I try to avoid the Hallmark holidays. ItÕs difficult enough remembering to pay my bills on time, without getting into a sweat sending greeting cards on random dates dotted around the calendar. But still, you do it. You send your husband a corny Valentine even though youÕre both well past hearts and flowers; you phone Interflora for MotherÕs Day, and on FatherÕs Day, if youÕre me, you prevaricate, then forget. Every year, you choose a card embossed with traditional motifs that are supposed to encapsulate masculinity - cartoon pints of foaming beer, vintage cars and items of sports equipment. You buy it too late to post it, ring your dad up on Sunday morning to say that itÕs on itÕs way when itÕs still in your handbag, and then spring for a bottle of whisky or a box of ThorntonÕs chocolate covered toffee the next time you see him.
Oh happy manufactured appreciation day, with its attendant guilt and sloppy, last minute gifts - what a nuisance it is to the busy daughter. However, this year, for once, I just wish I could go out and buy the damned FatherÕs Day card - except that now that my father is dead, there is no one to send it to.
When a woman loses her father she is an immediate, honorary member of the Dead FatherÕs Society, a cross-party, cross-cultural sisterhood of bereaved daughters. Grown women with children of their own will tear up, and their voices break in mid sentence when they talk about their fatherÕs death twenty years earlier - still mourning the last phone call, the birthday present he posted before he died, the missed chance to say goodbye. That the loss of a parent is a painful experience isnÕt exactly a secret, but nothing quite prepares you for the sheer visceral awfulness of it. Like pain in childbirth no-one who hasnÕt experienced can understand how much it hurts, except that childbirth only lasts for several hours and is forgotten almost immediately, while death goes on and on and on and on, and you donÕt want to forget.
What you donÕt realise is that when you lose a parent, you donÕt just lose the person - you also lose their involvement in your life - the past as well as the present. You lose the relationship you shared, the part of your life that they witnessed. They take a bit of your own self with them to the grave. My fatherÕs death took huge chunks my childhood - the time I accidentally smashed the glass in the front door, our road trips, the seaside holidays, my girlish obsession with French Poodles, the Eurovision Song Contest - everything we did together right up to the journey in the car to the church the day I got married. Gone. Suddenly, thereÕs no-one to say - ÔOh dad, do you remember when...Ó you have to remember by yourself and grief is the loneliest thing in the world.
Even if you have siblings, shared grief is not the consolation you might think because no-one loses the same person. Just as no mother loves her children in exactly the same way, each child has their own individual relationship with their parent. So the father my sister mourns isnÕt the same man that I miss. I lost my father. She lost hers. And mourning can be selfish. Sibling rivalry exists beyond the grave - who feels the most hurt, the most bereaved - who was the more favoured child with the biggest entitlement to grief?
Nor do friends, even the most well meaning ones who breach their emotional and social inadequacies and bother to call you at all, say much of any comfort. What can they say? Well please, not the knee-jerk question: ÔWere you close?Õ How are you supposed to answer that? "Yes?" Oh poor thing. ÒEm, well no, actually?Õ Oh well then, no need to worry then, is there? The relationship between a father and a daughter whether good or bad, shapes every subsequent relationship with the male sex and if you didnÕt get on then you have even more to mourn. How can his death not affect you? Another popular response is: ÒWas he old?Ó As if, once youÕre past your sell by date and death is inevitable, then your sorrow is lessened.
In fact my father was old. Though in good health, age had started to break his body like a dry stick and his general quality of life had deteriorated. From being a vital active man he had grown deaf and isolated, he became increasingly unsteady on his feet, unable to walk long distances of even potter in the garden. During his short, acute illness I was lucky enough to be able to prepare for his death and resign myself to it. And after he died I came to realise that the father I mourned - the man who helped me with my car, who fixed shelves, and who taught me how to mend punctures, had been gone for a while. He had sort of slipped away while no-one was looking. But, even so, I wasnÕt prepared for the lopsided emptiness of life without him. At the age of 43, ridiculously, I was no-bodyÕs little girl - a middle-aged orphan. I had lost the one man who loved me, not because of anything I did for him, but unconditionally - just because I was his daughter. Now I had to be all grown up, the last generation between my own children and death. I had to learn to tie my own shoelaces.
Now I only see him when I sleep. In dreams, his face swims back into focus, but so do our arguments, his crossness, my irritation, and then I wake up to the real bad dream - that my anxieties will never be resolved. The last memory I have of him is always a shadow of the dream from the night before.
So I grieve for the past that now only exists in my memory, and the future unfolding ahead without him. And I mourn the present - his hankies still folded, neatly laundered in the drawer, his gardening hat waiting patiently on the hook by the back door, the Marks and Spencer pullover I bought him for Christmas unworn, still with the tags on, draped over the back of the chair and his little diary is still on the dresser. He had grown forgetful and inside in his spidery writing, he painstakingly kept track of a life that was drifting away from him: birthdays and hallmark holidays, hard frosts and hospital appointments.
On Christmas day, the last time I saw him alive and well, the entry reads - very good lunch, Marion wore lovely dress, nice sweater, weather cold. Then for the next ten days, until he took ill and died, it just goes on without me.