—easy, I suppose, in those circumstances—so their solemn, customer-facing receipt of his stuff could all’ve been a farce; like the fact that the cart was so short that the coffin had had to sit at an oblique angle, only a lot worse.
This is a monstrous possibility, to be sure. Then again I’m inclined to think that intention matters the most in such things—meaning ours—I kind of have to. So, yeah, it was him we sent off with so much love in his muddy work boots, practical strides and a good shirt, with his blues harp, aviator glasses, Extra Strong Mints and a packet of Rizla in the breast pocket.
No one had been in the flat since he went into hospital. A lot of his clothes had been eaten by moths, but they left the Sergeant Pepper jacket and the itchy woollen hooded robe from his overland trip to pre-Soviet Afghanistan intact. Propped up on a dinner tray next to his bed, within eyeline of the pillow, and so that he could look at it while he was eating—even those last few days when he lay there with a fractured hip while his “carers” went in and out—was an artists’ postcard I sent him some years ago, slightly smeared with food and postmarked
It’s by an artist I know, a photo of a magazine cover of Sophia Loren, looking regal, which had been cut out and stuck on the toilet wall by the artist’s grandmother. I have drawn ballpoint spectacles onto Sophia, and on the back is written:
by carrier pigeon1
To My Own Pa
Turn on your mobile,
I sent you a text.
Responday voo &
Enjoy the last
wasp-leg of summer.
- 1. This is underlined with the trajectory of a drawn-on paper aeroplane and there are a couple of flying feathers (pigeon?) well-placed, illustrating my desire vs. truthfully dreadful, consuming (and almost entirely internal) struggle to reach him.