The thud of my hand luggage landing on the hall floor brings the cat running to see who’s disturbed his slumber. “Hi little man, did you miss me?”, I say with a smile as I bend down to pick him up for a cuddle. It’s been two months since I waved my goodbyes to him before I headed off to Heathrow airport and onto Minneapolis to complete the final stages of my project. He nuzzles his head affectionately into my neck but I can hear much huffing and puffing and I move out of the way as my partner pushes a ridiculously large and overstuffed suitcase through the front door into the hall.
“Dear god Mob, maybe next time you should ship some of this old crap back instead of trying to take up half the hold in the plane”, he moans at me. He’s red faced and out of breath from the exertion of dragging this monster from the car to the house. I want to snap back at him that quite a bit of ‘that old crap’ as he calls it is several pairs of jeans and t-shirts and a leather jacket all bought for him at knock down prices and all courtesy of the pound being strong against the dollar for a change. I bite back my retort because I know he's tired and because I’m so very grateful that he’s risen really early on a Saturday morning to pick me up from the red eye flight that got me in to Gatwick at 0600am.
It’s been a fairly arduous fourteen hour round trip but I’m finally glad to be home; back in familiar surroundings but I’m immensely disoriented from the time difference and being away for so long. Everything’s the same and yet nothings the same. Northamptonshire couldn’t be more different to Minneapolis but each place holds a special affection for me. A fitful sleep in the car on the way home seems to have left me more exhausted and irritable and I would gladly kill for a deep sleep and some peace for a week. I turn to close the front door and for the first time am captivated by the garden and just how beautiful it is becoming. It’s mid April and the pink and yellow blossom on the trees look stunning and welcoming with their burst of colour. They were bleak and naked when I left in February. I momentarily forget the burden that weighs heavily on me but it returns as quickly as it went. It’s been two weeks since John called to tell me about dad and here I am home, finally home and dreading what is to come.
The cat’s long gone in search of some field mice so I close the door and pick up my hand luggage and head for the bedroom. The familiarity of my own bedroom and knowing that I’ll be curled up there sooner rather than later drops my stress level a notch.
“Stick the kettle on Mark”, I shout down to my partner. There’s no answer so I stroll down to find him looking murderously at the suitcase that needs dragging from the hall to the utility room as I need to unpack and launder my clothes. You’d think he was expected to singlehandedly lug it all the way up Mount Everest rather than to simply move it a few feet. Jeeze he could be a cantankerous git at times but at least he was my cantankerous git.
“C’mon, I’ll push and you pull”, I offer and together we manage to get as far as the sitting room where I unpack the gifts that have been packed at the top of the case. He’s thrilled at the jeans and tops and prances about in his new leather jacket then clears off to see what it looks like in the bedroom mirror.
In the moment’s silence just sitting on my hunkers next to the case, I feel extremely low and overwhelmed and in danger of buckling under. But there’s no time for self pity because I have to get myself together. I’m enormously cheesed off that I didn’t have enough time to launder my clothes before returning home but the project had demanded every waking moment right up until we went live two days ago. Being a week overdue just added to the pressure to deliver, to get the loose ends tied up and come home. But we did it and in relative terms a week was practically a legendary small amount of time to 'go over' as I’ve never seen an I.T. project come in on time, under budget and without problems. I left the USA with my boss’ and client’s blessings and felt that at least my professional world was under control even if my personal world was unstable. “One nil to me”, I told myself.
I knew that John was right and I should have come home two weeks ago but it hadn’t been possible, not at such a crucial stage in the project. There was simply no one else available to guide it to completion. If truth be told I was relieved that the decision had been taken out of my hands. I comforted myself with the knowledge that my father’s prognosis was in months so two more weeks didn’t mean much in the scheme of things. It made much more sense to me to complete the project so that I could spend some time with him without continuous interruptions from work. Much better that than the shoddy alternative of a fleeting visit to say goodbye, a hasty and callous exit from his life and a swift return to work. At least this solution means I can take over from John and give him the break he so desperately needs.
