Shortly before Christmas my stepdad went into hospital, and shortly after Christmas he died. He was ill for most of our lives, one way or another, and that takes its toll. Addiction is like sand, it gets into everything.
He didn't leave instructions and so we had to guess. The funeral was a simple affair but had its moments of absurd theatre nonetheless. Functionaries bowed to a wooden box, a suburban woman stood at the front and voiced well-meaning noises in a syrupy cadence. Despite several dry runs I broke down twice while reading the tribute, another bad actor in our family B movie. Nimrod by Elgar stumbled past sounding winded. Outside, the sun shone, not bothered.
We'd organised a small gathering afterward in a local cafe my sister liked, it was a good choice. Kind people we'd never met spoke of someone that they knew and we didn't. They were his brothers and sisters in arms, his other family. For now, the anger subsided, he was theirs too. He sounded reliable.
Back at the house, we cleared out clothes, medical effects and hoovered up the dust of an old man's life. My mum is still very strong and wanted it done quickly. We emptied drawer corners of hospital histories, exhausted batteries, bent paperclips and rubber bands. I slept in what had become his room, the room in which he died and where I am writing this now, a room which mirrored his entrapment in his body, boxed out methodically with tatty furniture from their old place, shelves stacked neatly and tightly around the bed, a shrinking cell.
I tried to remember a man before the booze, the fights and the fags, the cancers the heart attacks and the COPD. It's not black and white, not just toxic masculinity, the blade cut both ways.
What I said at the service is reproduced below.
Thank you all for coming today to say goodbye to M. I know he'd be kicking himself for missing you.
M was our stepfather, but to all intents and purposes he was our dad. He was even there when we would rather he wasn't, which if I'm honest with you, was for a while more often than not.
I had the sense very early in my life that he was a creative person - he painted, took photographs, helped build racing cars. He was even a pretty good gardener, however much he liked to protest about it. Above all, he was interested in how things worked. A bright man, who took joy from understanding the mechanics of life. And I also had the sense, even as a boy, that he was somehow caught up in a job that didn't suit him. He was a salesman who didn't believe in the pitch. I think at times that made him dislike himself, and be difficult to be around.
He did believe in people though - that part of the job suited him. He liked people, wanted to see the best in them. He shared ideas, plants, books and he liked a 'good debate'. He was generous with his time and I know he was a mentor and friend to a huge number of people in our community, many of whom the family didn't know at all. Even though we didn't see much of that side of his life, it's really important that it's acknowledged here, today. I have a sense that he was a confidante and maybe even a role model to many people.
We had a father figure who like many fathers was sometimes present and often absent, but who tried. He volunteered on the committees of clubs we attended, we went on holidays, he helped with the homework and he struggled with the pressures of parenthood. When we were very young, he learned to sit on the side of our bunkbed and read stories. Before he died I saw that same storytelling come out with my own daughter - she keeps talking to me about the big bang theory at the moment. By that point he was a natural, and delighted in her company. As a grandfather he became expert again in building and rebuilding, this time not cars, cameras or garden sheds, but my sister's daughter's playmobil. In these moments I'd like to think he came back to himself a little.
As for me, he gave me photography, part of how I now make my living, but more importantly he helped me slow down enough to see our stupid country through the camera. A mechanism for looking at the world, both good and ill.
Later on, it seemed as if his innate curiosity for life dimmed, and it was very sad, and there was a sense he was waiting, and had no energy and no agency left. When we spoke about his health he called it acceptance, but I wondered if it was fatalism, the same wrestle with control that troubled him when we were young. M wasn't a saint. It turns out that the wisdom to know the difference between what you can change and what you can't might just be the hardest thing.
Funerals are where stories are told, a ritual that tries to make sense of 'it all' when there's a lot about someone and their life that makes no sense at all. Funerals are for the living, not the dead. How can we make sense of this story? Only to say, whatever time you have, don't waste it.
I got the call that M had died, and then took my daughter sledging. It's what he would have wanted, but we were going anyway.