‘You didn’t have to be stuck in the story. You could change it, not just for yourself, but for other people. You could change the story with a wave of your hand.’

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

It has been a year and it has been a year.

I had imagined myself saying these words to a slightly swarthy group of mostly retired potholers at the start of June in a caver’s haunt somewhere in North Yorkshire, England. Instead I am writing them at home in a quiet backwater of Yokohama, Japan, as the world begins to slowly reset.

I have a notebook to my left on the desk. To my right, on a moss-green armchair, is a whole pile of them. They begin on 2nd June 2019 with a police officer’s ID and name, telephone numbers, facts, people to contact, and from there cascade into drafts of letters and emails, more facts, addresses, schedules, people to meet, scattered ideas, random thoughts, pourings of emotion that need to be anywhere but in.

Words flow, but passages stop and start intermittently, chaotic jottings anchored only by dates and times.

Fragments

This is not about me

The first night, no sleep or, rather, sleep to wake to a single light in the darkness. The headlamp of a caver sitting in a pitch-black void, and then in shock to wake again, and the light becomes the luminescent dial of a watch on a bedside table.

2am.

From then on, this is a time both dreaded and welcomed. The mourning hours from 2am to 4am, when all the pent-up emotions of the day release themselves as racking sobs, startled awake, overwhelmed, finally reduced, back into light sleep. From there, to rise and pass through the day, functioning on almost autopilot.

*

A rushed flight across the desert.

A man, towards older years, carefree, sits at the back of the transit bus. A wayfaring traveler like a mirage in the corner of the eye, so painfully familiar; there and yet not there.

Children, full of joy at getting to eat burgers and fries at 6am.

Laughter as a Japanese Satnav app tries to announce Accrington Bypass and instead shuts down.

Pain, on the faces of loved ones.

Surprise, looking in the mirror and instead of red, swollen eyes, being met by a clear, pale gaze.

Grief, like an invisible veil.

Emotions, separated.

*

The words Thank You, spoken with deep compassion, unending, unstoppable.

*

Every thought emerging as if out of nothingness to be considered anew. Time is of no matter, as up until that moment each issue did not even exist. Now the house, now the bank, family, back to the house, family, cavers, friends, car – where is the car? (That last piece of information gets misplaced for several months. The car is there, but not in any known place.)

*

A reluctance to use the words funeral or father.

*

Rain streams down the windows; a watershed.

*

The inexplicable head cold that comes on almost straight away and persists until the day of the burial, when it intensifies into a blinding headache. The head becoming the whole.

*

Rescue members and old friends at the caver’s graveside.

One son’s pained expression; benign confusion from the other, still wondering when Grandad is going to pop out and say ‘Da dah!’ because Grandad loves really dark jokes and this is the darkest one of all.

*

Everything broken. Disconnected.

Everyone needs time.

*

A flight, in reverse, back across the desert, into forty days of emotional exile.

Tangled

No right or wrong

At the three-week mark, a sudden void. To wake one morning and find the world has moved on, yet your grief remains present, is distressing to say the least. (If you know someone who has recently experienced grief in some form, now is the time to reach out with a kind word.)

~

I begin to imagine this all as a black comedy of my dad’s design. Whenever something arises, I take it to be a bizarre plot twist, aimed at making the situation even more absurd. Nothing to do but laugh.

That’s my story anyway and I’m sticking to it.

~

In my notes though, I rip out my soul and press it to the pages.

~

The best advice I receive is to be kind to myself. So I start to create a space within me, a place to be still at the centre of a chaotic storm.

~

I feel time splitting between the UK and Japan as I try to keep the connection with both the here and there.

~

I try to think of ways to ease the pain the rescuers and my dad’s friends must be feeling, but in my heart, I know I have to wait until they are ready. Until I am ready.

~

That doesn’t stop caffeine-inspired (fueled) ideas jumping to mind and into emails; yet people manage to parse what I actually mean, putting my mind at ease.

~

I seek out grief everywhere, to try and understand it, to try and find similar incidents with similar circumstances for guidance on how I should be acting in this situation.

~

But there are no rules to go by, no gauge for what is normal. It just is.

~

The rain continues, heavier, a deluge now.

~

After forty days, I return. I go with Rescue and the Gentleman up on to the fell. The thick mist means I can’t see a thing. But at least now I have walked in my dad’s footsteps.

~

My need to express gratitude to everyone is as strong as ever. Compassion flows.

~

I need to know everyone is okay.

Because if they’re okay, I’m okay.

Flux

Courage is a response

I feel a return to self.

I return to the mountains. I return to walking. Under light of day, I cautiously face my fears, but as evening draws in, I reach for headphones with loud music to drive out thought. My mind protests; the upbeat music going against its preset of sadness. Hurting because it makes me feel too much. But being pulled under is not an option.

I receive letters addressed to my dad. Some helpfully add (Deceased) after the name. Others just assume he’s alive and berate him for three paragraphs for not attending an appointment, then finish by cordially inviting him to telephone to make a new one.

The impending inquest hangs like a black tempestuous cloud. No-one knows when or how it will go.

I am slowly finding the story though.

I write to meet myself on that murky August day on the fell. I turn Fountains Fell into the ethereal and Eski into a boggart.

I write to face The Inquest. A lifestyle statement. A boy, a man, an outdoor enthusiast, a husband, a father, a traveler, a grandfather, and throughout, a caver.

I write the stories.

My soul is now ripped to shreds.

But the mourning hours are receding and many nights don’t come at all. It is a relief to wake after 5am, like a sign of visible healing. I worry that compassion may also begin to fade and so become mindful to its ebb and flow, guarding it carefully.

Beware of firsts, people caution.

Birthdays. First mine, then his.   

I gift myself the power to respond, not react, and the strength to feel emotions.

I present my dad with a cartoon of Death.

Xmas.

I anticipate this will not go well.

My younger son, sensing it may not happen at all, drags me to the cupboard on December 1st to get the decorations out. I leave him to put the tree up, while I stay in the cupboard weeping over last year’s Xmas cards.

On the eve, we run away to the bright lights of Yokohama Chinatown and then, on the actual day, float out at sea. Anywhere but home.

All the while, I keep up a routine of writing and emailing everyone to see how they’re doing.

Because if they’re okay, I’m okay.

Balance

Know your solitude

The New Year begins, bright and optimistic.

The headphones now drape more around my neck than cover my ears, the cord like a reassuring safety rope running over my shoulder, wrapped around my phone, in place for when needed.

The daily silences are becoming a comfort with less sense of dread. I feel happier in myself, which is good because the universe has deemed that we all stay in place. Plans get put aside and I quietly accept. Everything will still be there. Now we are here.

I take the time to read through my dad’s writings. His emails, letters, potholing reports. His constant interest in life, his ability to take the darkness and turn it into something that shines, his insistence on the importance of always wearing clean underpants – because you never know what will happen next.

It is in his last, unfinished, report that a Pratchettesque reference to midnight and dancing leads me back to the start.

‘Can you take away this grief?’

‘I’m sorry,’ she replied quietly. ‘Everyone asks me. And I would not do so even if I knew how. It belongs to you. Only time and tears take away grief; that is what they are for.’”

Terry Pratchett, I Shall Wear Midnight

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