I sat, stoically, amidst a great mass of people – most of whom I’d never met, at what I’m fortunate to say is the only funeral I’ve experienced to date, though not my only loss. Some weeks earlier, September 8th, 2013 – a date and day branded permanently into memory, I awoke in the early hours to the news of a passing. The end of a great man I’d be reluctant to call Grandad, Bamp, or any other variation. A man who was, and is, no less than a second father.
I had just clocked 18, but in temperament I was much, much younger. It was a loss quite literally beyond comprehension. In what was a ctrl, alt, delete moment I forced myself to sleep, to refuge. With no sadness, no pain, no tear.
It was a sleep that began with the rising sun, one from which, for some time, I didn’t wake. A surreal period passed. A complete purgatory of blankness, of blunted emotion that I pushed so, so hard to retain in those around me. With my young siblings, no more Xbox or fraternal niggling had ever played out. With my parents, conversation consisted of little more than what would be on the menu that evening, or where that long-absent shirt had wound up along the washing hamper-ironing basket spectrum – clothes I had never really liked, nor genuinely wanted back.
It wasn’t until that day, the funeral, that I woke up. The struggle for normality for which I’d relentlessly struggled was turned violently against me – an acrid veil of fog lifted, all at once.
We had, some of us, gathered at the house my Nan, Bamp and Uncle had shared together. It was a delight to be in his cherished garden, bathed in morning glow, amongst those faces that were so familiar, some not so. The winding trail of railway that he had kept pristine through so many Welsh winters had set on it the little green engine that was so synonymous with the most treasured memories of my childhood. Occasionally, the little locomotive would strike a leaf, a twig and become stuck, and the first of us to hand would rush quickly to set it in motion again. I question now whether I was the only one engaged in a fight for normality.
It was almost time, and Nan sent me outside to clear the few autumn leaves that dusted the lawn. “Tidy up the front-garden for Bamp’s last visit”, she asked, gently. As I worked to return the garden as close to the pristine condition that, really, only grandfathers can attain, I watched the street – the setting of a thousand memories. A place that was, in many ways, the epicentre of my childhood. I recalled better times, times when everyone and everything was immortal. Storming up, down and all about the cul-de-sack in my little yellow go kart, roofing innumerable shuttlecocks in appalling displays of badminton – in the company of my sister, my brothers, family and the neighbour kids. I really was trying to restore that garden to its pristine condition – an image that no amount of leaf-picking could paint, a condition that only a grandfather, my grandfather, could complete.
A black car, a horrible, characteristically malformed hearse swung into view, heaving its ugly self along the street’s incline, striking down those children playing badminton and riding go karts, without an inkling of hesitation. The bustle of the house emerged silently into the front garden – suits, boots, dresses and ties all contributed to blackening an already pitch scene, further diluting denial. “Bamp’s here”, a sombre voice rang, back into the house. And that was it. The sudden, piercing physicality of it all. The black, the suits, the little wooden box. In those two words, in that scene was the end. The death of normality, the relinquishing of that hard-fought fight. A backlog of long-absent tears welled all at once. A few escaped, quietly, as I hoped not to be noticed, praying that this damn car would end its assault on the perfect street, the perfect garden, the immortal man.
Somebody did notice. A cousin’s fiancé quietly slipped a crumpled tissue into my hand – a simple gesture, but, really, a float in a flood. At that moment, I knew it was time, and that it was ok.
That soggy rag became more water than tissue, over the course of the following few hours. Hymns were incoherently blubbered through, and the iron taste of blood filled my mouth as I gnawed at the inside of my cheeks, whilst family and friends regaled with treasured stories. But nothing would keep me quiet.
I was fortunate, ignorant, or maybe both, in not witnessing Bamp in his poorest condition, though of course I knew he was sick and getting sicker. But I think he too was pushing for normality, ’till the end. The quips didn’t stop, the ritual popping of joints that would so irritate Nan – but which we’d give anything to hear again, the cheeky tenner that slipped under the radar, quietly into my hands before we’d leave the house, nothing stopped. Perhaps this worked only too well, instilling a sense of immortality that no diagnosis, no sickness could betray. Painting an infallible image that could only be smeared, refuted, with the abject physicality of that one leafy day in September.
Here, some three years later, not much has changed. Naturally, as many will know all too well, pain persists, the heart longs and memories strike some precarious balance between idyllic and excruciating – welling a tear on occasion, hooking the warmest of smiles in others.
We are not without our lost, in these little moments, not ever. We are shaped by such memories. Those better moments with our loved that are so tangible, characters that are so vivid that we may conjure wisdom that might have been imparted, stories that might have been told. Yes, it is more appropriate to speak of not the content of our character, but the content of our characters. In action, in advice, in idle conversation, the path we tread today is worn with the boot-prints of our grandfathers, the heels of our grandmothers. The armchair may be vacant, the knitting needles long-since set-down, but be assured that character itself is a roundtable, a great conversation between those voices that will always mean something. These seats are never vacant, but embody the great patchwork that is self, the ringing chorus of a hundred voices.
That little green engine doesn’t get much track time these days, and parts of that perfect garden have become weeded and unkempt. These are the realities of impermanence. The physical must always be mortal. Yet, as I sit on a train, hurtling along the shimmering banks of the River Severn, I am not sad, I smile – assured as I am in the great collaboration, the great patchwork of my character. One summer’s day, long from now, I will build by son, my grandchildren, a little model railway. More specifically, my Bamp and I will build a little model railway – for this is a passion that is as much his as mine. One day, long from now, I too will rest, high upon a Welsh hill, in awe of those lush, green valleys. And only then, maybe, will we meet again. But curiously, I find this a question of no matter. The departed, my Bamp, these are not people I must meet again, one fine day. For these are people I am. People I see every day. Every day.