My Dad died on Sunday, 22 February. He was 82 years old. There is no tragedy in the death of an octogenarian who passed away peacefully in a bed in a palliative care ward, having received visits from his nearest and dearest throughout his final day. There is of course sadness, especially for my mother who has lost her husband of 57 years. She is a very healthy and spry 79-year-old, and it is hard to imagine what is going on in her mind as she thinks about the years she has ahead of her, without the person who has been her constant life companion since they met when she was 21 years old.
This past week, I have done many things for the first time. I have seen my father’s still-warm body before it was taken to the morgue. I have helped organise a funeral for an atheist who loved gospel songs like Old Man River and When the Saints Go Marching In. I have set my six-year-old straight on his notion that a funeral is a ‘big, fun party’, and held his hand as he stood in front of his grandfather’s casket and wondered what it might be like inside. I have greeted people at the chapel with a smile and a hug, and farewelled them in much the same way, just with added panda eyes. I have truly felt like a 45-year-old woman, really for the first time, as I’ve comforted my parents’ friends, who used to be 45 when I was a kid, and whose numbers are dwindling with every passing year. A husband left here, a wife or two there, a very occasional couple who no doubt wonder which one of them is going to be the first to go.
Some couples are not afforded the luxury of contemplating whose ageing body, with its uncountable wrinkles and aching joints and failing faculties will be the first to give out. Some couples are split in two by death, well before death has any fucking business coming to call. A few weeks ago, my friend Antoinette found out that the cancer has moved from her bowel, to her liver, and now to her lungs, and it will kill her. Her husband knows who will be the first to go, and who will be left with four small children to raise. He knows who will never live the dream of dying a natural death at 82. Last Friday, my friend Jules found out that the surgery that might save her life could not be performed, and that she will die from cancer. Her husband also knows who will be the first to go, and that he too will raise four children without their mother. Right now, my friend Deb is living out her last days in hospital, with her husband by her side, while cancer kills her. She is not even 40 years old. There will be no grey nomading, no retirement villages, no chance at 57 years of marriage.
My father had a beautiful baritone singing voice, and I have many memories of him singing the gospel songs that his atheist heart loved. I also have memories of him helping me buy my first car, move furniture into my first house, and the day he met my soon-to-be husband for the first time. I distinctly remember the first time he met my newborn son, and declared he’d be much more interested in him when he could talk. I remember the difficulties as he aged, and his last year of sickness and dementia. An awful, difficult time, but the ridiculously cheap price of a life lived long.
The words of this song made me cry last Thursday at my father’s funeral, but they are making me cry even more today. Please keep a place in your heart for those who know, far too soon, that they’re going to be the first to go.
I get weary and so sick of tryin’
I’m tired of livin’, and afraid of dyin’
But Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ a
Old Man River, he just keeps rollin’ along