People with the need for order and perhaps also a belief in progress have invented the concept of stages of grief; here I imagine a system of locks. As though the person in mourning was a boat on a river, the river of sorrow, you might say, full of locks that ease the person ahead, and further ahead, towards the open sea, the reconciliation with death and loss where a new future is possible.
I am the kind of man who lives in a death house. Literally. I moved into my parents’ home when they passed away. Joint suicide. They loved to demonstrate their rock-hard realism whenever possible. Their realist and Socratic position, I would say. Life as an illness. Goodbye and thank you, we’re slipping away now. While we can still do it ourselves. Very considerate. Nonetheless a shock. For a long time. Death by hanging. Whoever had to kick out the chair from the other then had to kick out their own chair. It was probably my mum. I was a child of older parents. I am now the same age as my mum was when she gave birth to me. Fortyfive. I was ashamed of their sagging faces when they turned up at school among the crowd of athletic activist parents, primarily young parents. There were a few with potbellies. I did not change the house much. Once in a while I go down to the rec room, a monument to the seventies; if you put your ear to the wall, you can hear the faint echo of Abba; I take a seat by the dark, wooden bar and grab a glass (I suppose I am lonely), or I continue my losing battle with the billiard table, just a couple of shots. Thirty years ago, we used to kiss down here. With the old folks pacing nervously back and forth in the room above. And once in a while they would poke their heads down to make sure nobody got pregnant. I remember seeing my dad standing in the doorway once when I was crawling on the floor drinking Bacardi from the bottle; he pretended not to see me and shut the door behind him. Then everyone drove off on their mopeds and it was over. Someone had thrown up in the hedge. It is a terraced house, meaning the neighbour woke up to find white garlands hanging from their side of the hedge.
The house is filled with unusually large, low-flying flies. Filled might be going too far. There are four or five in each room. I get them with the hoover. It’s easier than swatting them. A little later there are just as many again. I don’t know if they are the same flies from before; did they really crawl out of the pipe? Or have new ones already hatched? They should be tagged so I can follow their routes.
The tube of the hoover is like a pistol (only something will soon shoot in, not out of it), the black opening approaches the black fly where it sits calmly, until the moment of perdition arrives and flight is no longer an option, the air it had previously travelled through so comfortably has become evil, a whirlwind that can lift a man on a donkey high in the air and a fly off a wall, tipping it into a noisy black tunnel – which it might be able to crawl out of when the machine is switched off.
Things have been rather gloomy since Alwilda left me. Almost a year ago. Maybe I should just sell the house. Put the past behind me. There is only one kind of man worse than me. The kind who never leaves home, but spends his entire adult life sleeping on a sofa in the sitting room or in his former childhood room with old posters on the walls and a collection of crumbling crab shells on the windowsill. I moved out though, at the normal age of nineteen. But as soon as I spotted my chance, I moved back in.
I want to abandon the castle of my old folks, my childhood palace, their arena of death. I want to move forward in time instead of constantly being whirled back through the black tube of the past.
I moved into my parents’ bedroom without considering whether it was healthy or not. I could say that I was sleepwalking, and that would fit in nicely with what comes next. In the same bed where they tossed and turned, sweaty and sleepless, decade after decade, I lay down to sleep each night. Insomnia was their great common theme, and their addiction to sleeping pills, they even gave me sleeping pills when I was a child; I struggled through my childhood dizzy and drowsy, until one night at the age of ten I gave a definitive no to the white pill held between the two fingers of my father’s outstretched hand, the little almond he was about to pop into my mouth. It equated to violence: ‘Are you turning against your own father?’ he asked. He might just as well have said: ‘Are you laying a hand on your own father?’ It sounded biblical.
In the bed where I had been conceived and where they had lain sleepless, I voluntarily settled down to sleep after they died. In the very room they had chosen as the setting for their death. The place where I arrived one day to find two chairs tipped over, two old people dangling from hooks in the ceiling. And when Alwilda used to visit, she would lie down next to me. I never told her that it happened in there. I don’t think she would have wanted to sleep there. On the rare occasion when she couldn’t sleep because she had drunk too much tea, pleasantly and without complaint, she would count the flowers on the brown, floral wallpaper until the pattern blurred before her eyes. We had some crazy times; I hope she looks back on them with rapture, or rather: with moisture.
