Finding the Words to Say Goodbye

My dad always loved flowers.

On October 20th this year he turned 79 years old, and I spent that morning trying to decide what was suitable to give him.

I hadn’t had time to buy him any presents, but an assortment of birthday cards which had landed through the postbox went into my bag. The day before, he’d mentioned what kind of cake he’d like – “Something creamy, Flor; something more sweetie than cakey – and coffee icing would be nice!” – and so I’d been checking the nearest corner shops to see if I could find the right one.

When I arrived at the hospice on his birthday, I realised I’d forgotten to bring him any flowers.

But when three of Dad’s closest friends walked into the room, there were suddenly dozens of them. Three different bunches; two kinds of tulips; a glass vase kindly lent by the hospice staff. I spent five minutes arranging and re-arranging the flowers on the windowsill so they looked as bright as they possibly could.

A passion flower in South London

It’s been over a month since my dad passed away.

I don’t really know what’s happened in the days since – aside from the blur of bureaucratic activity which follows a death. Some are things I never knew about, and some I partly wish I’d understood beforehand.

Nobody tells you that its your decision to go to the hospice and see his body. Nobody prepares you for registering his death at a small council office with a terse woman who keeps framed photos of cats on the wall. Nobody warns you that the funeral home you’ve chosen could fill you with dread each time they inevitably phone with a problem. Nobody suggests researching these things better.

Somehow I planned a funeral. I spent days writing a eulogy which was about him, not just about my loss of him. I wore a recently-bought dress which I half-remember him saying he liked. I filled a hip flask with good Scottish whisky, a long-ago gift from some of Dad’s final year drama school students, and sipped it on route to the crematorium.

A purple flower found in East London

I am still in the shell-shocked stage, I think. The tears are there, but they only appear at little inconsequential moments: like the day I hung his pyjamas out on the line to dry in the sun and realised it was the final time.

I haven’t quite realised that he’s gone.

After so many weeks of tense anxiety spent half-watching the rise and fall of his chest, half-expecting a sudden dramatic moment to suddenly kill him, my dad died when I wasn’t there. He slipped peacefully away in a hospice bed when I was at home by myself.

I don’t yet know if I can quite accept that.

So. I am trying to move slowly. I am living moment to moment and thus carefully not embracing the full enormity of my situation, which I’ve decided is the best way to cope.

So how am I actually coping? 

Luckily, I’m not alone in all of this.

My boyfriend Jamie and his gorgeously huge dog Ernie have been staying in Dad’s house – my house, now – since September, and together we’re reclaiming it. We’re rearranging how we exist within these rooms just enough to alter the way I perceive a building this full of memories.

Ernie the golden doodle in Peckham Rye

In amongst this strange limbo period of nothingness, we distract ourselves with the softest and the calmest of activities.

We take Ernie to walk in the parks close by. We binge-watch The Walking Dead, Grey’s Anatomy, the Apprentice and Antiques Roadshow. We welcome in the autumnal winter which happened almost by surprise, countering the cold by lighting fires and curling up with cups of tea and blankets I bought in India years ago. I take death proceedings one thing at a time. One day at a time.

I don’t go upstairs much. There is an empty bedroom I feel strange standing in, as if the air outside is echoing around it and feeling for the gaps.

But when I do venture up there, I search for details. Looking at the smaller things is easier to handle than the whole big picture.

 

My grandfather worked for Unilever in the 1950s, which meant my mum spent her childhood living in Holland. Today I found a box of slim silver teaspoons, collected from cities across Europe by my grandparents. They’re intricately detailed – each spoon shows a place name and an emblem – but what’s more important to me is the idea that each one was spotted in a shop or a market stall somewhere, picked up gently and eventually purchased by two people in my family at least sixty years ago. They’re proof of an inherited love of travel, and a wonderfully familiar sense of needing to collect. They are my grandparents’ accumulated memories, cast in silver, and they are beautiful. Everyone’s healing process is different. For me, it’s hunting through the dusty plastic bags which fill the back of my parents’ wardrobe to find the possessions my family loved enough to keep: stored away from view for years perhaps, but loved nonetheless.

