Two years ago today I received the news that my father had died. Although a shock at the time it was not entirely unexpected. My parents were in their nineties and suffered many health issues including dementia. Despite their noticeable and ongoing deterioration, they were still lucid enough to understand what was happening to them and had made their wishes clear. They did not desire interventions to prolong suffering they knew was only likely to get worse.
My father’s death happened quickly. He developed severe difficulty breathing and was rushed to hospital. He passed away before tests could be conducted but his symptoms were clearly Covid-19. The paramedics who attended him also voiced concern about my mother. She too was taken to hospital where she tested positive for the virus and was admitted.
Several years previously my parents had taken out prepaid funeral plans. They could not have foreseen that memorial gatherings would be outlawed. Lockdown rules meant neither my brother nor I could travel to Belfast to join our sister in mourning. My father’s body was driven direct to the crematorium in a single vehicle with only the funeral director in attendance. There was no church service, no music, no wake. At home in Wiltshire I and my family raised a glass of Dad’s favourite tipple, Black Bush whiskey, to his memory. That morning I learned my mother had died.
I left the family home, which my parents bought off plan and lived for six decades until their deaths, in my early twenties. From then, I returned to visit irregularly. My relationship with both my parents was somewhat distant, emotionally as well as physically. Growing up I was always supported by them in my various endeavours, and knew I was loved, but railed against their criticisms. I was not the daughter they brought me up to be.
My mother was of her time. It mattered to her how I was regarded, particularly by the wider family. It was made clear to me that certain aspects of our lives should never be revealed to them. It mattered to her that I be slim and dress modestly. Of all my achievements throughout my life it was any loss of weight that she most admired.
My father was a quiet and somewhat distant parent. He adored my mother, putting her needs first. Towards the end of their lives my mother told me it had been a good life, that they had been happy together, the overseas package holidays they took once their children were old enough to be left behind offered as particular highlights. That neither had to live on without the other is a strange sort of comfort now.
Grief is a complex beast. Although I was happier once I left Belfast, and my parents appeared to enjoy their times as a couple more than when with other family members, their deaths have still left a void that cannot be filled. Their quality of life was already compromised when they contracted Covid-19 so in some ways such a quick death could be regarded as a blessing. For those of us left, it still requires processing.
I have not felt the overwhelming sorrow I know some feel when a parent dies. My grief has been more a quiet, shadowed reflection on how our relationship developed over the years. I was told that I spent the first few months of my life in hospital, my mother visiting daily to cry over my crib. She blamed this for my later distance even though I cannot remember the time. It seems I caused her, and therefore my father, trouble from the very start.
None of this can diminish that they were always there for me. And now that they are not I can focus on the positives they provided. They both came from inner city, working class backgrounds, taking jobs and saving money – the pennies that eventually grew to pounds – to give themselves and their children a more stable life. They were proud that the three of us, and then their six grandchildren, all attended university. My father missed out on his chance to train as a teacher due to the war prioritising returning soldiers. He gave up his deferred place to enable him to marry.
They were the best parents they could be given the people they were, and for that I remain grateful. I am glad I got to tell them this before they died.