Monday, 16 December 2013

Number 32 - In Which I Return From The Bermuda Triangle

I haven't really felt like blogging recently, and nor have I managed to find the time.

One of my family members died recently. It wasn't wholly unexpected as she was nearly 90, but the deterioration from healthy to deathly was very fast. I suppose when it is your time, what is to keep you?

I wasn't present when she died, but my sister and mother were. My sister swears that the night before, she felt a draught and then felt someone touching her shoulder and noticed a strong smell of alcohol in the room. At this point, my mother apparently came back from wherever she had been and commented on the smell, asking my sister if she had been drinking. My sister said no and she says that she was struck with such an overwhelming sense of something that she didn't understand, that she burst into tears. At this point, my Grandmother stirred in her sleep/unconsciousness but held on, and the feeling in the room passed.

A day later, Grandmother died.

Grief is a funny, interesting thing. It seems to affect people in many different ways. My father became mean, vitriolic and belligerent, and frequently drunk. My sister is the highly emotional one, so she cried a lot. I suppose I am a mix of the two. I shed some tears despite being very sad, yet was more concerned with practicalities. What would happen to the house? (It is to be sold.) Did the burglar alarm work? (Yes.) Was the house and contents insured? (Yes.) Had my Grandmother expressed any particular wishes for the funeral arrangements? (No.) Did my father have power of attorney? (No.)

It fell to me to plan the funeral and to an extent, sort out my Grandmother's belongings. My father wanted to throw absolutely everything away after deeming it all crap and declared, "we are NEVER going to get this sorted."

Such negative finalities piss me off.

On a long journey: "We are NEVER going to get there." Of course you are.
In a car park: "We'll NEVER get parked." Of course you will, eventually.
After a relationship ends: "I'll NEVER get over him/her." Yes, you will.

Such defeatism. No need.

So, after my father declared that his mother's belongings, the story of hers and my Grandfather's life, was all shit, I stepped in. I made sure her clothes were bagged and donated to charity. I sorted through all her tablets and had them dropped off at the pharmacy to be disposed of. All her paperwork was either filed or shredded. I rang HMRC, the utility companies and the pension service. I spoke to the Registrar and the funeral directors and then to the vicar who would officiate the service.

In between all this, my Dad would have these mini meltdowns. The first time we went to her house, he walked into the living room and saw her chair, and dissolved into it, sobbing. For about 10 seconds though, then he would clear his throat, apologise and carry on doing whatever he was doing. Then it would happen again when faced with her Ventolin inhaler. And her kettle. And Dad's first birthday cards. And each time, he'd stop, apologise and carry on. And after each instance, he'd get a little more mean and a little more angry. We couldn't make him understand that crying was normal and he should't have to apologise, but he said that crying was a weakness and he had to be strong for my sister and me. We told him that was rubbish. He didn't listen and began to shout again. Every time.

He made it hard to discuss things. I began to resent him dismissing his mother's belongings as such trivial trinkets. They were not trivial to her otherwise she would not have kept them, certainly not after her husband, my Grandfather died.

In her things we found a photograph of her and my Grandfather, partying with Prince Charles in an opulent grand marquee.

Yep. Prince Charles.

It's hard to date it; Prince Charles looks young, so I reckon it was around the time he got married, in 1980 or 1981.

My Grandfather was decorated in the Navy and after leaving he was very high up in the then National Coal Board. He actually met Prince Charles another two times. We found photos of him shaking hands with Prince Charles and receiving medals and certificates.

I found menus from cruises they went on in the 80s and 90s. They dined with the Captain on most nights, and ate from lavish seven-course menus.

We found photographs of them in several different countries. I had no idea how well and far they had travelled.

When sorting through her clothes, we were stunned to find extremely expensive items of clothing, hats and jewellery which she hadn't worn in later years because she did not have the functions to attend that she did when my Grandfather was alive. She outlived him and most of their friends.

She kept newspaper clippings of things my Dad had done at school, accolades my Grandfather had won, and even articles about my sister and I when we won competitions at school.

We found our family genealogy that had been researched by a cousin of my Grandfather. To find that our Great Great Great Great Uncle ran off with gypsies when he was 12 made for interesting reading.

We found photos of her and my Grandfather when they were both in their teens; him in his Navy uniform of stripy top, white trousers and hat looking like Dean Martin; her looking like Margaret Lockwood with a teeny tiny waist and perfectly coiffured hair.

When alive, she and my Grandfather were private people. We would not have been allowed to rummage through her cupboards as we did now. But in doing so, we learned about them and gained a greater respect. She was proud of her family. This was clear from the things she saved. She was proud of her life, as each letter and photo and news article shed more light on the past. They lived well.

She was a classy, well educated lady and I'm proud I was related to her.

My tears came later. I was going through my own filing when I returned and came across a letter she had written to me when I was at University. In it, she wrote how proud she was of me, and how she and my Grandfather were close by if I ever needed to go and see them. She was appalled by the conditions of Halls, and how little we had to live on. She would send food parcels, money and recipes to help me out. What I rolled my eyes at 20 years ago, made me sob now.

Yesterday, my father called me to ask about my sister's account of what happened in the hospital the night before Grandmother died. Did I believe her? If I did, who did I think it was that came for her? Do I believe in a higher power?

We are not a religious family yet my father has found spirituality, but not necessarily comfort in believing that we are watched over by some higher power. He was telling me about some ancient texts from he Old Testament that had been found, in which describes a prophet that pre-dated Jesus by many years, who correctly predicted the fall of Babylon. (I assume he's referring to The Dead Sea Scrolls?) But he was certain that if something of such importance was accurately prophesied, then there must be someone or something on a higher plane that was giving the prophet these visions. And as a result, he believes that the rapid decline in my Grandmother's health was due to a "calling" from this divine being. He believes it was her time, and she was called to something akin to Heaven. I think he also believes that either her father or my Grandfather came to get her, which may explain the phenomenon my sister experienced.

I didn't and still don't have answers for him. I cannot and do not wish to believe that when we die, that's it. Nothing. We simply switch off and cease to be. It seems so final. At the same time, I wish I could wholly believe that the dead are always watching, looking down on us from some higher plane. I am inherently cynical, but quietly optimistic that after death, there is something else. There has to be.

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