In January, I came home to a broken boiler.
After celebrating the New Year in Cuba, I’d spent two straight days flying from Havana to Toronto to London – and I was exhausted. Moreover, I was more than a little worried about how it would feel to be at home at the beginning of this new year.
The first year I’m facing without either of my parents alive.
It’s been three months since my dad passed away, and in that time I’ve had a rude awakening into what my new life looks like. Suddenly I’m the sole person responsible for the house I grew up in: I’m responsible for every physical object which represents the life I once shared with my mum and dad. It’s a huge realisation, and it’s utterly terrifying.
In a purely practical sense, I’ve also been forced into adulthood in the most mundane of ways – something which became rudely evident when the boiler began to flash an ominous red light on December 26th.
“At least it was working on Christmas Day!” my boyfriend said brightly, while I immediately panicked and tried to find a repairman. Luckily my dad, ever the pragmatist, had already paid for a year of insurance cover for his three year old boiler, and the plumber who eventually arrived to check it out told me that the replacement part would be ready in three or four days.
Great news, right?
Except a fortnight later, we got back from Cuba and walked into a freezing house in equally freezing winter temperatures, and so a boiler nightmare began.
The prospect of a month without heating
Over the next few weeks, I had five different boiler appointments which were booked then cancelled at the last minute by the repair company – and my confidence was repeatedly chipped away each time. My vague plan for the first months of 2018 had initially been to slowly and calmly begin ‘Working On The House’: namely, sorting through drawers and cupboards, bagging up unwanted clothes for the charity shop, re-organising the layouts of furniture and knick-knacks, and generally navigating how to find comfort in a space which is suddenly unfamiliar.
Instead, thanks to a mysteriously hard-to-obtain replacement boiler part (and a company who didn’t seem too bothered about it), my house was destined to be bone-cold and virtually uninhabitable for four straight weeks.
So I did the only thing I could. I wrapped myself in every layer of thermal clothing I owned, clambered into bed beneath three thick duvets, and I hid.
What makes a place ‘home’?
In May last year, before we knew my dad was going to die, I’d planned to move to Scotland and live with my boyfriend. Jamie’s been based in Glasgow for the last six years, and I was excited to explore a country I’d always adored but hadn’t spent much time in.
Except that after Dad’s death, the idea of relocating suddenly became much more overwhelming. His house had always represented long-term permanence and security, but now that’s been shaken. Suddenly London, and my life within it, feels acutely vulnerable.
And yet, mere months before, I’d been so keen to leave London! I’d wanted to break out of the city-wide suffocation and breathe properly in the open countryside. I’d wanted to have a fresh start in Scotland. I’d felt ready.
So a few weeks after my dad’s funeral in mid November, Jamie and I drove northwards: up through snow-laden fields and into the Scottish countryside. During a fortnight we visited a dozen properties, some for rent and others for sale, in the hope that we’d chance upon a place we might want to live.
We met most of the owners of these properties, and I was fascinated to see how all these people had decorated their homes to reflect their lives. There was the man with a thimble collection whose children had all emigrated to Australia and who’d hung his garage with Australian flags; the woman who worked for years with a camel rescue centre in Syria and filled her house with green palm fronds; the house with the bright orange conservatory, a gaggle of inquisitive geese, and a cat tunnel dug into the wall.
These families were relocating because of many reasons: illness, old age, an increasing need to be closer to loved ones. Some seemed more resigned than others to be moving on – and I understand why, because leaving a familiar way of life behind you can be terrifying.
But while we were far away from London, I began to have uneasy nightmares about my dad’s house. Each night my mind filled with scenes of break-ins, spontaneous fires, unlocked doors and a confusion of visitors arriving for unexpected house parties.
When I eventually came back to London in December, it was with a bitter sense of relief. I wanted to embrace a new life in Scotland – but I needed to be in my family’s house. After so many years of wanting to keep moving, all I want to do now is stay very still in a place of comfort, and wait for this grief to wash over me.
Life inside an ice house, and a sense of reclamation
Of course, a broken boiler made the grief process a lot more stressful.
Jamie’s job called him quickly back to Scotland, so for four weeks straight, I was suddenly isolated by myself in a strange nothing-space. I spent all my time in a living room stronghold of 10’C, warmed only by two electric space heaters and a hastily constructed fire; my body dressed in leggings and tracksuit bottoms, thick HeatHolder socks, thermal long sleeved tops, a woollen black turtleneck once belonging to my mum, and an Ebay-purchased heavy knit jumper.
