Another day, another bit of quality time with my teenage niece. This time we made plans for a walk and a coffee over the Christmas holidays. What it actually ended up being was sitting in several traffic jams on the way to the alleged walk (that didn’t quite happen), but coffee, cake and a good old gossip about all things late-adolescent all the same; boys, parties and a smattering of A-level bants thrown in for good measure. Top of the goss agenda though, was the latest news from social media that my nephew (her cousin) had a girlfriend! So exciting!
Luckily for me, my niece has lived close by to me and husband since she was about 4, and when we were child-free ourselves, I was on hand for babysitting, collecting from after-school clubs, and later for delivering what I hope was objective advice when things got difficult in her world. When my sister (her mum) died so suddenly in the summer I felt especially responsible for her, and desperately wanted to do something to help ease the horrific situation. Fortunately for her, she has a great dad and wonderful friends around her and 7 months on, is doing amazingly well.
The time between my sister’s death and her funeral was a bit of a no-man’s land. Like taking a huge intake of breath, and watching the world go on around you like nothing had changed. Except it had. At the time the country was still reeling from the Manchester arena bombing; two days after she died was the London bridge attack, and then Grenfell Tower. Whilst I was holding this intake of breath, I watched with sympathetic, yet passive eyes at the devastation that others were experiencing. I felt empty. I was appalled by what I was seeing as much as everyone else, but I couldn’t connect with it. In fact, connecting with my own trauma has been my focus ever since the clear, hot, sunny day in June when I scrambled to my sister’s home and the devastation that lay there.
The funeral was the beginning of the process of unpicking the emotional obstruction that was created out of that explosive trauma. Just before I got up to speak at the end of the service I allowed the hot, heaving tears that had built up over the 3 weeks between her death and the funeral to be released from my body. I desperately didn’t want my niece to see me unleash the emotions that, thus far, I had tried to keep from her. At the time I wasn’t sure I would be able to rein myself in before it was time to get up, and my first few lines at the lectern were shaky and clipped, but from somewhere I managed to quell my emotions and draw strength from the message I wanted to deliver to the mourners there.
Amidst my closing words I caught sight of my aunty, a sage, wonderful human being, and an amazing thing happened: she initiated a spontaneous round of applause. Walking out of the church, I felt euphoric. I had said what I needed to say, and I was pleased. A weight began to lift from my chest, and I could breathe. In the hearse I turned to my sister and said ‘I’m starving! I need a strong drink!’. I felt like the blockage was beginning to ease, and at the reception I ordered a pint of beer and ate ravenously. That evening me and my husband laughed and shared wine with friends, the next morning we ate sausage sandwiches and drank coffee overlooking a deserted beach, and later spent two glorious days in the Scottish borders watching Glastonbury on TV and eating fish and chips. I felt serene and momentarily re-aligned.
Queuing to get out of the shopping complex with my niece, we got on to the subject of her part-time job in a local takeaway, and how ‘it were, like, bare quiet most of the time‘. Did she need the money, I asked. If not, why not sack it off? I remember my own foray into part-time work when I was in 6th form well. Between the ages of 16 and 23 I worked as a cleaner, barmaid, barista, shelf-stacker, waitress, shop assistant, pie-seller, not to mention silver-service waitress. Most of them were necessary cash-flow, but some of them weren’t. In fact, by the start of year 13 (lower-sixth to you and me), I had enough in the bank to buy what I wanted, which is when I decided selling pies to footie fans at half-time on a cold Wednesday evening was probably not absolutely necessary, and was certainly not helping me pass A-level French.
And so to the tenacity of my mother. When a father of 6 dies unexpectedly just shy of his 38th birthday, there must be questions to answer. And this was the case with my dad. I remember mum telling me that it was in the dead of night when I was about 3 months old, that she was sat feeding me in bed when she thought, ‘Bugger this for a game of soldiers’. With the support of many, but not all, she made the decision to pursue the events leading to dad’s death.
