Wednesday, 26 October 2016

The roll call of the dead

For only the second time since I became a Gaelic Polytheist I have a family member to add to the list of ancestors I'll be honouring at Samhain. The first was my granddad, who got to meet his first great-grandchild (my son) before he died only three months later on New Years' Day, 2006.

Now I get to add my father-in-law, who died earlier this year. It was very sudden – and tragic and awful – and it's left us all in an aftermath of differing proportions. My mother-in-law lost her husband of nearly 50 years, my husband lost his father, my kids lost their Papa. To me, he was more a father than my own ever was.

The best we can tell, he fell head-first down the stairs. He didn't try to stop his fall or cry out, so it seems likely that he lost consciousness and it was only when his head met the floor that his fall came to a very sudden stop. He lost a lot of blood and sustained a massive head injury, but the way he landed also meant that his chin was pressed into his chest and he was unable to breathe. He was without oxygen for at least 20 minutes, as far as we can tell, probably closer to 30 minutes. By the time the paramedics/EMTs arrived his heart had stopped, but they managed to revive him – somehow. He never regained consciousness, however. A small mercy, I think. After it was confirmed he was braindead, and his immediate family had managed to come to his side and say their goodbyes, life-support was switched off. He died at 11.55pm on June 15th, 2016, after only a matter of minutes.

It's been a difficult time since then, in some ways. We've all had to navigate our own grief while accommodating each others', trying to be understanding and sensitive to everyone else's needs as we reach different stages of grief ahead of, or behind, other people. The first night he was in hospital, while Mr Seren was by his side and they were still hoping that there was some hope left, I went outside and prayed (throughout the whole ordeal I stayed home with the kids; we felt it was better for them to remember him as he was, and the days were just too long for them to handle anyway). I prayed and I felt a presence at my shoulder, a brush against my hand, and then a stillness and a peace. I knew then that he was gone. He wasn't coming back from this.

Acceptance was the easy part for the adults. My father-in-law was a complicated man and he was hard to know in some ways. He was a man of many passions but life had worn him down. Towards the end he was an unhappy man – a little lost after his retirement, depressed and lacking in purpose, angry, in pain from his bad knees, and unable to play the music he so loved. He'd given up in many ways. He was struggling and didn't go out much. In that respect his death has come as a relief and a release. As tragic as it was, he was ready, and in some ways that's a comfort. At his funeral, it was standing room only. Over 150 people came to pay their respects. That was comforting, too. Flawed as he was, he touched a lot of people's lives.

None of that's offered much comfort to the kids, though. My son, in particular, is having a hard time parsing the loss of his Papa. He's found it difficult to go to his grandparent's house knowing that he won't see his Papa there, even though all of this things are still there. The ghost of his memory hangs heavy in Tom's mind, and he found the funeral a little overwhelming, not knowing what to expect, not knowing how to deal with his emotions. We talked and tried to walk the kids through everything that was going to happen, but I suppose for a child hearing it and living it are very different things. It was a humanist service and the stories that were told were not stories of the Papa the kids knew, really. The Papa who went to seminary but left, the Papa who cycled the Highlands every weekend, and who met Nana at an archaeological dig. The Papa who left the house and did stuff. The Papa who was young once. That wasn't the Papa they knew.

When I broke the news of their Papa's death to the kids – the morning after, when they were supposed to be getting ready for school – they were shocked. We'd prepared them as best we could and had told them that it was going to happen, but again, hearing it is different to living it. Aside from asking how and why, Tom's only comment was, "But I didn't really know him yet. It's not fair!" The funeral only compounded that.

The family is planning to go over to Derry at some point – where my father-in-law's mother came from – so we can spread his ashes in the place his mother was born, per his wishes. Hopefully it will help Tom come to terms with it all and find some closure, but in the meantime, with Samhainn approaching, I'm trying to think of things to do to help him (and Rosie) keep processing. He finds it hard to talk about his emotions at the best of times so it's a fine line between helping him open up and picking at an open wound.

This is the first time we've had someone to add to our ancestor altar, as a family, so I'm going to try and involve the kids in what we'll be doing – finally getting some photos printed so we can set up a small altar to our ancestors, sharing stories (including old favourites like The Time Papa Got Stuck in the Bath, Twice, And Only The First Time Was Really Accidental, followed by The Time Papa Decided To Remove A Wasp's Nest, Drunk, And Surprisingly Fell Off A Ladder), and each of us adding a stone to the cairn out in the garden. We've been working on some decorations (Rosie's crafted a clay headstone with "RIP Papa" on it), and we will have our usual feast (Rosie has requested stovies, a speciality of Papa's), and leave a space for our ancestors to join us. I'm also planning on taking the kids to the beach so we can each pick a stone to bring back and place on our cairn. Knowing Rosie, she'll probably want to decorate it first.

So as always at this time of year, the ancestors hang heavy in the air. But this year, one more face joins the crowd, and now the kids have something more tangible to frame what, exactly, "the ancestors" really means to them. One more face joins the crowd. Goodbye Papa.