Under my multiple duvets, watching my breath mist above my head, I thought long and hard about what this house signifies.
It’s a safe space for me to actively feel my grief at losing both my parents, sure: but it’s also filled to the brim with them. Every picture I didn’t choose to frame or hang on the wall is a reminder of them. Every colour of carpet, every curtain pattern, every lampshade, every decoration is proof that I’m living around their memories.
For better or worse, this house is mine now – and these reminders, which have the ability to be both positive and negative, aren’t going anywhere until I decide they should. And I get the strong sense that part of my healing process is to reclaim this house so it feels like it belongs to me.
So I began to think about lampshades, wall murals, framing my own pieces of art I’ve bought around the world. Changing the curtains. Buying a good mattress for the first time in my life.
And with this thinking came a sense of proactivity. After what felt like months of passive hibernation beneath the covers, I began to actively preserve myself against the cold.
I used towels from my dad’s scarily organised airing cupboard to cover the gaps at the bottom of each door in the house. I spent an evening clumsily sewing up an old sweatshirt of my mum’s, filling it with rice to make a draught excluder.
Copying what my dad did years ago with the draughty front door, I hammered pins into the doorframe of the living room and hung a scratchy mohair blanket to stop any cold air from getting in. My fire-laying and lighting skills improved with every evening’s attempt.
By the time the boiler was finally fixed by a fantastic engineer named Errol, I’d worked out the best methods to preserve what little warmth there was in my house. I’d also begun to understand the myriad of triggers for my grief.
As Errol stood on his ladder and peered inside the boiler, we talked about what it’s like to lose our parents. Errol’s mum had passed away the year before, and he knew exactly what was racing through my mind.
“You can’t get on with grieving your dad properly,” he said. “Not while you’re freezing by yourself in this house! You’ve really been through the wringer, haven’t you?”
Errol understood why this situation was so upsetting, and why my house felt so strange.
“You need to feel at home here,” he said, waving a screwdriver in his vehemence. “This needs to be your place. It’s your home now – even though you’ve lost your mum and dad.”
This house has always been my home
What does ‘home’ mean to you? Mine may no longer have my family in it – not physical people, at least. But there’s still heating and hot water (occasionally!), and there are all our familiar possessions. Belongings.
This is a place I belong to.
Regardless, sometimes this belonging feels a bit like being under house arrest. I’ve begun to have too many anxieties about a building I wasn’t really supposed to be living in right now. In the same way that I’m fascinated by people’s life stories illustrated in their houses, I’m scared of establishing my own story right here. I’m nervous of creating my own life inside a house which used to hold three people’s lives, intertwined around each other.
But then I remember there are almost thirty years of memories with my dad in these six rooms. Twenty of those years still involved my mum.
And without sounding trite, my parents didn’t raise me to crumble.
They raised me to be strong.
This time last year I could never have imagined where I’d be right now. But it happened. My dad died, and so my world shifted. Now, I’m spending a quiet Christmas Eve in my family house, without any surviving members of my family apart from me. And yet? That shifted world I inhabit is still beautiful. Different, yes – but undeniably beautiful. The dusk sky still shines with ethereal colours dancing through the clouds; traces of seawater still reflect smudges of fading light along the dappled sands, and it’s utterly mesmerising. I’ve been reflecting so much the past few weeks. I know my life has changed forever, but it’s still mine. I’ve spent the last decade since my mum’s death living fiercely: I’ve been experiencing everything I can of this beautiful world, and I won’t let that change. So merry Christmas, folks. The tide might be out in southwest Scotland, but soon it’ll come back to life again. And so will I ❤️
There’s no doubt that the grief process is going to be hard. I’ve already done it once before, and I’m not looking forward to it. But just like last time, I know that grief at its highest intensity doesn’t last forever. I can get through it, and with some self-care I know I will.
For now, I’ll be living mainly in London, visiting Scotland as often as I feel able, and spending time on short-term pursuits of happiness around the world. London is where my friends and community and familiarity are, whereas Scotland holds the promise of new horizons: a new life, when I’m ready for it.
So. I’ll reclaim this house to be my home. I’ll nurse my grief and regain my strength. I’ll find out what it means to be an adult orphan, and I’ll come to terms with it.
I’m battered, bruised and so very vulnerable – but I’m still here. And that’s a start.