It happened on the same trip I saw millipedes come cheerfully sweeping down a dusty African road. We found ourselves in a reserve for large wild cats in the Kalahari Desert. For security reasons it was forbidden to get out of the car. But Alwilda considered it an invitation. She stopped the car in the middle of the plain, pulled her knickers down to her knobbly knees, climbed out of the car and pressed her face against the hot chassis of the car; she bared her arse and urged me to sink my teeth into her neck, ‘just like the cats,’ she said. And standing there, rocking and swaying, it was an enormous turn-on for her that at any moment we could be attacked from behind by a leopard, a cheetah, a panther or a lion. I had a harder time giving in to it. I listened attentively for soft paws, rustling in the grass. I thought more about the distance to the car door than her body. During one of these hot, rocking, anxious bouts of intercourse, the millipede, long and black like an endless set of carriages (it turned out there were three in a row) came sweeping around the turn on the dusty road; it made me think that a situation similar to the Tom Kristensen poem with the beetle and the condemned man – where in the lengthy moment before the executioner’s sword falls, the condemned man spots a beetle and focuses all of his attention on it – might be about to develop; with one of the great cats serving as executioner.
Alwilda was driving and she stopped a lot. She called it ‘hitting death squarely on the noggin’. I wished she had held onto me. First she wanted me. She was the one who pursued me. Then she got me. And slowly but surely I began to want her too. Just as I began to feel that it was love, despite her large knobbly knees and single-mindedness, she came to the realisation that it was not after all and left me.
At night we were in a campsite, separated from the animals by a tall wire fence. We lay in our tent and heard the cats on the prowl. Their screams and those of their victims rose and fell and cracked and rumbled, close by and far away. I have never witnessed so much sound, such a lively night.
When I work myself up to do something about it all, I quickly begin to feel faint and devoid of energy. So I sit down in an armchair and swing my legs up over the armrest. The hoover is never far away. My rear end sinks into the seat. I can sit like that for a long time. I call it staring.
They had only been dead for a few hours when I found them. They had invited me over to dinner that day. When nobody answered the door, I went around to the garden first, as though it held an answer, while I half-heartedly called for them. They had been hard of hearing for many years. Then – feeling like I had crossed a line – I inserted the key in the lock. I had not let myself into that house for fifteen years, not since the time they went to Poland and I had to water their flowers; it is the same key and key ring that they handed to me as a child with the message that I was now a latchkey child – they both worked late. When I moved away from home, I attached my own keys to that ring; unmistakably a child’s key ring.
They no longer went out because they were so unsteady on their feet, so I knew something was wrong. But it was difficult to imagine them both dying at once. Still I was jubilant on the inside – it’s over now, they are at peace, they’re no longer in pain, they can sleep now. What they have long awaited has finally happened. A wave of triumph passed through me on their behalf.
For years, whenever I asked my dad if there was anything I could do for him, he would reply: ‘You can shoot me,’ still he faithfully took his vitamins every day and got the flu jab. He retired at the age of sixty, and then lingered on for thirty years with an idleness that made him unwell. He could not grab hold of anything. He mentioned again and again his longing for a ‘project’, but never found one. My mother was a little younger and continued to work after he retired.
Then I grew fearful of the sight that would greet me, and I started to call out ‘Mum,’ the gentlest of all words, and I called out ‘Dad’.
It was as though I only dared to enter another room if I called out to them first, as if the words dragged me along, or meant I did not think too much about walking forward, and what might meet my eyes; I stifled my own momentum, so to speak. Finally there was only the bedroom left – and this was it. And then I opened the door.
I saw them again the following day at the funeral parlour. They looked like the product of an African wood carver. I don’t know if all dead people resemble one another, but they did. Death had turned them into twins. They had passed into another state. They no longer belonged to me.
Their mouths were slightly agape, giving their faces a slightly scheming look that they had never had when they were alive. I squatted down on the floor to find an angle where I could avoid their scheming, shrewd, calculating mouths. They had died in the same way, and they looked the same. Their skin was so frightfully cold but their hair looked normal. So I stroked their hair. I later asked the undertaker to cut off a lock of their hair but he cut off far too much; it was like a disfigurement; for that reason I never again looked inside the envelopes he handed me before the funeral service. There was too much; too alive; like scalps.