What followed was a series of court proceedings regarding the treatment dad had received at the hands of the local health authority. Mum, ever the conscientious recorder of all things genealogical, sent us all a copy of the bundle of pleadings about 5 years ago. I remember the day I received them. My husband was just off to the football for the day and my son was having a nap. I stupidly made the mistake of pouring over the contents of the package unguarded. Most of the papers are amendments and enquiries as to amendments of previous statements; notes that read, ‘Request by the second defendant for further and better particulars of the statement claim’ and so on. For a layman like me, it becomes a frustrating rabbit warren of something and nothing. It’s hard to see amongst all the comings and goings of the pages and pages, who is saying what and in response to what claim.
It was careless of me to read these pleadings unprepared that day because they record the last hours of dad’s life. His actions in A&E (‘he fixed his eyes…but made no attempt to speak’); on the ward (how as his organs undoubtedly began to fail, and in a delusional state, he ‘made several attempts’ to get out of his hospital bed, even when the cot sides were erected); the reasoning and opinions of his GP (‘He was a odd chap’) and the doctor who oversaw his treatment of care on the ward. When reading such legal papers, you do prepare yourself for a certain amount of cold, clinical retelling of events; what you don’t expect is to read subjective comments on the character and behaviour of both of your parents. It is difficult for me to express how upsetting it is to read that the last ever words written relating to a deceased parent are words that seem to diminish not only the acute and fatal crisis that he was experiencing, but also his character. Understandably, I try not to revisit these papers, and save for the purposes of this post, I have probably only read them through one other time since. Unlike so many digital documents these days, legal documents like these take on a weight of their own when you see them written in the rudimentary typewriter font of 30+ years ago, and once read, you cannot unread such words.
Back in the present day, I find myself poised for another wave of trauma. Instead of a drawn-out legal process, however, we are on the brink of an inquest into my sister’s death. There is no other word for the prospect of this, except bleak. The parallel between this, and the stark re-telling of my own father’s final hours is pertinent. The shadow of this event is in part why I decided to leave full-time work when I did. Grief is exhausting; like carrying an extra backpack on your back 24/7. Everything appears normal, but in the background is this added weight. Sometimes it digs into you, when the flash-backs and re-imaginings wheedle their way into your very able imagination at the most unexpected moments; other times it just wears you down, and you feel like you just need a rest. At the inquest I expect all of my worst fears to be realised- hearing what the police and coroner have to say about the manner and cause of my sister’s transition from living to dead. I also welcome, in a perverse way, all of the detail; in the hope that it is not as bad as I currently imagine, and that once heard, I can neatly pack it away in an jiffy envelope under my bed with my dad’s court pleadings.
The papers into dad’s death stop around mid-1985, and by the beginning of 1986 an agreement on a settlement between mum the local health authority had been made. On 6th January 1986 the solicitor rang to give mum the news. After a 5 year to-and-fro over the minutiae of decisions made on the 1st and 2nd September 1980, an out of court settlement was awarded, to be shared between the mum and us kids. One the feast of the Epiphany, it was what that same sage aunty that reminded my mum of the significance of that feast day: a manifestation; a revelation. Perhaps also, some justice.
The settlement meant that when we turned 18 we would each receive our part of a modest sum from it. And so it was that for a time, I quit selling pies and gained of a bit of economic independence that saw me through a few years at uni, not to mention a few shopping sprees. I wasn’t sure what to feel about this sudden windfall. Amongst my friends who were still reliant on parents for money, I worried a bit about appearing smug. To myself, I felt guilty. I was benefitting from somebody dying- my own father- wasn’t that weird? In the end, I think I was relieved when it had dwindled.
That was nearly 20 years ago, and now here is my 17 year-old niece in a not too dissimilar situation. Thanks to a death-in-service benefit from my sister’s employers, she too will gain some financial independence once she reaches her majority. Rather than the feelings of uncertainty that I had about the money I received from own parent’s loss, I was overwhelmed with positivity for my niece. Her possibilities are endless, as is her potential. Clichéd as it sounds, my sister would have wanted nothing more for her daughter than to have every opportunity possible open up to her at the age of 18.
And so even though in many ways our lives seem go in circles, for my niece, I feel that from here, she can throw whatever shapes she wants. And I know she will.