Virginia Woolf once said that nothing has ever really happened until it has been written down. Ever since I first came across that quote at the age of twelve or thirteen I’ve lived under the shadow of all the things that never really happened to me: not just the the parties nobody will ever remember in perfect clarity or the the startling three AM thoughts that slipped away, but also the nothings. The days when nothing happened.
What do we do with our lost days? My mother once bought me a little book called A Thought A Day, with a short space to write a sentence in every evening for five years. I wasn’t very good at keeping up with it, and so sometimes I’d find myself going back and writing up a week or a fortnight at a time, pretending to my future self that I’d developed the habit properly. I’d get to a certain point and realise I didn’t have anything to say because I couldn’t remember a single notable moment from the day in question. What did I do last Tuesday, I’d ask myself, What ever did I do, and then I’d start to panic because I’d got so keenly aware of how tiny and insignificant my life was and how much of it I was wasting on days I couldn’t even remember a single thing about. The past is a memory, and the future is a daydream, and all we actually have for real is this here – this exact moment, the one that will have fled even by the time I finish hitting the next key on the keyboard.
My father is a part of the past now, and he has been since early Monday morning. He is a memory kept alive by our scrabbling minds, a whisper fading inside an echo chamber. All I can do – as a writer, and a rememberer, and a daughter, and a mourner – is shout as loudly as I can till the urge to keep it going lessens.
At about half past ten on Sunday morning, I was woken up by a phone call from the hospital. “He’s not doing so well”, the nurse said. “You should come.” I threw on some clothes and ran downstairs to where my housemate, my best friend, was sitting at the computer in the living room. “The hospital rang”, I said. She went to pick up her car keys.
When I got there, nothing seemed very dramatic at all; much as I’d left it when I went home the evening before. I sat with him and talked to him – to him, not with him, because by that point he couldn’t speak. He hadn’t really been able to since Wednesday. I don’t know if he could even hear me by then but I talked and talked, and other people came and went and they all talked too, until eventually they’d all gone and night was falling and I sat down in a chair by the hospital bed – we were in a private room by then, which was a blessing – and I thought to myself how this could be the last time I ever sat alone with my dad while he was still alive. I didn’t know what else to say or what more to do so I pulled out the copy of The Hobbit I had in my handbag for this very purpose and I started to read it to him.
My father and I have a special relationship with The Hobbit. He’s read it to me, and I’ve read it to him, and it was the first proper novel I read all by myself as a child, and it’s of most vital importance to us both. Dad and I can and often do both recite the first paragraph:
In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort.
For the rest of my life whenever I see those words I will hear my own voice quaking and breaking at my father’s bedside, and remember how I recited Misty Mountains almost from memory because my eyes were so thick with tears I could barely see the page. I didn’t leave the hospital till after ten PM that night and when I did, I stayed with friends who live nearby. I slept poorly and fitfully on their sofa, my phone clutched in my hand and a set of clothes laid out by the coffee table just in case. When it rang I wasn’t at all surprised. I was at the hospital well inside fifteen minutes after they woke me to tell me they thought he’d stopped breathing.
The hospital lay sleeping, the ward a dimmed silence far removed from all the hustle I’d got used to being there amongst. It was a little after four in the morning and the nurses gave me a cup of tea and showed me silently into his room. He was lain flat on his back, straightened out, not in a position he could have been in during the few weeks that went before. He looked small and peaceful and very, very still. I felt myself wracked by a silent sob. “Oh, Dad”, I think I said. “Oh dad, oh dad, oh dad.”
“I love you so much. Fuck. I love you so, so much. How could you do this to me? No, I don’t mean that. I’m sorry. How could you – don’t leave me. Please don’t leave me. I love you so much. I’m sorry. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Did I ever say that? I don’t think I ever said that. How could I possibly have never said that? I love you so much.”
When it had passed, I moved to stand by his bed and I googled Psalm 23 and started reading it over him, but I was reading the wrong one – it was the NIV and you never use the NIV for Psalm 23, it’s the KJV everyone means when they think about it, but by the time I realised I’d already started and you can’t just stop and regoogle and go again, can you, talk about ruining the moment. So I read the wrong Psalm 23 and then I said the Lord’s Prayer and a collect and the Glory Be and some other things, and then I realised that I’d run out of prayers I knew off by heart and was saying the Hail Mary which is about the least Calvinist thing ever and while Dad wouldn’t have minded it wouldn’t have meant anything to him either, so I shut up for a moment and phoned his brother. “He’s gone. It’s over.”
Chris had to start getting everyone up and out and into the car, and I phoned my boyfriend and said it all over again and he started mobilising, and then I made the sign of the cross of my father’s forehead and left the room and had a word with the nurses and got back in the lift and went outside and rolled a cigarette. This was when it got bad. I phoned the vicar first – I got the poor man out of bed before five in the morning for not a lot, but he was lovely about it – and then my mother, at least in part because she and her husband get up that early most weekdays anyway so I knew I wouldn’t wake them, and then I tried to go back inside but it was so hot in the hospital that every time I started walking down the corridor I felt like I couldn’t continue. I knew I was going to throw up but I didn’t know when and I had to get it over and done with and I couldn’t bear the heat and I just felt sicker and sicker and worse and worse, and I wanted to sit and talk to the vicar on the phone for a bit and he would have done just that but I couldn’t speak I felt so sick, and all I could do was pace around the hospital grounds like a madwoman until eventually I vomited horribly in the most discreet outdoor corner I could find, horribly, over and over till there was nothing of me left.
After that I could go back inside. I sat for another forty-five minutes or so in the chair next to my father’s bed, the same chair I’d read The Hobbit to him from just the day before, with my hand on his shoulder and my forehead resting against the metal bed-frame, and I talked and talked till everyone else arrived. Dead bodies are strange. His is the second I’ve seen, and the first had been embalmed and that does make a big difference – my dad still looked mostly like himself, but his mouth and eyes were both frozen in this strange half-open way that nobody would ever stay like were they alive and I kept thinking I could see the bedclothes rising and falling with his breaths but I knew it was just an illusion – just my eyes seeing what my brain expected them to see.
I don’t suppose I need to write down all the things that happened next. They happened to other people, too, and so they’re in much less danger of fading from reality.
I will say, though, that I didn’t spend that night in my own home either, and when I got back there the next night I went upstairs to go directly to sleep and there on the foot of my bed were my father’s bags, all the stuff of his I’d brought home from the hospital. I’d forgotten they were there and I fell to my knees with the weight of the blow. When I’d recovered a little I picked up his iPad and it was still on, still charged. I glanced through some things and I found a letter, a piece of writing not unlike this one in spirit, written by the daughters of a close friend of my Dad’s who had died only a few short weeks previously. I don’t have the iPad here with me and I couldn’t quote the context, but there was a line in it that just said As if anything as magnificent as our father’s brain could possibly die!
As if indeed. As if.