A year on from my dad's death, I am learning that grief does not have an expiry date
Mandy Rhodes on the pain of losing her father
There’s a shopping list in my drawer at work that has ‘petit pois’ scrawled across it in bold capital letters. It’s the last note my dad gave me before he died in August last year and it is precious beyond words.
We’ve reached that time, the first anniversary, when we’re not able to think about dad as being alive ‘this time last year’ and it’s like a second grieving.
It’s not that the sadness has ever gone away, there’s been surprisingly deeper depths to plunge as the months have passed and there’s a gnawing gloom hovering over everything all the time.
It’s strange because I didn’t think about my father every day when he was alive, but in death, he’s in my thoughts constantly as I cling to every bit of the past – a time with him in it.
It’s not that there are regrets. There’s nothing particular that I would do differently given the chance, it’s just the loss is so damnably final and there’s no new memories to forge or to plunder.
And this time of the year is just so dad. Sunny weather and you smile thinking of dad in the tiny shorts that he wore from April onward. The cricket, Wimbledon and the World Cup, all signposts now on a journey of a dad that has gone. Of him drinking cider in front of the TV with the curtains drawn but billowing in the gentle warm breeze of a Blairgowrie summer afternoon
And that note – ‘petit pois’ - that was such a dad thing to say, he would never have just asked for some ‘peas’, that seemed too pedestrian for a man of his sophisticated palette, and yet give him a plate of mushy peas or a slice of Spam and he would have been delighted.
He was a man of contradictions. A contrarian and an eccentric and we all just miss the ‘daftness’ that defined him as our dad.
We all gathered at my mum and dad’s (I can’t keep him out of that equation) last month to mark the first birthday that he was absent from his own celebration. June was the first Father’s Day when I didn’t buy a card. And this weekend will be the first time that we acknowledge that we have got through a whole year without him.
There’s lots of firsts in this process of grieving and the most fundamental one is the very fact we’ve lost him.
None of us expected the hole to be this big. And frankly, that’s been a shock. My dad was not a showy man, not a man to make grand gestures or wear his love for his three daughters on his sleeve but we just knew.
I know that for many there must be an expectation that a year marks a time to move on but I am learning that grief does not have an expiry date.
The acute pain has worn off, the tears have lessened, but I still wake up each day with a hollowness in my heart, a heaviness in things I do. I have accepted the loss, of course I have, and like my mum and my sisters, I am redefining my life and who I am. I have become the daughter that no longer has a dad. My mum doesn’t have her husband. We have accepted that, but what is harder to let go of is the ache of just wanting him back, of wishing my mum wasn’t on her own or that when I drive up to the house he’d be there puffing on his pipe, balancing a glass of wine and impatiently tapping his watch signalling the fact that he wanted to eat now as if we inconvenienced him by simply wanting us all to be together.
Dad lived in a household of four women for which he deserves eternal credit. A heady mix of raging hormones and all the associated door banging, screaming and tears that that entailed. Amid it all he was a beacon of calm. He’d sit stuffing tobacco into his pipe while all hell let loose and then walk out of the room in a cloud of pipe smoke often lobbing in some provocative comment that would get us all started again and disappear off to his beloved garden, usually with a glass of wine, and wait for things to cool off.
Nothing seemed to faze dad about living with a bunch of divas. I think it amused him. I remember a particularly fraught shopping expedition in Perth to get a new coat for me when I was about eight or nine. Mum was at the end of her tether because the only coat I wanted was an expensive, purple, vinyl, trench coat. Big lapels. Totally impractical apart from the obvious of being wipe-clean. Mum dragged me off crying to tell dad who was lying in the sun on the North Inch and he said that if that was the only coat I smiled in then just to buy it.
Maybe it was about him always opting for an easy life, but I can’t remember him ever shouting at me and I also think he rather relished the madness of living with these bonkers girls because we were his bonkers girls.
Not that dad wasn’t a little bonkers himself. He could walk past us in the street and not recognise us. He would wake us with tuneless yodelling from the bathroom where he would insist on taking freezing cold showers and it was also from the bathroom that strange snapping noise would come that would have your imagination whirring about what practices men got up to in there until you discovered that the only time dad would multi-task was when he was in the loo and the noise was him laying out a hand of bridge on the bathroom floor.
Dad’s mind was always somewhere else; cricket, bridge, wine, garden, projects, but his one constant preoccupation was my mum. He adored her.
Mum says dad always made her feel safe and while that is undoubtedly true, and it is also that ‘being safe’ that gave us the inner confidence to become the independent women we are, it is also a paradox because dad was also the most unsafe man I know. Dad would be the one to throw petrol on fires, to have wiring held together with band aid, to have ladders with broken treads, to not notice danger ahead – he once threw me from height onto the ground as a baby because he was watching football and as a goal was scored he threw his hands in the air and just forgot what he had been holding. He always had cuts and grazes from some small accident in the garden and it was no coincidence that mum banned him from ever having a chain saw…
I tearfully asked dad around this time last year when it was becoming clear there was something very wrong, whether he wished he’d ever had a son. He looked at me incredulously with those watery blue eyes and asked why he would ever have wanted that when he had us girls. A few weeks later he was dead.
And that’s the nub, I’ll never have someone look at me like that again. I am no longer that daughter. It isn’t just that my dad has died, it’s that he took a part of all of us with him. Ultimately, death changes life for everyone.