The tangible and the intangible

(If you like, while you read this, listen to ‘Touch’ by Daft Punk from 4.20 in)

My birthday. My 51st year. How lucky I am to have lasted this long. To still be here, to still be breathing, to be ‘tangible’.

Trace and I are alone in the house, (later, we’re going to London to be with Molly, to join up our little family of 3) so we open my cards and presents, the two of us, as we would have done, with a coffee, if Izzy and Beth were here. But they’re not here. And we both know it and we feel it, so we both cry. And I look out the living room window with the fresh green of trees and the early morning May sunshine.

In the midst of ‘having a moment’ – our collective term for when a grief wave hits – I loath the intangibleness of them.

It’s when ‘reality’ (this reality) hits, like an ice cold wave, and my mind claws away, literally claws away, in my skull, as it tries and fails to comprehend, to fathom, to rationalise, to realise the truth of the permanence of them now being ‘intangible’.

No more touches of their skin, holding hands, hugs, no more body warmth or body odour.

And with it comes the fear that my memory of them, my memory of all the tiny, tiny, little things that made them whole and made their presence in this world real and everyday and matter-of-fact, will be lost or fade and become faint, so that all I end up with is a collection of Facebook reminders and Instagram clips to remind me of the moments deemed worthy of recording for posterity or for fun.

I don’t want to have to ‘think’ about them. I don’t want them to be non-present, to be abstract, to be in my head. I don’t want to have to claw away at the unfathomable shift, the insurmountable drift, I don’t want to have to try to conjure up a sense of them, in an abstract, conceptual way.

I hate this. I hate all of this. All of it.

I yearn, I pine, I hanker, I reach out for their smiles, their eyes, their hair, their stupid jokes, their banter, their breath, their touch, their stinky feet, their farts, their BO, their washing, their dirty dishes, their complaints, their unmade beds.

I want Izzy and Beth to be here. I want Izzy and Beth to be alive. I want Izzy and Beth to be real and tangible. I want Izzy and Beth to not have died.

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Look out the window.
Breathe Deep.
Hold on.
Touch.

 

I’ll Never…

I never thought I’d get to the end. I was convinced I’d falter.

But I sat and listened and breathed in all the eulogies for Izzy and for Beth. From Mirelle, Lisa, Jake, Miles, Tom, James, Charlotte, Ruby, Anna, Tess, Mihir and Callum, Ellie, Niall, Polly, Maiya and Molly. Everyone managed it. And everyone did it so beautifully.

Then I stood.

I laid out my single sheet of A4 on the lectern and looked up.

We’d come to the front of the church whilst most people were outside to see Izzy and Beth arrive – a journey to be told another day – so I’d no idea that, because the pews were full, a large crowd of people were stood at the back.

It felt silence, I don’t know whether it was. I remember glancing at the coffins, strewn with their regalia. And I remember feeling that now so familiar sinking ache inside my chest. A cocktail of shock, longing, bewilderment and at the same moment, sickening realisation.

Then I read this. And I sat down again.

My eulogy to the loss of the minutiae, the mundane, the little details, the everyday.

 

I’ll Never…
Clear a week’s worth of mugs and dishes from Beth’s room.
Deliberately get the names of Izzy’s favourite bands wrong.
Pick up pins and endless glittery thread.
Have to hide chocolate.

I’ll Never…
Compete to put an order on my Nandos card and lose out to Izzy.
Have long dog walk talks with Beth about family life.
Come between Iz and Trace in the midst of dressage preparations.
Teach Beth to drive, or ride a bike.

I’ll Never…
Have to wait for my present to be wrapped on Christmas day morning.
Meticulously iron Starbucks and Bills uniforms.
Give up 20 quid for a peck on the cheek.
Compete with Izzy for the best fart.

I’ll Never…
Moan about people posting pictures of their kids on Facebook.
Make chilli beef brisket when they get back.
Hold their hand and touch their finger tips.
See their faces again.

An Accidental Soundtrack to Grief (Part 2)

From Friday 26 February, roll forward exactly a week to Friday 4 March 2016. 

Although it’s difficult to skip over that week, Week 1. A week of barely living, of seeing and feeling the world from inside a thick, soundproof bubble and hearing the world muffled, distant. A week of reality, of gravity itself, shifting.

But, exactly one week after Beth and Izzy died,  I found myself in the back of a marked BMW X5 Police car on a cold, sleety Friday, at first light. I had asked Cagney and Lacy, our Family Liaison Officers – now firmly entrenched as part of our so recently shrunk family – if I could go with them to Manchester Airport to collect (‘repatriate’ is the correct term) Beth and Izzy.

