“At least you were able to be there at the end…”
... As it happens, I wasn’t; Dad died just before I made it to the ward, but I don’t bother to correct my friend. Mum was there for him, and moments later we were there for her. So it’s okay really; it could have been worse
And there are other mercies, small and otherwise, for which I really am grateful. I’m grateful, under the circumstances, that we were able to visit him at all, if only when the end was close. I’m grateful we’re here today at the wake, raising our glasses in person and not on Zoom. I’m grateful for the palliative care nurse, seconded to the ward by happy chance on what turned out to be his last night, who expertly drained the fluid from his lungs and left him sleeping more peacefully than I could remember. I’m grateful for the past 42 years.
Looking for a positive spin on a grim situation is not, it turns out, the sole preserve of the vanquished football manager who claims blandly that, “we take the positives and move on”.
It’s what I’ve been doing, by instinct rather than design, ever since Dad died and even prior to that. It’s what he did himself, on the phone to me while awaiting the ambulance that would take him away from home for the final time.
You couldn’t wish to meet a kinder soul, but he couldn’t normally have been accused of excessive positivity. Here though, for all the fear he must have felt, for all the effects of his advancing dementia, there was a sparkle in his voice, a deeply held determination to convey a sense that things were somehow going to be okay.
It makes sense that we’re predisposed this way. Darker thoughts will arrive periodically in any case. In between times, actively searching out things to appreciate allows us to maintain some sort of equilibrium.
So we take the positives, we applaud on doorsteps, we remind ourselves it could be worse, it’s how we carry on. And it works – up to a point.
But the footballer struggles to take the positives after the fifth straight defeat, and soon it’s a new manager dishing out the platitudes. The doorstep applause eventually dies out, because ultimately it makes no difference. And however grateful we are for small mercies, those we’ve lost aren’t coming back.
I battle on, but it’s an unequal fight – in the red corner, the emptiness of loss, in the blue corner a vague notion that worse things happen at sea – I try to think of those who have lost decades of their lives to Covid, while Dad lived a full life and mercifully managed to evade the virus itself.
Some have been separated from loved ones for a year or more; for us it was only a few weeks. Come on, Tom, you could have it so much worse. Pull yourself together.
It doesn’t work. In fact, it’s counterproductive. Trying to contextualise the grief doesn’t diminish it; it just leaves me feeling guilty at my own self-indulgence.
Realising the need for distraction, I put on some music: National Shite Day by Half Man Half Biscuit seems to fit the bill. At one point, the narrator attempts to put his own miserable day into perspective by thinking of great human tragedies. “This works for a while,” he says balefully, “but then I encounter Primark FM.”
I smile, which is unusual. Naturally enough, I identify with the sentiment. In fact, I feel reassured somehow. After all, to grieve is natural, normal, necessary. And what could a pandemic possibly do to grief but exacerbate it?
Every day is National Shite Day; we’re all encountering Primark FM at once. Familiar sources of comfort – company, holidays, parties, pubs, are much changed or entirely out of reach. We’re all grieving for something, if not for a person, then for other things lost: livelihoods, freedoms, time, opportunities, hope.
It takes a remarkable person not to think longingly of how different the last 18 months, and indeed the next 18 months, might have been but for all this.
I am not that person.
So I decide on a different approach: sod the positives. I’m angry at what life has served up, and I’ve every right to be. I’m angry at the thought of Dad alone in a hospital bed, understanding that his family aren’t there but not quite able to appreciate why.
And while I might hold various people responsible for mismanagement of the pandemic, the true source of my anger is a microscopic, intangible virus. So I don’t need perspective now; I need outlets. I need to yell at the screen every time a lying politician or self-serving Covid ‘sceptic’ appears.
I need to put my headphones on, turn up the volume until my phone scolds me, then walk far and fast enough to change my mood. I need to kick a proverbial cat but cuddle the real one. In time, with luck, I’ll regain the strength I need to be kind. And Dad would certainly approve of that.
The author and his father 1978