Only after my father’s death did I begin to know grief. Brian McGilloway: Some days, I just want to let others know that I’ve lost my dad and feel lost myself.
Only now do I realise how little I knew of grief when I wrote The Last Crossing, a book which, among other things, deals with how we respond to loss. That seems a strange thing for a writer to admit, I know.
I understood grief, of course; I’d lost my grandmother, to whom I was close, when I was 18 and then friends, including, several years ago, a close friend who lost her life in terrible circumstances. I understood the concept of it, the expression of it in in-laws, aunts and uncles, neighbours and friends who’d been bereaved.
But I did not truly feel its deep, visceral pain – the aching absence at your very core, with which I am now well acquainted – until the loss of my father last year.
He’d been sick on and off for almost 18 months before his cancer diagnosis, and it was in this period that the Last Crossing was written, as if, subconsciously, I was preparing myself to grieve.
But there is no adequate preparation.
I remember the day of his diagnosis, January 11th, 2019. I remember the phone call from my sister who’d been to the hospital with my parents. I remember being stunned by it. Like my siblings, I wept, and told Dad that things would be okay and secretly Googled survival rates we wouldn’t discuss, and convinced myself that my father would be different, and wondered whether we might all have one more Christmas with him.
Weakened from the chemo, Dad was hospitalised with an infection at the start of Holy Week and died on Ascension Thursday. He left this life as he had lived it, gently, quietly, without fuss, surrounded by family and prayer, knowing he was loved beyond measure.
It was only then that I began to know grief.
Initially, it came to me cloaked as relief in knowing that his suffering was over. For days, to my shame, I’d wished him dead, not because I didn’t love him but precisely because I did, because I could not watch him suffer anymore. And so his death, especially so peaceful, so blessed, was a relief. Then I phoned my wife and, articulating it, taking the concept and putting it into words, made it real and my composure cracked. Afterwards I went outside and met someone I knew, recently hospitalised, starting his journey of illness just as my father had ended his.
The weeks which followed were marked by the kindness of friends, family and neighbours, an awareness of how far the tendrils of our lives reach, how tightly interwoven they become, how little my father realised the impact his own existence had had. I retold the story of my father’s illness to friends who called to the house, the act of telling a way to make it more real for me rather than for my listeners. I set about jobs which I had told my dad I would do with him before he took sick, believing he was just out of sight, just around the corner of the house, watching from a remove, wanting to make him proud, to make him feel he’d taught me well. Visiting his grave brought a paradoxical mixture of comfort due to his physical propinquity and loss due to his very distance from us. And those weeks were marked by tiredness, emptiness, shock.
I found myself talking about grief with others, with an almost evangelical passion symptomatic of the newly initiated who feel they are the first to experience such intensity of emotion. Friendships changed, forged or weakened by the shared experience of loss.
Since then, grief is something I’ve learned I must adapt to, whose shape I must accommodate in my day. I know now that the days before events, – birthdays, Christmas, New Year – will be marked with irritability, tearfulness, numbness. Moments catch my breath and leave me reeling when I least expect it: seeing a greeting card signed only by my mother, the sudden awareness of the absence of music playing softly somewhere in my childhood home, the greenhouse forlornly empty in the garden, the door sticking now through lack of use.
So, while I understood the concept of grief and its expression before my father died, only now have I lived it, joining a club, the rules for membership of which only others bereaved can understand and which creates a distance between me and those who have not yet experienced this and whom I hope will not have to for many years to come. And on some days, I wish the club had its own membership badge which I could wear, something to mark me as among the freshly wounded in the hope that strangers might know and friends remember and so handle me with a gentleness commensurate with my rawness on those days. Then I understand Hamlet’s desire to continue wearing his ‘inky cloak’ and envy him his ability to so do.
And some days, I just want to let others know that I’ve lost my dad and feel lost myself.
What has surprised me most with that loss is my own loss of interest in the trivial, the unintentional tuning out of conversations, the disengagement, the feeling that there is some barrier between me and the world, which I can not, and have not the will to bridge. I feel as if I’m playing at the normal, in the expectation that one day it will become normal once more, that quotidian routine will eventually inure me to loss, to all that I miss.
And it is the small things that I miss: the strange joy and care Dad took in preparing a good cup of tea – I’ve yet to taste better; the love of B list action movies watched on Netflix on his iPad; the serenity he found in pieces of music despite the significant hearing loss he’d suffered as a child; the gentle teasing apart of fine threads of seedlings, planting them knuckle deep in pots of soil that brought him such joy.
I miss his thick hands, his broad fingers, the calloused warmth of their clasp. I miss his strange idiom, those sayings no one else says in quite the same way. I miss our handshake, a childish esoteric ritual he taught me when I was a young and which we continued to use everyday, often to the bemusement of strangers, until his final days, when he could no longer lift his hand.
I miss some moments even from his illness – the devastating honour of being with him through it. I’m strangely grateful for the opportunities for intimacy and honesty which that time afforded us. Nothing remained unsaid.
And I miss his voice, its depth and softness, its timbre. I miss his kindness, his smell, his laugh, his seriousness, his slow consideration, his empathy for the underdog, his simple, accessible faith. Like Persephone gone, the trees and plants of the garden seem subdued without him. I miss mundane conversations with him, sharing movie recommendations, complaining to him about my kids, my work, my writing, trusting in his patient understanding. I miss his quiet confidence in us, his children. I miss the warmth of his love for my mother and I miss her smile now that he has gone. I miss the myriad different things that form our lives, our relationships, our love for each other.
I knew little of grief then, but I know more now, terrible as that wisdom may be.
Mostly, I know that I miss my father.