Lord knows I need a break after slogging through seventy hour weeks for the last few months and perhaps spending some time with my father is one way we can put the past behind us. But all of this may be academic; I still don’t know if I want to, or can, be with him. There’s so much to forgive and I’m irresolute that I can step up to the task. Guilt wields a heavy stick over my head as I wrestle with my conscience; guilt at not rushing home to Glasgow as soon as I heard the news; guilt that I feel no emotion about his impending death; guilt that I don’t even feel angry at him anymore. But hey, that’s the thing about us Catholics, we graduate with a first degree honours in guilt and it’s indoctrinated in you from the off and for me it has been nothing but a source of irritation throughout the years. All that bloody fire and brimstone approach to worship leaves me cold but maybe there’s a point to it after all. At least, besides indifference, I can feel something now, even if is just guilt.
Now that I am home my life is taking on a new reality. A six thousand mile gap between Glasgow and me held it all at bay but the nearer I am to Scotland the sharper the focus of the problems I now face. I am but a mere four hundred miles away and ever closer to confronting a dying man and the prospect of that troubles me greatly.
“What’s the plan for tomorrow then?”, Mark asks on his return as he helps me take the laundry I’ve been sorting through to the utility room. “The car’s been serviced and I’ve topped up the oil and water so we’re all set as far as that goes. Are you still sure you want to drive up rather than fly?”
“It’s such a waste of money to fly there and then hire a car Mark. I’ve got two weeks off and I don’t know how long we’ll be there. Best to have the car to get about in so I can see Mum and the others. We’ve got to get between three hospitals don’t forget”, I remind him.
“I know, I know”, he says with an air of resignation. How are your uncles? Have you spoken to your mother and your aunt lately?”
“Mum called me last Thursday. Uncle Iain’s no better and still under observation every ten minutes because he’s threatened to kill himself again". Mark shakes his head at the futility of it all.
Uncle Iain’s life has spiralled out of control since his wife died six months ago and his brother followed suit less than a month later. We’ve always known that he was completely dependent upon Aunt Libby and living without her would be a challenge but we’ve been shocked at his total self destruction and his determined refusal to live without her. It’s been heartbreaking to see his demise but he is hostile to any offer of help and our once mild mannered uncle has become a tortured angry man with only thoughts of suicide on his mind.
It’s hard for me to see my mother saddened at the loss of her older brother and now fretting about her younger brother and his state of mind. The news of my father’s impending death must surely affect her in some way, but when I ask her, all she is prone to say is that she is saddened to hear of his demise but that after twenty years apart, it’s no different to hearing of the loss of an old neighbour. I leave well alone because each of us has to deal with his dying in our own way; each of us has to respect the individuality of our unique relationship with him and what that means to us. I am heartened that at least with this news my mother is coping and not embittered for she doesn’t need more sadness and stress heaped upon her; her heart just isn’t strong enough. I sense that we are at one over his death; she is as indifferent to his passing as I am. On reflection perhaps that is the best we can offer him after years of misery meted out by his hand.
Mark hands me a steaming mug of coffee. “Here drink that, the caffeine should give you a second wind for a while”. I’m too exhausted to hold the mug to my mouth and I rest it on a side table and sink down onto the sofa. I haven’t dared to sit down until now for fear of nodding off and achieving nothing before we leave tomorrow. Mark slips neatly down beside me and wraps a big strong arm around my shoulder. I let out a deep sigh and for a moment I am content just to rest my head on his shoulder and let him carry some of the burden.
“And what about your uncle James too?”, he asks, knowing that this is my Sword of Damocles, causing me deep anguish. He knows the tears that I should have shed for my father are shed instead for the man who has been my mentor, guide and surrogate father figure all of my life. I start to weep as I imagine my aunt and cousin’s agonies as they hold vigil beside his bed; his deterioration from cancer now so evident that it is only a matter of time. But still no one utters a word about him dying; no one talks about it openly. It’s all hushed words and metaphors and we all read between the lines. My aunt and uncle are of a generation where it is sufficient to know what is happening and to get on and cope as best you can. “What’s to be gained from overly sentimental dialogue?”, they would ask, had you challenged them. It’s taken time for him to die, too much time to be in agony as this disease ravages every organ and cell in his body. We’ve come and gone in his life of late, wondering whether each visit was the last. I know in my heart that this time it will be.