I realized that I moved between a series of positions – in my mind. They were all there from the beginning. There was my fear of forgetting. I recalled and repeated the conversations we had had during our latest meetings, with the same energy as someone who is about to sit an exam; I remembered their expressions. I could picture them sitting directly across from me. They were inside me.
There were times when I could not conjure them up in my mind, where they moved back in time like a rocket, away from me, so that I lost them entirely. Other times it was not the speed with which they disappeared, but instead they were behind a frosted window, they were blurred, impossible to get hold of. It hurt me when they diminished in clarity. But they always became clear again. Then unclear. Then clear.
I was overjoyed on their behalf that their troubles were over; the autumn approached and with that, the darkness that they feared; I was glad that they did not have to stay inside the house lighting candles, oppressed by the darkness with all their sufferings. I never realized how much it helped them that they had had each other. The more disabilities that turned up, the less so – I think. Their pains isolated them from one another. I think so. I have no idea how they managed to get up on the chairs, she with her osteoporosis and a compression fracture in the spine, he with his Scheuerman’s, the failed operation on his herniated disc, the numb leg that he had to drag around; how did they even get up there; one final, caring, joint endeavour, or did he snap at her, even in that situation?
And then there was my longing for them, to see them again, just one more time. Sometimes my happiness at their release could completely rid me of my longing. Other times not.
I was never angry that they had arranged for me to find them – by inviting me that day. You might imagine that I would feel deceived. I was the closest. Who, if not me? It was an expression of trust. The house quickly filled with people that day; the police, doctors and the emergency services, into whose hands they passed. I liked all of them.
I liked the mortician too. Even when he said: ‘I worked so hard for you that my fingers are bleeding,’ I thought it was a rather tactless bodily reference, and he must have realized it and backtracked; but even after that he said: ‘I’ve got your parents in a cardboard box.’
(Only much later did I begin to wonder if he had an occupational injury, or if he was just trying to see what he could get away with; whether it was out of spite, or from having the upper hand – I was clearly down; was that the reason he had cut off too much hair? Stop it, I told myself; and so I did.)
And the florist. And the priest. And the staff at the funeral parlour. I liked them so much that I wanted to see them again. Not only did I want to see them again, I had a hard time letting go of them.
On the other hand, people who had known them, neighbours, a few old friends, I did not want to hear what they had to say about them. I wasn’t worried they would say anything bad but I did not feel like having their lives interpreted by other people. It was down to two things; I had a sense that they belonged to me; and I did not feel like having more added to my image of them; I did not feel like having to grapple with new ‘material’. I thought I had enough. So much so that on occasion I had a hard time getting my bearings.
One morning one of their old friends called me; he had arranged a memorial for my parents on the fortieth day of their death; he was a member of the Russian Orthodox Church; he invited me to participate; he told me that they believed – well no, he served it up as fact – that for the first forty days their souls were bound to the earth, and that this ceremony would help them let go; people would pray for their sins to be forgiven and ask God to receive them; my first reaction was that I did not want them to leave the earthly realm, (I wanted to keep them close, if possible; where they were had not crossed my mind until now, previously I had thought that everything ended with death) and my next reaction was that I did not think they had done anything wrong.
They were both critical-rationalists; I am too, none of us believers. Still, the new material that had been dumped on me, I could not simply dismiss it out of hand.
I was afraid of joining the memorial because I felt unstable – if I could feel a connection to the florist who handed me a bunch of flowers from behind the counter, who knows what would happen to me in a gathering of chanting believers? I decided not to go. Even though it felt wrong to let people who had not known my parents – only one of them had – pray for their souls without me even being present.
I realized that I had a constant sense that my parents were floating above the house that I had immediately settled into, and that they could see what I was doing. However I had not, as I previously thought, imagined that everything ended with death; that was only my common sense (speaking). I realized that after the phone call. Now, whether I wanted to or not, I had to start thinking about how they were doing, whether they liked what they saw me doing. From the very first day (after their death) I kissed a photograph of them several times a day; it was a comfort to press my lips against the glossy surface; I decided not to frame the photos, because glass would mean greater distance. The surface of the photograph was all I could get, not living skin, or even cold, dead skin (they had long since been cremated), there should be nothing separating us, no glass.
