Four years ago today my dad died after a brief struggle with chemotherapy. He had received a diagnosis of prostate cancer a few months earlier, but wasn’t noticeably unwell before beginning treatment. After one chemotherapy session he went into hospital, and died within the week. But this is not a post about the pros, cons and issues surrounding cancer treatments. Perhaps I’ll return to that another time.
Dad had always wanted to write stories, but work and family commitments meant that he didn’t get very far. After retiring, he began to write up some anecdotes and reminiscences from his childhood. Like him, these little stories are characterised by humour and self-deprecation. One of these days I would like to publish something for him, though it is a task I find many reasons to put off. Working through it all will be hard and emotionally draining.
I had published Darklands, my first novel, just a couple of months earlier, and am grateful that he got to read it, and see that I had finally achieved something we had talked about so often.
I have dedicated Kikimora to him, although I hesitated over it – since it concerns some very poor parenting, and I didn’t want to imply any association with his own parenting skills!
All of these are strands I could explore in more detail, but all I really want to do today is read you a poem.
My family are not religious. I am an atheist. Other members of the family fall on a spectrum from atheist to agnostic. I have always felt uncomfortable about religious funerals for non-religious people. Bereavement is a tough time, and maybe organising the funeral doesn’t seem like the most important thing when there are so many other important, difficult, upsetting things to do. Maybe people aren’t even aware that there are alternatives. But to me it did seem important that we get it right – and amongst all the sorting out of bank accounts, subscriptions, paperwork, and more paperwork, notifying people, crying each time we did – planning a fitting send off for my dad was the only uplifting and comforting part of the process.
My had a Humanist funeral, and it was just right. We listened to Vaughn-Williams’ The Lark Ascending, and Louis Armstrong’s Wonderful World. The speaker read a eulogy my sisters and I had prepared, and this poem by RF Delderfield.
My sister remembered reading the poem in the novel, Diana. We searched for it online, and were surprised that it seemed very little known. At the time we couldn’t even find the poem online (although you can now, if you search). Instead we had to dig out the battered old paperback (no mean feat in a house filled with thousands of books!), and copy it out for the speaker.
We knew that my dad favoured cremation over burial, although some people struggle with the idea. I think perhaps reading this poem might change their minds. In its deep connectedness with nature, with ongoing life and the passing of time, it seemed then and still does now, a perfect tribute to him.
On Foxhayes edge go scatter my ashes
above the ground in sunlit splashes,
Where all about my powdered bones
the trefoil weaves between the stones.
Where what I was feeds foxglove roots
and robust April parsley shoots
Five miles or more from a churchyard drab
where underneath a lettered slab,
the body that has served me well
would bloat in clay, pathetic shell.
At Foxhayes edge atop the grass
I’ll sense successive seasons pass
I’ll see the beeches overhead
turn tangerine and rusty red
I’ll hear the sky-seen of their leaves
wind gossiping to younger trees.
Then, with the fall of blue-smoke dusk
I’ll settle in the rustling husk
of brittle, sun-dried bracken stalk
to hear the spruce and larches talk
And see the lovers come and go;
or later, when the New Years snow
builds up in drifts below the hedge
crisping the blades of dock and sedge
I’ll wait content, to stir in sleep
the hour the earliest violets peep
for with them all the wood will rustle
under the west wind’s old maid’s bustle
lifting perhaps a speck of me
and bearing it due south to sea
We found a peaceful spot on a wooded ridge overlooking the village where he had lived for 40 years, and we laid his ashes there.
Tonight I’ll be raising a glass to his memory. Good ‘ealth.