To bring them home.

Home.

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In one of Trace’s bags, we’d packed Izzy’s teddy (I bought Teddy from M&S on Fargate, the day Izzy was born) and Toby, Beth’s childhood scruffy teddy dog, who was permanently in a laid out flat position (Trace says she was about 2 years old when she randomly started calling him Toby).

We set off and, after Cagney had been caught with a speeding camera on the outskirts of Sheffield and with the sleet turning to snow over the Pennines, we arrived at Manchester Airport Police station. Lacey went inside to report in, whilst Cagney, sat in front, called in her speeding camera.

I’d assumed we’d be escorted to the familiar glaring ambience of an arrivals lounge and that we’d head to a Costa or the like. Instead, we were told to drive behind an Airport Police car. We headed back out of the terminal building, over a dual carriageway and into what looked like an industrial estate. It turned out to be the freight terminal. It seems that Manchester International Airport has nowhere for families to meet deceased loved ones.

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Manchester International Airport Police station, 7am, Friday 4 March 2016

We were greeted nervously by an airport representative in a high-vis jacket. Apologising profusely for the state of the welcome, he led us through a cramped, communal office, where we were starred at, in silence, by all. He ushered us into a disused, dishevelled conference room and asked us to wait. Minutes later, he returned with instant coffee and a plate of stale, own brand Jaffa Cakes, accompanied by a further flurry of apologises.

We sat and we waited. We filled the awkwardness by talking about Police work, about cases Cagney and Lacey had worked on, why they’d joined the force. We nibbled the edges of the stale fake Jaffa cakes. We aired the myths and legends about coppers, their lifestyle, their dress sense. We read yesterday’s tabloids and the Manchester Evening Post. We sipped lukewarm instant coffee. An hour and a half or so past.

Every now and then, I forced back a wave of tears, something that had rapidly become part and parcel of my everyday life. ‘This isn’t happening. I’m not here. I’m somewhere else. This can’t be real.’

Eventually a nervous Singapore Airlines representative knocked and came through with the airport staff member. They were so sorry. So sorry for my loss, so sorry for the delay. They had…cleared customs. So sorry, but what did I want to do? I could see them in a little while at the undertakers van outside or, sorry, I could see them now, in the freight building.

I nodded ‘Now, please’. Sooner rather later, I thought. I wanted to see them, I wanted to know for sure. I still had some vague hope this was all a terrible, terrible mistake.

My throat tightened as I was led back through the freight terminal office, people now lowering their eyes. We were back where we’d come in. To the side of the entrance door was a large, warehouse like doorway I’d not noticed before. The airport and airline representatives positioned themselves on either side and apologised again. There was nowhere else to see them. This was a freight hanger, they were so, so sorry. There was nowhere else. They opened the doors, and I stepped forward.

I drifted past them into a huge, cavernous airline hanger and was met by cold air and the smell of aviation fuel. In front of me were two large coffins, wrapped in thick, pale purple plastic. The coffins were raised on platforms of some kind, I can’t remember what. Someone had placed wilted daffodils on top of each.

I moved towards them, my chest tight and tightening still. I was finding it increasingly difficult to breathe.

I moved closer to the nearest coffin. Taped to the top was a colour photocopy of Izzy’s passport photo page. I moved round to the coffin next to her. There was the same taped picture, but this time of Beth’s. A few months ago we had renewed their passports for their travels.

Behind the coffins was a wooden pallet with two grey backpacks on. With a jolt, I recognised them as the bags Trace had bought them for Christmas. Tied to the zippers were travel trinkets, and on one, an unmistakeable pompom that indicated this was Beth’s bag.

And that was the moment. The shock of the truth. This wasn’t a mistake. This wasn’t a dream. These were their bags and that meant these coffins were them. This was Izzy and Beth. They were home.

I didn’t stay long.

I walked quickly back out, nodding thanks to the airport staff and went as far away as I could from everyone there, to a window overlooking the freight building entrance. I starred out at the snow settling and fought back tears, grimacing in an attempt to lay them off. And failed.

Cagney touched my arm. ‘Shall we go?’

We moved outside and I got back into the marked car. Noises around me were muffled, distant – the bubble was closing in. Sleet was turning to snow. I sat in the back, trying to breathe, as Cagney told me Lacey was dealing with the undertaker van drivers and we’d get going soon. A while past, I don’t know how long, maybe it wasn’t long, when Lacey returned and got into the driving seat. ‘Ok?’