Now when I did it, kissed them, I thought about whether I did it out of fear – of what they would think of me. I suddenly understood that you can be afraid of the dead; all of this came pouring down on me after hearing the word soul on the phone.
I went to the churchyard and read their names on the gravestone; their urns (containing half their ashes, the rest were to be scattered at sea) were buried in the earth, this little patch of garden; but were they truly there? I did not think so. I did not think that this place had anything to do with them.
I knew very well that they were not floating above the house, yet still I believed it; they were not in the churchyard; sometimes they were inside of me; other times they were not. Everything ended with death; maybe their souls were tormented. One day I heard a sentence inside my head, spoken in my mum’s voice: ‘Maybe you’ll discover that you don’t love us nearly as much as you thought you did;’ she had actually said those words to me once, once when we talked about death; that I might feel that way. The sentence had entered my mind and now I had to decide if that was the case. How was I to know that? I am sure I protested when she said those words. Now she was no longer there to protest to. New material streamed in from all sides, I was like a person writing a thesis that could not be delimited.
There was a lot of light and a strong wind on the November day I drove to the island where my parents were born to scatter their ashes; after the cremation I had their ashes divided up into four urns. They had wanted their ashes scattered at sea. I wanted a grave. And a grave without a little of them seemed senseless. Hence all the urns. Two for the earth, already buried, and two for the sea.
I stopped the car and grabbed the white cardboard boxes and a bunch of yellow roses from the boot. I had to walk past a field of sugar beets to reach the water’s edge. I had chosen a place where they used to enjoy swimming, where the three of us used to swim when I was a child. Along the edge of the field, even though it was well into November, there were still a few poppies and daisies in bloom, though somewhat brown at the edges. The wind tossed the light around and took hold of everything. The wind added some wildness to the day. I had chosen that day because of the light. I had waited weeks for it to stop raining, racked with guilt at leaving their urns in the boot. But I would have been unable to face black trees and bushes, a dark sea and a grey, wet sky – a landscape that was practically dead.
I had not been there for years; there I walked on one of my childhood haunts; even returning is something special; it makes you notice more; with one look you see the changes, with one look you recognize the place; with one look you recollect. And of course all of this was intensified by the fact that I was walking with my parents’ urns in my arms.
As a child I identified this place with the Stone Age; it seemed so old to me, the coast and its bays, black underbrush, all the seaweed and rows of large stones jutting out from the coast, an hour ago someone dressed in fur could have slurped down some mussels here. I remembered how my mum used to swim; she always swam on her side with one arm stretched out behind her, she loved the water; it was a source of enjoyment that she was robbed of when she was no longer steady enough on her feet to be able to get into the water; now she was returning to this place in the form of ashes.
I pulled the urns out of the cardboard boxes and put a couple of rocks in each box so they would not fly away. I removed the name tags from the urns and cut open the steel wire that sealed them with a pair of pliers. Then I balanced on the stones in the water. I reckoned the breeze was at my back. Halfway out I stopped and removed the lids. Then I leant forward, with one urn in each arm and poured from each one at the same time. Immediately the ashes blew back in my face. I got them in my mouth, my nose, in my eyes. My coat and my suede shoes were grey with ashes. I leant forward even more and managed to empty the urns. The ashes were clearly visible on the sandy yellow bottom. I threw both urns against a stone and kicked the shards onto the seabed. I was a little worried that some bathers might step on the shards next summer. But by then the current would probably have carried them away. I threw the yellow roses into the water above their ashes. Then I rubbed my eyes, spat out some ashes and brushed off my coat and my shoes – their final loving embrace.
The yellow roses – I could see them when I was back on the beach. I had a peculiar taste in my mouth and wiped it away with my handkerchief; I had ashes in all of my facial cavities.
Note to my Mourning Diary: When I saw them dead, I thought they no longer belonged to me: they had passed on to another state. I struggled for a long time with whether I could miss something that was no longer accessible. I missed them as they were when they were alive. But they were no longer alive. The image of them being dead had placed a dividing wall between us.
It was like being forced to undergo a particular exercise in logic. It seemed like I was running the gauntlet between my lines of reasoning.
Photograph © Chris Farmer