Pity. That’s the worst thing of all. At least with cruelty or spite you’re allowed to get angry in response, but when someone stares down at you with all the compassion of a damp tea towel, you’re supposed to feel glad, grateful even, that they, along with anyone else who so valiantly speaks, have completed the mammoth task of taking four seconds out of their regimented routine to offer a rehearsed “I’m sorry for your loss.”
They always say the funeral’s the hardest. People continue to lie, the funeral is a molehill compared to the mountain after it. Relatives were milling around the hall, friends were sitting and talking in hushed tones, and colleagues debated whether they knew the “dearly departed” well enough to attend. There are flowers and nice teacups and polite conversation about the weather. And, at the side of it all, sits a grieving widow: grimacing at a particularly soggy-looking quiche. Perhaps 83 is leaving it a bit too late to become a fussy eater, but after a husband to whom you had been married for the past 51 years “passes away”, people tend to be far more sympathetic than normal.
The flowers didn’t feel right without him. Tom would have loved those flowers. Even after the diagnosis, he still went on his weekly walks, out into the park, around the lake. He had a little pocket book, filled with drawings and cuttings from all his favourite trees. He even used to hire a boat in the summer and they would row down the river, stopping under a tree for lunch, drinking cheap wine and enjoying the silence. That was so long ago. Nothing felt right. The flowers were so bright; that sickly sweet floral stench filled her nostrils, threating to choke her.
It had taken a long time for her to leave his side. It was so lonely in the cemetery, really just a field, surrounded by the silent dead. She still had so much she had to say, so much she could only confide in him. One of his nieces had told her a brilliant joke about a dog and a bicycle pump. He would have laughed. She waited and waited, praying to anyone who would listen that the door to that confounded box would fly open and he’d jump out, that stupid grin on his face, making some daft joke that he’d been having a nap and asking what all this fuss was about. It would all be fine. She just needed one last favour, one last breath, some way to talk to him one more time. It just wasn’t fair. She knew that “life isn’t fair,” and that “he’d lived a good life,” (she’d been told that far too many times already that day), but how could anything so callous and painful as this be normal? How was she ever supposed to move on when she’d lost half of herself, had watched a part of her own soul be carried out and placed into the earth? And all around her were the friends, families and loves of other people, stretching back God knows how many years, and sooner or later they would be forgotten. Everyone who had loved them would die, and then whoever had loved those people would be gone too, and it would go on forever until the sun had swallowed the earth or maybe a giant squid would rise up out of the ground and try to take control of everybody’s brains. That was another one of his favourite theories. That and the gnomes, who he liked to think lived at the bottom of the garden. The kids from next door used to try and find them with him. He was so good with those kids.
The eulogy had been lovely. Or, at least, that’s what you’re supposed to say. His sister had gotten up and started saying all these things about his childhood and their parents; started summing up his life in a series of picture perfect snapshots. Perhaps it helps to remember the good things, knowing that a person lived a happy life; but bad things happened too, and were just as important. The time he’d drunk himself half to death after losing his job, the arguments they’d had trying to find the money to fix the roof after a storm sent a tree crashing down on the house. The day he’d tried to kill himself and she’d been the passer-by who convinced him not to jump. The bad things may not be happy and simple, but by looking at a person’s life through rose-tinted spectacles you miss the real moments in their life, the experiences and encounters which made them who they were. She thought about this as people slowly started to leave the hall. The wake had been quite well attended, but now it was time for people to return to their lives, only ever briefly remembering that they had known a man who had brought as much joy to those he knew as Tom had. And then, of course, they would remember that now that man, once called a friend, was dead.
The weeks after the funeral held nothing of substance. She sat, mostly alone, sometimes graced with a visitor who, after leaving food of some sort, would leave again. She had more kedgeree than she knew what to do with. She looked at the clock. “4.30 already? Better late than never,” and with that she poured herself a gin and tonic. Well, really just gin but surely it’s the thought that counts. She just didn’t know what to do. Every attempt at simple entertainment seemed sour, wrong even, and so she simply sat. Even turning on the radio maddened her, although perhaps this was due to the host, really just some twit going on about a celebrity who, from the sounds of things, was equally as twitish as the presenter. Everything seemed so very unnecessarily loud; the music, the adverts, the people. All gossiping or complaining or getting worked up over menial rubbish. Silence had become a rare but undervalued treasure, a simple comfort in a world of extravagance and ear-splitting racket. Oh God, she thought, I sound like my mother.
What is the point of caring? She found it unexpectedly easy to simply not bother. Glasses piled up beside the bed, bills lay untouched on the doorstep, she rarely got out of bed. She began to feel less and less, and although the photo still stood beside her bed, she thought about Tom less and less too. She remembered him, but more as a sort of hazy recollection of something from years ago, rather than as an old man to whom she had said goodbye a few months ago. Things seemed to slip by her and sometimes she simply found herself at a loss for anything.
She was sitting down, a cup of tea in front of her and the radio on. She took a sip and grimaced, discovering it was stone cold. She wasn’t quite sure when she had last eaten, but no doubt that nurse who came and saw her in the mornings had left something in the fridge. Had she come this morning? Usually there were notes left on the table; telling her all the things she was to do or not to do, as if she were a child with an over-protective mother. The man on the radio was babbling on about the fact that he’d recently gotten married. She knew she’d been married: there was a ring gnawing into her finger. How long had it been? Where was he now? She racked her brains, “T…it began with a T.” Shocked, she realised she couldn’t even remember his face. Weeping at her uselessness, she took another sip of tea.