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The body’s reaction to grief is bizarre. My emotions come in waves: nothing, then suddenly all at once. We cope like this because the sadness is too big to hold entirely.

It’s been so long since I’ve felt relatively ‘normal’ that it’s hard to realise what’s now in front of me. When I feel ready, I’m free to go back to my old way of life when I want to. I can start being myself again – except I’m so exhausted so much of the time. I scroll through social media like I always have, but now I feel barely any desire to be involved in it. Every post just seems pointless in comparison to Dad.

“This might be dangerous,” I think to myself. “This might herald the beginning of no longer living out my life online: no longer telling a group of people around the world what I’m seeing and doing and feeling.”

But it’s the ‘feeling’ part which stops me.

I still want to explore the world. There’s no doubt about that. I still want to photograph it. I still want to tell the stories I learn, and plot out new ones. I still want to share how my mind makes its connections. I still want to connect to the world itself, and the people in it.

There are moments when I feel my creativity come back to me. We listen to the radio and suddenly I hear something which inspires me: a word, a phrase, a story which needs to be jotted down so I can explore what it might mean later.

They are jewels, these moments. They remind me of how much I love, adore, need to create. They remind me there’s a world filled with similar souls who are already doing just that.

For the last eight months, I have lived with a stone in my mouth.

I have known since March that my dad was dying; I have known that soon I’ll be without parents, some semblance of an orphan, most definitely and most worryingly more alone than I’ve ever been.

But during that time I’ve also been preparing my body and mind for these thoughts to become fact. I have been waiting for a long time — and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s an education to know how the components of myself can pace back and not jump to conclusions. Not to rush. Not to push.

And that stone? That heaviness? It’s a feeling which hasn’t disappeared, but it’s been absorbed somewhat.

I am allowed to live my life again. Hurting, aching, mourning, perhaps – but mine.

Flowers on Flora's desk

My dad passed away on his 79th birthday.

He’d seen his friends, opened his cards, watched me arrange his flowers on the sill, eaten a few bites of tiramisu. He was very tired when I said goodbye, and just before midnight he slipped downward from sleep into something else.

The more I think about it, the prouder I feel. My forever neat and orderly dad, who was suffering from a debilitating illness that so cruelly forced him to lose control of so many aspects of his life, made an active decision to let go and pass away on his birthday. His final moments comprised an act worthy of theatre – and they made sense for a man who’d spent his entire life working on stage.

I will always need to talk about him. I know this second death of a second parent will undoubtedly shape my life yet again. But I think I need to focus on those things which bring me joy right now.

Finding flowers in the midst of winter. Playing with a dog too big to be called a puppy. Photos of my dad and I, two years ago on his birthday, standing at the top of an Austrian mountain together and looking ever so much alike.

Flora and her dad in Austrian mountains
My dad spent his last days at St Christopher’s Hospice – an incredible palliative care home in South London. If you’d like to donate, click here. 

About Flora

Flora Baker is the founder and editor of Flora the Explorer, where she writes about her travels around the world, her volunteering exploits and her ongoing attempt to become fluent in Spanish by talking to anyone who'll listen. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter, and Google Plus.

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13 Responses to Finding the Words to Say Goodbye

  1. aterosin November 30, 2017 at 3:01 am #

    Lovely Flora. It reminds me when my Papa died- I was an hour away. When I got to the house and stood at the foot of his bed I felt a sudden rush of air go right through me. I’m sure it was him. He had waited for me and now he was off on his next adventure. He was a lover of flowers too. I have many of his plants in my own garden. He was a great friend and I miss him.

