I used the last of my dad’s ketchup today. It was one of the things I took from his house when he died earlier this summer. It seems to be what you do when someone dies. You take their stuff, ask, ‘Who want’s this?’ and carry it away in boxes and carrier bags, as if you are carrying them away, so that nothing is wasted; so that they aren’t wasted.
I didn’t have a traditional father: daughter relationship with my dad. He left us when I was eight years old and my younger sister was four. He was absent for huge chunks of my childhood and adult life, had a second wife and family and until recently that is what I remember most about him, the pain of him not being there. But in his illness and old age, there was a pragmatic coming together. He needed help and I did what I could; with incredulity and tears at first but his need softened old hurt. His eyes, if not always his voice, said both ’Sorry’ and ‘Thank you’ and life became just life and death just death. No blame. No need for forgiveness.
And with this came the slow remembering, not of the tightly held misery but of the little joys that I had chosen to forget. The pearls of wisdom that he had shared with me, like, ‘You should never see a runner bean twice in May’ – a reminder not to plant the seed too early in that month, so that the first shoots come through in June, when the frosts have gone; this is a lore that I have always adhered to. And, ‘You can’t make happiness from someone else’s unhappiness’; an acknowledgement, perhaps, that peace of mind cannot come from the suffering of others. I remembered walking with him in woods and by rivers and riding pillion on the back of his motorbike (six years old and no helmet but feeling perfectly safe). In short, the landscape of suffering changed. It still wasn’t easy but insight changed the experience and I was content.
Letting go comes in different forms. It can be sudden, like dropping a huge weight that you can no longer carry. It can be slow and gradual like water wearing away stone and it can come in the re-framing of memories that surface in times of passing; the photo albums that are revisited, the cards and letters that get re-read, the stories of past events that resonate differently when re-told from someone else’s point of view. At these times, old resentments lose their fire and become silent at last.
I’m grateful for the things my father left me. His apparent indifference toughened me up to cope with the world. The attitude of independence I acquired, though needing cautious awareness, was a good thing. His illness was a struggle but also opened doors of understanding that led to the peaceful resolution of lingering hurt. I’m also grateful for the things I took away in carrier bags – the carpentry and garden tools, the shampoo and bubble bath, the yoghurt, pickles and ketchup. These bits of him I have been putting to good use, enjoying and savouring them, as I joyfully remember him and quietly let him go.