February 5, 2011

I call in at the family house with Mabel. “Back in a minute, Mum,” I say, leaving her alone in the car. Inside the house, I put on the kettle and go into the living room to see my father. He’s not been well, and it’s already been decided that he’s neither coming for a run with us, nor is he up to sitting companionably with Mabel in the house. I tell him that Mum is in the car outside.

“Should I go and see her for a minute?” he says, weakly.

“Do what feels right for you, Dad.”

I rejoin Mum and we drink tea while considering the garden in winter. After a minute or two, Dad emerges shakily from the back door. I wind down the window on Mum’s side. I always do this when my father approaches the car, because when we go out for a drive together, he invariably sits in the back, so there is a dearth of face to face contact between Mabel and Ian.

Dad leans on the window frame and summons up a smile for his wife.

“How’s your head?” says Mum, at random.

‘Oh, it’s not too bad,’ says Ian, still smiling, but there are tears rolling down his face. He has had a dreadful few days, lacking the energy to do anything, and, in his weakened state, the complicated feelings he has on seeing Mabel are knocking him for six.

I notice that Mum is not really looking at Dad, rather she is looking straight in front, through the windscreen. The conversation – false-bright on Dad’s part and disconnected on Mum’s - soon falters.

Once Ian beats a retreat, Mum says to me in a serious voice that she’s worried about him, that he looks pale. In fact, Dad’s heightened emotion has had the effect of reddening his face all the time that he stood alongside us.

At the end of the day, something comes back to me. There was a passport-sized photograph of Ian, taken when he was in the army, that Mabel kept in a plastic wallet in the drawer beside her bed when she still lived in the family home. On the back of the picture, was written in pencil by my father: ‘May, ‘46 Athens’.

I was touched when I first came across the photo, not long after Mum had moved to the care home. More so, when I opened out the newspaper cutting that was the only other thing in the wallet. The cutting was a well-known poem by Mary Frye, which reads:

Do not stand at my grave and weep
I am not there. I do not sleep.
I am a thousand winds that blow
I am the diamond glints on snow.
I am the sunlight on ripened grain
I am the gentle autumn rain…

Was the poem effectively a message from Mabel to Ian? Today’s scene of Ian standing weeping by the car suggests such a reading. With Mabel, whether conscious of it or not, providing diamond glints on snow for her husband.

However, Mabel surely meant the words of the poem to be read in association with the image of Ian. In which case
he is the one that is forever young. He is the wind, the snow and the sunlight on ripened grain of the poem, still there for her, a time-torn woman.

This interpretation was given more weight when I realised that my mother hadn’t been young when she cut out the poem, because on the back of the cutting there is an article about the Clapham Rail Disaster of 1988, by which year Mabel was 63.

Of course, soon after finding it, I transferred the plastic wallet to a drawer by Mum’s bed in the care home. Ian’s words, as it were, and the image of him in his prime. I don’t know if Mum has ever looked at the wallet since I moved it. I suspect, in her dementia, she hasn’t. In which case it’s all the more important that Ian made the effort to stand by the car today, and in doing so reassure her that he was still there for her. And if he couldn’t quite pull it off with his normal panache, that doesn’t matter. Because Mabel looked straight ahead, into the middle distance, where perhaps she could see the face of the pale young soldier that she had already bonded with by World War Two. And, as she held his face in her mind’s eye, I like to think she heard her young soldier say to her:

‘When you awaken in the morning’s hush,
I am the swift uplifting rush
Of quiet birds in circled flight.
I am the soft stars that shine at night.

Do not stand at my grave and cry,
I am not there; I did not die.’

A few nights ago I dreamt of not being able to find Dad in the house. In the dream I was worried about his state of mind as well as his health. Then I found him lying face up in a bath. As I rushed to pull him out of the water, I realised he must have drowned himself. But I recalled that Dad has said that he wants to stay alive until Mum passes away, to ease that passing in whatever way he can. So, my dream-self reasoned, Dad wouldn’t be drowning himself in the bath while Mabel was still alive. Then, I knew I must be dreaming, and woke up. No need for me to stand at my parents’ graves and weep. They are not there. They do not sleep.

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