Two weeks have passed since my father’s funeral. It attracted some mixed reviews (“10/10 – best funeral I have ever been to”, “I thought the second eulogy could have been more concise”) but was a good way to say goodbye and have the fact of his absence made all too horribly real.
These events pull family in from around the country and were one of those rare times we were all together. So rare in fact we took photos and in doing so underlined that the only time we all came together was when he wasn’t there.
Black sheep and a Cherry Tree
By the time we had reached the reception there was no table for us and a promise of one was never kept. We found another table at the opposite end of the pub and did our best to mingle.
It’s pretty standard that every family will have its black sheep. What we hadn’t realised was that to his new friends the whole family were considered to be black sheep. We learned about this in some subtle and not so subtle ways.
The good Christians of the Salvation Army expressed their compassion and love for fellow man and belief in redemption by giving us pointed looks and passive aggressive digs about why we were even there. Few of them asked how we were or would have cared for the answer. They knew only what they had been told and that was all they needed to know.
The notable exception was the kind man that lead the service and took time to talk to us and offer condolences without qualification about how difficult it was for his widow that we were there. This was in part because he knew at least one other member of the family so knew that there was more than one side to the stories that had been told about us.
This is not our eulogy
Before the funeral we had discussed some of the potential difficulties we would face. We knew it would be hard to listen to the edited highlights when we had each had very different experiences from those being outlined at the pulpit. It was telling that the two speeches delivered were not from family. They were stories of work and friendship and a political career of helping others.
For all the crocodile tears expressed for how difficult it was for his widow to have us there (this is not something she ever voiced to us) no-one extended the same empathy for how difficult it might be for his children to hear “he was like a father to me”, “he always thought of him as his second son” or to have the grandchildren ignored in life be proudly referenced in a potted family history.
We listened to admirable tales of the young men he had mentored through their political careers while noting the very different experiences we had. I’m so much my father’s son that I couldn’t switch the work part of my brain off as I mentally drafted counter arguments or redrafted the second eulogy to take out the rambling and dull CV parts out. I had already written my own rambling eulogy.
We all had our own take on the speeches. One family member took a gracious but insightful view of the yawning gulf between what we heard and what we knew. “I really enjoyed those stories, he sounded like a man I would have liked to have known”.
Stories were told that defied belief, they had a whiff of urban legend or shaggy dog story and were told by people with a wry chuckle. When we explained they were true and the story behind them it seemed that we were an uncomfortable reminder of a time they knew little about. We knew they were true because we were there.
I tried to maintain diplomacy but made some occasional slips. One well-wisher offered their condolence, “He was very proud of you”. My reply, “Yes, I hear that from other people” was met with polite bafflement.
And now for something completely different
It wasn’t all bad. There were plenty of lighter moments to counter the darker ones. The cremation service was perfectly pitched. It acknowledged the complex feelings that many of us had and asked us to forgive as we say goodbye.
My father’s wish / threat came true as his coffin was carried out of the church to the ‘Liberty Bell’ and I couldn’t help cast my eyes to the rafters to see if the foot was waiting to come down.
We saw old family friends that we hadn’t seen for many, many years. We got to be together as a family unit and swap stories and catch up with the lives we had missed.
Death is only the beginning
And now we have the aftermath and for once it can be hopeful. Relationships are starting to change and reconnect.
I still have pangs about the lost opportunities to show him what I can do and have him respect those achievements without need to belittle them.
There will be more difficult conversations to be had with grandchildren who never knew him and those that may only have dim memories of him.
Every so often my son will pipe up that Granddad is not very well and he didn’t get better but that he will take him to see the baby train and lady train and Thomas again. My daughter remembers the presents that he bought her and knows that they are special even if she doesn’t understand why. My youngest will be too small to have any memories.
I have the overwhelming urge to call him in a way that I didn’t before.
I still haven’t told all my friends but I’m in no rush to change that. I already have a shoebox of memories for my sons and I don’t feel the need to create one for my father. I feel his ghost in my words, my voice and my name. He is always with me and that is something that provides a small comfort. And fear.