There’s a brown envelope. A large missive in my hand. I know it’s for me as it has my name on it in my dad’s handwriting. It’s thicker than I expected. This is mainly because in 2015 my dad arranged to have his body donated to science; the university medical permission papers bulge out, meaningless now because of the unavoidable postmortem. The other contents I already knew about, because they’ve been pinned to my old noticeboard in my old bedroom in my old house since 1999. It is a copy of his will* and a white envelope with a yellow index card inside.

The card has four bullet points.

These are my instructions to follow in case of his death.

  • A Black Briefcase

Tucked away in a corner, but still in plain sight, the contents are indeed self-explanatory. Documents and letters related to his life neatly organized in paper files with headings like Bank Account, House, Utilities, Tax, and Car. All I have to do is take the case and hand it over to the solicitor. The simplicity of it reduces me to tears. The moment I opened this case, I was relieved of having to sort through any real bureaucratic matters. Everything is here in a format that anyone can understand and I am now free to focus on my emotions, on my grief. I am burdened and unburdened all at once.

When I look at his desk, the same principle applies. At a glance, I can see what he had been doing just days before – working on possible connections between various pothole systems and researching the latest dig, as well as keeping up his Spanish for a planned trip. There is some clutter, but not enough to confuse or cause despair.

  • A Key Safe

Located outside the old house, this once held a door key in case we ever got locked out, but I’m informed that the key safe has been removed in the last year in preparation for renting the house out. Instead I am handed eleven keys. I recognize two, possibly three. They are grouped into two assorted bundles. Four keys on one keychain and three on another, plus five attached make-shift with a scrap of wire to that chain. (By the end of that week, I can only identify one more key. The other eight remain a mystery.)

  • Email

This was an emotional obstacle too high in the first days. I had to come back to this at a later date and even then, it took me several days to bring myself to open the inbox. The computer was directly linked to his email, so I didn’t actually need a password. What I found was a revelation that would make the most zealous minimalist green with envy. Almost none of the emails were more than two months old. Any dated prior to that were related to issues my dad was still trying to resolve. Even the more recent emails were only ongoing conversations that still needed some action – arranging a meeting, booking a flight, a bank statement to be filed. There was no personal mail, no shopping activity, not even junk mail. I didn’t have to feel like I was prying into some private part of my dad’s life because he had been consciously, consistently erasing it all. It made sense. Did I really need to know the details of a cavers’ dinner he’s attended in 2017, with all the toing and froing of details like what main course he wanted and if he preferred a seat by the bar or in the main room? But he knew I would have hesitated again and again over whether it was right to delete something, some small piece of information that might hold an as-yet unknown importance. He saved me this trouble and in doing so remained what he always was – a truly private person.

  • FIRU

I download the said file onto a clip drive and also email myself the files to look at later. It’s basically a digital window into his financial situation, recent photos he’s taken, and pothole reports. Again, nothing really personal except for a birthday/Xmas card address list of around twelve people. There is also a letter from 2018 to an old work colleague that unusually had not been deleted. Or had he left it as a final clue so that I can connect the dots to all this sparseness? It’s a brief message to say that he’s cutting contact with many old faces from his past. I feel this was not done out of any maliciousness because I can feel the sadness in his words, but as being his way to clean the slate in preparation for his final stage of life. I write to the people on the address list to personally inform them of my dad’s passing. It gives me purpose and the kind words I receive back are a true comfort.

But of course, with my dad there always has to be a comic twist.

On the flipside of the yellow card is a note.

I know the teapot well and take a trip back to the old house, wondering what I will find.

 It is still there.

I reach up. Has he really left the flash drives in it? But no, it’s empty. An obvious thing, but still a flat ending to a slightly exciting treasure hunt. I eventually find the flash drives in a camera bag along with some CD-ROMS containing older photos, more pothole reports, and a bizarre three-minute video montage of photos of the Great Snow of 2010 in the Yorkshire Dales accompanied by the soundtrack of Wagner’s Ride of the Valkyries (that must have been a very long, boring winter for him stuck at home and not able to get out caving or on his bike…).

I decide that I’ll try to be this organized for my kids, but will make it even simpler. All they’ll have to do is find a sea dragon in a treasure chest.

*My dad’s perhaps one oversight. He wrote his will in 1999 before the anti-terrorism and money laundering laws meant proper checks needed to be done on names, and he never updated it; so when I talk to the solicitor, I have to explain that all three people appearing in the will actually have different names… I’m warned that there may be delays in going through probate as we may be suspected of illegal activities!

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