I have a friend who found it impossible to sit in her father’s chair after he had passed away. Neither could she bear to see anyone else sit in it. For some reason it’s different for me.
My father passed away a week ago and during the 12 weeks prior, in which he had been forced to live in a nursing home, I could neither bring myself to sit in his chair in the sitting room, nor the one at the dining table.
But now it’s changed and I cannot bear to see the empty place where he should be and so, instead, I sit there. I fill the emptiness with me. It seems to be easier that way. Even the first time I did so.
But first let me tell you how I heard the news. News that has changed me forever.
The telephone call came of his passing as Ian and I closed the doors of the taxi that would take us from Dubrovnik airport to the marina and a week’s sailing holiday. The gently looping roads that skirted the ocean went unnoticed as I sobbed. How could I have a holiday now? What would be the point if I could not enjoy it? But it took a while to get a flight back to England so I had a couple of days at sea with Ian and very good friends, where I was safe, rocked by the water, soothed by silence and held, softly, by a vast salty pool that became a giant teardrop just for me. When I finally opened my eyes to the scenery I noticed that Croatia is hedged with rosemary. Its fragrance welcomed us as we pulled in to moor in every bay.
Throughout those difficult first 48 hours without Pa those two surreal days in Croatia gave me two phrases that played on repeat in my head:
The first: “There’s rosemary, that’s for remembrance; pray, love, remember,” spoken by broken-hearted Ophelia in Shakespeare’s Hamlet. I picked a sprig of that rosemary and added it to our first dinner.
The second: “To be alone and to be with,” written by Paul Heiney, the writer and TV presenter who took a huge solo voyage to Cape Horn from the UK after his son committed suicide. There, in the turquoise waters of the Adriatic I knew exactly what he meant.
And then I returned to my home town of Stamford. I knew Pa would not be there on the platform to greet me off the train and carry my case, but still I looked for him.
I knew I had then to live with and live through a number of painful first times over the next few days. The rosemary and the sea could no longer buoy me up.
Claiming his chair was the first of the firsts and easily the easiest. Here, sitting on the dark velvet cushion I could caress the worn leather arms and experience being both alone and with without bursting into tears. Maybe I could get through this?
But the first walk to the paper shop, a walk I calculated, as I crossed the town bridge, that he had taken over two thousand five hundred times, was the worst. I was not brave enough to do so with his beloved dachshund, Betsy. I had to be alone.
The first walk down the High Street was agonising.
The first half pint of his favourite beer was excruciating.
The first church communion service was heart-breaking. For the first time in my life I had to mime the hymns.
I console myself as I realise that there can only ever be one ‘first time’ for everything.
Of course I picked rosemary from my mother’s garden to add to the roasting vegetables for our first Sunday roast.
A few hours after I wrote this Musing I remembered something else. Back in the 1980s, before my beloved grandfather moved into sheltered accommodation he asked me what I would like to take from his house. I chose his favourite cane-backed chair with its upholstered seat, the ends of its arms where he would lay his expressive hands, worn pale from constant stroking. Everyone who comes to my house knows it as Grandpa’s Chair. This chair is my most prized possession and has accompanied me to every place I have lived for 35 years. I sit in this chair too, as often as I can, and it always warms my heart to see someone else enjoying it and rubbing their palms back and forth on its welcoming arms.
And it is sitting in such a special chair that I can be comforted in the knowledge that here I “can be alone and be with”.