It is a hideous situation that must be bourn and I’ve heard it said that God doesn’t give you more than you can handle. Well bugger me for I am certain he’s having a sabbatical and left his incompetent sidekick in charge because how the hell are we supposed to deal with this lot?
My day passes in a haze of domestic activity, making sure we have enough clothes to see us through for a while. Katie my friend and neighbour will feed the cat, water the plants and make sure there’s no stray post hanging from the letter box for opportunist burglars to happen upon. By eight o’clock what needs to be done has been done and I’m finally able to sink deeply into my armchair with a large glass of wine to hand. Mark rolls in with a takeaway pizza and hands me two slices and tops up my wine glass. I’m light headed from the wine and hungry but I don’t have an appetite.
“Eat it , c’mon MOB, no point you getting ill too. You’ve had nothing but two cups of coffee all day and you can’t drink on an empty stomach. You’ll have one hell of a hangover and it’s a long journey tomorrow”, he quite rightly admonishes me. I force myself to eat the pizza and it tastes good and comforting and washes down well with the robust red wine we are drinking. Thank God for Mark. He’s my anchor in stormy seas and I don’t know how I’d get through this if it wasn’t for his empathy and his strong practical approach to helping me.
Comforted by the relaxing effects of the wine and the pizza, coupled with the jet lag, my eyelids feel like lead and I start to drift off into a gentle slumber. The shrill ring tone of the phone wakes me abruptly an hour later.
“Mob? “ . It’s my brother John, calling to check the details for tomorrow I suspect.
“Hi John, how’s it going then?”, I ask him, as I rub sleep from my eye.
“Not so good Mob, not so good”. The line goes quiet as I wait for him to speak. Eventually he clears his throat and says shakily, “dad died ten minutes ago”.
The news leaves me cold, even further detached than before. My brother is crying softly on the other side of the call and I feel shock, confusion and emptiness. I say all the right words to try and comfort John but what use are words at a time like this? Platitudes are imposters, just empty words, masquerading as helpful little sound bites to make the narrator feel better and leave the bereaved no better off for their utterance. But nevertheless, it’s a ritual we must follow if we are to become practiced at grieving and going through the motions. We do our best for there is no handbook to guide us; no mentor to take us by the hand to lead us through the barren landscape of deep anguish, fear, anger, sadness and heartbreak. I know as I end the call with John he will need to find his own way through the maze of grief. Nature must take its course and only time will prove to be the balm needed to mend my brother’s broken heart.
Mark moves to engulf me in his arms and I move in towards the safety that his body promises me. He guides me to the sofa and when we sit he gently strokes my hair and says nothing for he knows it is pointless. I know that he will wait to see what my reaction is and take his lead from there. It seems like an eternity has gone past and we’ve been locked in this embrace for all of it. The shrill ringing of the phone breaks us apart and I run to answer it, wondering which of my siblings it might be; a sibling perhaps as detached as me or deeply upset like my brother.
A voice I didn’t expect to hear greets me in sombre tone. My cousin Joseph is sad to tell me that Uncle Iain has finally achieved his wish to leave this world and to end his mental torture. Exactly forty five minutes after the death of my father, Iain wrapped a wire coat hanger around his neck, attached it to a light fitting and hanged himself.
Overwhelmed by the news, I sink to my knees and start to weep. I wept for the futility of the loss of Iain’s life by his own hand whilst my uncle James battles desperately and heroically to cling to his; wept at the loss of opportunity to see my father one more time; wept at my stupidity and callousness in delaying my return. I simply wept and wept until I ran dry.
I tortured myself that night by listening to The Living Years over and over. Mike and the Mechanics certainly knew a thing or two about leaving it too late and, dear God, I’d just joined their club........