We pulled off and I turned round to see an anonymous red van driving close behind us.

‘Do you mind if I listen to music?’ I asked, more to let them know that talking wasn’t really a option for me right now. I wanted, I needed, to be alone.

I pushed my earphones in hard, and ‘Give Life Back to Music’ started. I turned it up loud.

“Let the music of your life, give life back to music.”

We sped through the settling snow, the wipers sweeping away wet sludge in muted silence.

And my tears rolled.

I tried to be quiet, tried and failed to let Cagney and Lacey not hear me crying. (‘You grieve in private’, Cagney told me a few days later). I tried to contain my tears, to gag my throat, to breathe.

But the tears rolled and rolled and rolled. And the snot dripped.

“There is a game of live. And it was you, the one that would be breaking my heart.”
(The Game of Love)

I cried none stop from Track 1 ‘Give Life Back to Music’ to Track 7 ‘Touch’. 42 minutes of heart and chest pain, tears and snot and sobbing. Daft Punk’s optimistic, lovelorn lyrics cut through the sleet and my pain and represented, seemingly word for word, the gaping hole in my mind and in my heart.

“There are so many things that I don’t understand. There’s a world within me that I cannot explain. Many rooms to explore, but the doors look the same. I am lost, I can’t even remember my name. Please tell me who I am.”
(Within)

The chords, the strings, the Moog synthesizer, the bass lines, took on a new depth of meaning. So deep and so ever present, from that day on. That 42 minutes, sat in the back of a speeding marked car over Wintery Pennines.

“A little time with you is all that I get.”
(Instant Crush)

With lights flashing, we sped through the snow and sleet and cold winds of the M62. When the traffic slowed down, Cagney and Lacey pressed a button on the dash, the lights and sirens combined, and we sped up.

Later, when I’d had enough, when I decided I couldn’t cry anymore, Cagney told me the combination of lights and sirens is known in South Yorkshire Police as ‘The Full Monty’. There’s even a button on the dash for it.

We arrived at the Sheffield Medico Legal Centre (a place I never knew existed, despite not living far from it when Beth and Molly were toddlers) and the red van passed silently inside garage door shutters.

We parked up and I was ushered into the centre reception and introduced to Maxine, a woman who looked at me intently and promised me she would look after Beth and Izzy for us. She held my hand. I pulled Teddy and Toby from Trace’s bag and handed them over to her, my eyes unfocussed with tears.

“If love is the answer you’re home.”
(Touch)

Ever since then – now, a year and one week since – I still cry to the first 42 minutes of Random Access Memories by Daft Punk.

 

The Grief Bubble (Day 2)

Saturday 27th February 2016. The first morning of ‘After’.

On what has become known as After, and now a slow motion, blurry unreal version of real life. An unrecognised, inexperienced, unwanted, hazy daze. I believe it’s called ‘shock’ or ‘trauma’. The first tremors of. The aftermath.

The house was heaving with grieving bodies –  the semblances of people who’d been kinda average just a handful of hours before. Now, all cast adrift, unanchored, alone in each others skins, either starring at or sharing in the heightened emotions of the others who came together in an uncommonly full Edwardian house in Sheffield.

Normality, the mundane had been cast out in an instant, and replaced by an unprecedented collective anguish. From the cigarette strewn back garden, the neighbours must have heard the wailing.

Clearly, I needed to get out of the house.

‘Shall I get anything? A few bits?’ Jim asked, as ever, and especially on Day 1, a rock.

‘I’ll come.’ I slo-mo replied, my words getting slower, as though my brain and my mouth weren’t talking to each other, so my words had to travel down a long lost underground tunnel to come out.  ‘No really, I want to come’.

We got in Jim’s car. He drove, I sat.

The car passed slowly ( I assume we drove hearse like slowly) down Rustlings Road, round Hunters Bar roundabout, covering the posh Sheffield references in that Artic Monkeys song. We would take this same route again, a few weeks later, but sat in Mario the Mini, following two horse drawn carriages.  Now, we turned down Ecclesall Road.

I watched from Jim’s car. It was like watching some ambient scene in an art house movie, as the camera pans slowly.

People. People. There were people. People were walking about. People were going shopping. People were sat in Starbucks (Izzy works in a Starbucks. The thought was followed by a new stabbing, shooting pang of pain in my chest, so unfamiliar on Day 2). People crossed the road. People drove cars. They indicated, pulled out, slowed down. People were pressing the pedestrian crossing button, carrying their shopping home.

