Friday, 22 April 2016
Four Years later...
Just over the gentle arch of the railway bridge you meet a green winding path which snakes the edge of the village duck pond where the jellied globules of frogspawn have recently been laid down and the bluebells are serenely awakening to the first warmth of spring.
It’s where his name is etched onto a plaque and where that wooden bench is bedding down for the long haul. It has only sat there six months and I wonder, as I visit for the very first time, how many people have stopped there and sat there and read the inscription we carefully chose. How many times his name has been read by folks who never knew of him? How many minds have wondered at his face, his life, his story?
We had taken some baby primroses for mum and Leo to push into the earth beside the bench and it was my first excited glimpse of it after months of planning and emails and council meetings 168 miles from my laptop! But, as I sat down, I’m embarrassed to admit a sudden wave of disappointment seemed to sweep over me unannounced as I realised its glorious rich ‘just-out-of-the-workshop’ tawny glow had already faded to a dull sand under the rigours of a bitter North Norfolk winter. But even worse, there was a tiny stain on the seat beside me as if someone had sat with their packed lunch and carelessly dribbled their last drops of Capri-sun! How DARE anyone actually use this public bench!!!! How did it no longer look new and clean and untouched!? My momentary horror was of course short lived, but our reactions to grief can at times be utterly unfathomable! I had subconsciously wanted my Dads beautiful bench protected, kept band new, held in its perfect handmade beauty forever. But really?...life throws us dirt and debris and it’s messy and nothing ever stays the same as it was. Things always change. Things always change us.
And four years on, the lesson I’ve come to learn more profoundly than any other is...
... We can only deal with life the way our unique personality allows.
And this is, of course, exceptionally different for everyone. It has come to me slowly this basic of lessons. I’ve fought it and struggled and not trusted my own soul. But ALL of my weirdness, my humour, my temper, my ludicrous vanity, my shyness, my talents, my fears, my faith ... these are what make me. They are what make each of us.
On that chilly May morning of our saying goodbye, I had uncharacteristically swallowed a shot of whisky. I hate whisky! But my dad had loved it and as I poured glasses for family and friends in our kitchen that day I had thought ‘why on earth not’! I still hated it! But the fiery burn in my throat and head-shaking bitterness of the medicine felt strangely good. So I had another! I had already pre-empted that potentially the flood-gate-opening moment would be walking the short length of our drive towards the waiting hearse, so really any help I could get beforehand I was grabbing!
Looking back, I had made another somewhat odd decision in the days before the funeral. I had convinced myself I absolutely must have ‘sunglasses’ to wear. This is odd really for two reasons;
Firstly I fully doubted the sun would actually be an enormous problem on the day (the most usual reason for purchasing sunglasses!?) but for some quite inexplicable reason I actually subconsciously thought ‘well it’s probably something that ‘Jackie O’ or ‘Audrey Hepburn’ would have done on such an occasion’...so it was of course absolutely right and normal for ME to do the same!!? It WAS!
Secondly; I look absolutely AWFUL in ALL sunglasses! I am not completely sure why this is so, but not since the summer of 1979 when I was four years old and owned some rather trendy oversized yellow shades, have I suited sunglasses. (and er...kilts!!) I do have a ridiculous set of eyebrows which rarely seem to sit well with any style I attempt, and I do also possess a rather un-delicate konk, the combination of which may go some way to explaining the above situation!
But nevertheless I had bought some and I was damn well going to wear them. I secreted them in my bag betwixt tissue pack and eyelash curler (essential for post blarting tidying up of eye area!) and we walked the uneven gravel driveway down to the waiting hearse. We were carefully and silently ushered into the cars (but not before I had spotted Dads coffin handles were silver and we had ordered gold and was it REALLY dad or had they sent us the wrong one!!!!??? But not wanting to cause an awkward street scene I naturally kept quiet and tried to put the whole handle thing from my mind...’surely they had simply used the wrong handles Sarah rather than having sent entirely the wrong person, and wasn’t I ALWAYS guilty of seeing only black and white in situations and didn’t my greyscale absolutely need work’!!?)
The car seats were so, that my mum, sister, brother and brother in law all sat together in a row and Tim and I were seated just in front of them. The mood was understandably sombre and desperately quiet and as my flood-gate predictions had been pretty well accurate I surmised now must surely be the perfect moment to slip on my ‘mourning-shades’! (Oh yes!) But as I pushed them into position, I had whipped my head round to check on everyone the row behind us. Well...I was met with what can only be described as blatant mocking hilarity!! I of course looked RIDICULOUS, but strangely, somehow, my misplaced vanity was exactly the laughter inducing tonic we all so badly needed in that moment. Right there, on my Dads last journey, in our extreme grief, we laughed...quite loud! And quite unexpectedly and remarkably we laughed LOTS that day...and far from feeling disrespectful, it felt healing. It felt right. It felt natural. And isn’t that how life is sometimes. It surprises us with gifts when we maybe need them most.
But my honest, truthful, shameful reason for buying those sunglasses was born out of an absurdly vain fear of simply looking awful in front of people. I hated that it worried me, but it did. So I had decided in order to avoid the ugly mascara running, streaky face on top of snot scenario I simply wouldn’t wear any at all until we got to the wake, where I would slip away quietly and with a glamorous wave of my mascara wand, be back in the room, looking like me again!
On a day that was far from being about me I found myself unable to change the habits of a lifetime. And how I beat myself for being so utterly shallow. How could something as unimportant as makeup even be on my radar on a day like this??
‘We can only deal with life, the way our unique personality allows’
I had needed full makeup, and that’s OK! I had needed a swig of whisky, and that’s also OK! It may have seemed shallow but don’t we always need some light and shade!? Don’t we need the comfort of rituals and habits? The things that have the potential to tip our confidence into the positive on the dark days. Sometimes it feels there’s a ‘way’ to do things around grief, around death, around sadness. But I have come to learn that there isn’t. The only ‘real’ way is uniquely your way. Uniquely my way...with all my quirks and weirdness and very odd ways! Someone else’s way just won’t work. And how this is only finally beginning to sink in!
I feel like the past four years have been lived on the unsteady grounds of a trampoline. And for much of the time I’ve bounced along nicely, enjoying life. But there have been many moments when I have been incredibly thankful for the family and friends around the edges with outstretched arms to nudge me back into the centre when I’ve been really close to missing my footing. For the people who have broken my fall with kindness and cake and the wisest of wise words. And may I one day do the same in return.
So I hope to see many more stains on that beautiful bench over the months and the years and the decades...because the imperfections tell of all of life happening. It might just be in the weathering where all the lessons dwell.
I hope people will meet there, will chat there, will sit down and think there.
That sunshine will bleach it and snowflakes will blanket.
That primroses thrive there.
That our children remember there.