  2. youngoldtraveller November 30, 2017 at 10:54 am #

    Beautiful and captivating writing, Flora! Sending you lots of love from Australia! Stay strong, you inspirational woman! <3

  3. frederick November 30, 2017 at 11:07 am #

    Dear Flora I am so sorry to read the sad news my deepest sympathy you are in my thoughts and prayers

  4. emilycharlotteray November 30, 2017 at 11:43 am #

    Oh Flora. My heart is absolutely breaking for you. As always, you’ve put things so beautifully, and so much of it resonates. The hospice staff told me not to be surprised if my mum passed away when I popped out of the room, as often they wait to be alone in order to spare their loved ones from that pain. In the end I didn’t really give mum a choice because I basically glued myself to her side(!) but please do not feel any guilt. It sounds like your dad did things on his terms, and clawed back some control in such an awful situation. That photo of you and him is absolutely gorgeous – I see so much of him in you!

    Always here for you m’love if you ever need a chat or a tea or a rant (or cat cuddles!) xx

  5. Sarah November 30, 2017 at 1:21 pm #

    This is a beautiful piece of writing about something so terrible. I’m truly sorry for your loss.

  6. Caroline Eubanks November 30, 2017 at 5:19 pm #

    I’m so glad to see you’re writing because you truly have a way with words. I’m sorry for your loss. I was wondering who that sweet pup was. My I add some binge shows for your consideration? Daredevil on Netflix, Good Behavior (if you have it in the UK yet!), and Leah Remini’s show on Scientology are my current favorites. Sending you love <3

  7. Em Buchanan November 30, 2017 at 5:33 pm #

    Flora, Flora, Flora. My eyes are full of tears. I cannot fathom the loss of a parent and you’ve had to go through it twice… it breaks my heart. I’m so sorry for your loss and I hope in time that you find a way to live a happy and full life once more xxxxx

  8. PM1 November 30, 2017 at 8:08 pm #

    Flora, I teared up reading your post. Bravo for being able to express your grief so eloquently. So sorry for your loss and hope time heals some of the pain.

  9. Colette December 1, 2017 at 10:39 am #

    Oh Flora, what beautiful words. I can’t imagine your pain and I dread the day I feel it too. Xx

  10. Julia December 1, 2017 at 3:27 pm #

    So much off what you have written so eloquently about I can relate too. The passing of a second parent, the orphan feeling, living in what was ‘their’ house, and their passing when I wasn’t there.

    Despite knowing that the end is coming as I did it is certainly no easier. I really do believe I was lucky to have those precious moments sat holding their hand and telling them how much they were loved.

    As with you and your dad both my parents passed when I wasn’t there, despite many many hours and days sat at their bedside. Apparently it is often the case, is it perhaps their final act of caring for their child?

    One of the lovely staff at mums care home got on the bed with her and held her in her arms and told her that it was ok to go, whilst another stroked her hands as she deteriorated…I couldn’t have asked for more.

    It’s almost a year since Mum’s passing her funeral was the day before her 88th birthday on Christmas Eve.

    The sadness never leaves but life this year has been trying to find some kind of ‘new normal’ I hope you find yours whatever it may be.

  11. Janet Maw December 3, 2017 at 3:29 pm #

    Dear Flora – your words – raw – intelligent – heartfelt – searching and full of love – are an utterly beautiful tribute to John and indeed Sue – Bravely exposing your journey. I do feel for you and also recognise that feeling you describe about the walls upstairs. When my own father died 27 years ago this November I recall to this day the palpable experience of the outside wall downstairs in my house vanishing with only the fireplace remaining and wind circling throughout. So I am sending you a big hug of empathy, sympathy and love – hoping you can ease along at your own pace to be able to embrace new beginnings with hope xxxxxxxxxx Lots of love Janet

  12. Mimi December 4, 2017 at 1:31 pm #

    Beautiful, and the thought of your dad making that decision makes me smile so much xxxxxxxxx

  13. abetterman21 December 6, 2017 at 3:44 am #

    Great post. Really moving.

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