This was, to my amazement, everyday life and it was carrying on. But now, After, I was watching it from a distance, looking through my blurry, grief bubble lens, my mind camera on permanent slow motion. Muffled audio of everyday life tangled up with the new sensations of constant crying, aching chest pains and shortness of breath.

Waitrose car park. Safe from harm supermarket shopping, surely. We got out. We must have got out. I think I picked up a hand basket. In we went through familiar sliding doors.

To the left of the entrance, if you skip the fruit and veg isle, there is a low display stand for the papers.

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Waitrose, Ecclesall Road (10am, Saturday 27 February 2016)

And there was Izzy.

Izzy, my Izzy. Spread out, a repeated wall of The Times, with Izzy on its cover. The selfie she’d taken on my phone the night of her A Level passing out prom – a ‘proud dad’ comment in a moment of sincerity in our usual comedy of faux love.

I must have managed to stay standing. (There can be no drama in Waitrose). I took a picture. You can’t see the tears, but I couldn’t really see if it was in focus.

We got milk, biscuits I think, more wine for later, I’m sure. We must have paid, we must have stood in a queue. I must have put a copy of The Times on the check-out conveyor belt. We must have left, because how else could we have got back home, to continue with Day 2 – to reporters camped outside in their cars, to the bodies of people in our house, to the constant stream and flowers and cards and family liaison officers.

To begin After.

An Accidental Soundtrack to Grief (Part 1)

This is Part 1 of the story of how 7 songs by Daft Punk have become the soundtrack to my grief.

I liked Daft Punk, back in the day.

I’d bought their compact discs (for anyone under 30, that’s how music used to be streamed). They adorned my CD collection with quiet pride. Homework was one of those ‘of an era’ albums – tracks that defined a time and a place. But the album and the band had faded with time for me. Homework lost it impetuous and relevance and lay on the CD shelf, stacked away in the funky/house/electronic section – Groove Armanda, Underworld, Fat Boy Slim, you get the picture.

Then in 2011 (was it really that long ago?) ‘Get Lucky’ was everywhere and Trace bought the ‘Random Access Memories‘ album. Sure, I gave it a listen, but wasn’t impressed. Nothing stood out for me. It seemed like a album of mediocre tracks sandwiched around ‘Get Lucky’, a defining funk track, albeit played endlessly and to death.

random_access_memories

Now roll forward to Friday 19th February 2016.

I stumbled upon aBBC4 documentary Daft Punk Unchained (BBC4 is what I do when there’s nothing else on and it’s late and I can’t sleep and Trace has gone to bed). It was a really rather good doc explaining the backstory to the album’s tracks, the length they went to in conceiving and recording it, even a bit of an expose of the boys in the band, behind the masks, behind the robot helmets. Muso nerds across the country applauded, and like me I’m sure, dusted down their compact disc copy of Random Access Memories and re-spun it in the morning.

All well and good. No harm done.

The following week, Random Access Memories was on repeat. I didn’t listen to anything else. I work to music and I travel to music, so Daft Punk was there for me, constantly – Monday working from home, Wednesday on the train to London, Thursday on the early evening train home.

Lose Yourself to Dance‘  got repeated, repeat plays. It stuck in my head. It struck an optimistic, upbeat, hopeful chord in me. It sounded way better than ‘Get Lucky’ and that week I bored a few people extolling it’s virtues.

On Friday 26th February I went to the gym around 8.30am – as was my newly found want – morning gym sessions before work. I asked Ben, the gym man, for it on the sound system. I bored him with how good it was. It upped my pace on the cross trainer.

It was Friday. It was going to be a good day.

One meeting in the office under my belt and I drove Izzy’s Mini (she’d named it ‘Mario’) to the train station to my next meeting in Leeds. I called Trace suggesting we had some QT tomorrow, Saturday, unusual, she replied, but let’s. I took my seat on the Virgin train to Leeds, lowered the table, got out my Macbook and cranked up ‘Lose Yourself to Dance’ in my earphones to do some prep work for the meeting ahead.

My phone rang. It was Trace.

The signal cut. I started to text her ‘I’m on the train, call u back’ (thinking, ‘she knows I don’t like talking on trains…’). But then she called again, the phone vibrating in my hand. I pulled my earphones out and swiped to answer.

“I need you to come home, now. Right now. Something’s… Izzy and Beth are dead. They’re dead. Come home now, please. Come home. Get a cab. Just come home.”