Today Stephen is saying goodbye to his Dad, his father died suddenly 10 days ago leaving his loving family in shock. There was no warning, his light went out and he was gone.
There are no words, no pithy phrases that can adequately sum up the loss of a loved one. It’s impossible to quantify a life, to sum up a person; we try, but we know that it really can’t be done. Not really. How do you describe love? Not the grand romantic kind, but the everyday kind. The kind that’s shown in cups of tea, in shared moments watching tv or washing up. The kind that’s shown by hard work day after day, putting food on the table, shoes on feet. The kind that we live every day, year after year, like an old coat that warms us but we forget it’s even there. There is no way.
As I get older, and the list of those I’ve loved and lost gets longer, I begin to understand a little more of what it is to walk through this life. I begin to understand that sometimes it’s just a matter of getting your head down and doing the best you can. Grand destinies are wonderful, but they pass most of us by. We make of life what we put into it, we do our best and hope it amounts to something. Each days builds on the last, some good, some best left behind. We do our work, we care for those we love, we build things, grow things, make things. Sometimes the things we make are people, people we pour our love and effort and care into, hoping that when we send them into the world it all amounts to something.
I am beginning also to understand that the story of a life is not a straight line. We do not move from A to B on a clear path, signposted for us with handy resting places along the way. We wander, we rush, we stop and get lost; we find ourselves stuck sometimes, lost in a place we never meant to get to, a way station in our story that sometimes becomes the place we stay. We try to see ourselves from the outside, try to make sense of it all but really, we are all a little lost most of the time.
But along the way we collect, we collect memories and experiences. We collect people who decide that they’d like to go along with us for a while; sometimes that while turns into forever, however long that turns out to be. We collect people and memories and experiences, we meander together doing grand things and little things, not really noticing that we are now all woven together. Woven so tightly, so completely, that we no longer know which bit is which. We no longer know the space they take up in our heart, they are just a part of who we are. Life, family, love, all woven together.
Sometimes we choose those people, we weigh up their place in our lives, we make decisions and vows and promises. But the others, well they are the ones we pick up without noticing. When we love we inherit a family too, when we share fun we weave ourselves into someone else’s story. We don’t always intend to, we don’t pick those people with a careful list, they just become a part of us, an extension we don’t really notice. Until it’s gone.
Then suddenly, like a gaping hole we see it all so clearly. We see all the threads of that person’s life and how they cross over with ours. We see the way their colour has merged in to our tapestry, becoming part of the whole, part of us. We see what that person gave us and, of course, what we’ve lost. We see the things we’ll never get again, the holes in the tapestry that won’t be filled. The gaps in the future where that thread belonged. And that, in those spaces, is where the sadness lives. It has it’s own colour, it’s own thread, it weaves in and out in the places where our love once lived. It becomes part of our story, part of what we carry with us as we continue on.
I’ve known my father-in-law for 20 years, for half my life he was there. Without even trying I can summon up his smile, his laugh, I can visualise him sitting in his chair at home or, more likely, working in his garage. Because work is the word I most associate with this man, work is who he was. It was how he helped, how he found value, how he loved. He showed his love, nailed it down and polished it, gave it freely to those he loved so deeply. He gave his work in many forms, knowing that it would be a part of their lives day after day. Even if he couldn’t be there, even if they lived far across the ocean, too far to hold close.
I can’t be in England today to say goodbye to Barry, to show my respects for a man I did indeed respect. I can’t share my memories of his laughter, coming suddenly and with great joy when something tickled him. I can’t offer any comfort to those I love far away, except at arms length. So instead I pause, I look and remember. I remember the man who helped build our house, who worked alongside his son to build the kitchen where I spend most of my time each day. I remember how pleased he was when I cried with joy to see it, how hard he worked to get it done in time. I find evidence of his work everywhere, in tiles and taps, in the special bed he made for his grandson. I see his work ethic in his own eldest boy, the son he loved so much he sometimes glowed with it. It was a love that rarely found words, but it was there in everything he did.
I feel the echo of my father-in-law in our garage, a waft of cigarette smoke circling to meet me, as he organised tools and used his strong, work worn hands, to shape and make wood into what was needed. And I remember last summer, looking up with relief as he walked towards me, lifting a heavy milking machine from my hands and walking alongside me to the house. The air is thick with memories, how could it not be? After 20 years, how could it not be.
So I say goodbye, in my own way. I try to remind myself that someone I loved is gone, not just away in another room. I try to make that true, but really I know I can’t. Because he’s not gone, none of them are. They are woven into us, a part of our story, a part of what we carry around. They are the paint on the canvas, colouring how we see the world, shaping even how we know ourselves. The exits of those we love are rarely grand, no stage left in real life, no completion. Instead we must just raise our heads, remember what they gave us and keep going; one foot in front of the other, making new stories as we go. Carrying the echoes with us and weaving them in to our future.