I remember the first time I realised my dad wouldn’t walk me down the aisle. I was around 20. I can’t remember the date, the month, but I clearly remember that I was sitting on a bus, in the evening, leaning against the window with my fingers covering my eyes (the sunlight must have been weaving in and out of them, so it must have been summer). A woman got on, and held onto the pole, stared ahead, in that way you do. Something about her made me look. She reminded me of the girl in a Cancer Research advert at the time, one which was being broadcast with the wild abandon of supermarket commercials, between soaps, between documentaries, between seconds and minutes of days and weeks, and was unforgettable, and inescapable. And I had tried to escape it.
The girl in the advert was in her wedding dress. She looked every bit the cake-topper in her ordinary bedroom, in the oval of the mirror, with a painfully empty reflection behind her. She had tears running down her face, and she said, “My mum should be here”.
The advert, up until then, had annoyed me in the way that all cancer-saturation annoys me. I know that cancer is a horrific illness (my fiancé’s grandfather died of it on Boxing Day, the day we got engaged), I know the pain and despair it causes, I know it is awful and I know I am terrified of it, too. I know this because it is everywhere. Money is pumped into cancer charities, and cancer is the illness of bravery, of determination, of halo-dom. Automatic sainthood bestows upon the cancer patient, which, I believed, saccharined the reality of a terrible, destructive illness. All people who are ill are brave, because it requires bravery to live through any awful experience, through anything, really, through life. Whether in tears of laughter.
In my bleak little cocoon of grief (what is it like outside? I still don’t know), I felt resentment that people like me were not represented in these adverts. Or anywhere. No brave adverts for alcoholism and drug addiction, for mental illness, for the less glamourous, not-so-”blameless” (how horrible a concept) battles that steal our loved ones every day and which leave the children, wives, husbands, mothers, fathers and friends silent under the weight of shame, of blame themselves (“couldn’t you stop him drinking? Put him into a hospital or something? Five children and it’s still not enough? What kind of children are you?”). The well-known by now turn-away of the face, the lowering of the gaze, not of death, but of a socially unacceptable death. One that does not proffer forth, “Ah, how brave they were! How wonderful. So much a life lived, and now the suffering is ended. They fought a battle”, but a defence, a, “But he was good. He was. I know he was. I remember it. Inside, he was good. He wasn’t himself- it wasn’t his fault”. The scrabbling for old memories, good ones. From childhood, maybe, or a glimpse, one day, in between drinks, of who he was, who you loved, who you would miss so desperately even when you hated them sometimes, and even when they so clearly hated you sometimes to, and even when you both said as much. And cancer patients are alcoholics too, have wasted, desperate lives, and die young. There is no sainthood, everyone is the same, everyone is human. A kind of death doesn’t make a kind of life. But so it is for the alcoholic, the drug addict, the mentally ill. Because they were so, then they must have been so.
And moreso than silent, invisible. I wanted, so desperately, to see someone represent my experience. To do it publicly. Please, please don’t let me be alone. I want to talk. I want someone to say something about what is happening to people and to the people left behind (My wonderful friend Brendan, who battled alcohol addiction too, died the year after my dad. He was the person who understood the most and I had wanted to shock him with my grief- it never works, it didn’t work with my dad, either. He saw people in his group die, and then he did anyway). It is why I wanted to write a book- not just one about mental illness (of which I have little to say about my own anymore) but about the experience of growing up with an alcoholic, with another who was mentally ill (It was like having half a parent most of the time. They ebbed and flowed, sometimes, one could be capable, one not, and vice versa. Sometimes they both were, and those were the best of times). Two parents who you love but who are flawed so deeply, but you love. Of not being a Jeremy Kyle caricature nor a placid professorly drinker, of being taught to read by someone who had misspelling on their gravestone, all too soon.
So this woman on the bus, her face like the advert girl. And I thought about it, her standing in front of the lonely mirror, and realised that my experience is there. It is there because I, my siblings and millions of people have lost a parent- forever and ever- and lost the futures we had in our hearts for ourselves, and for them. I had always imagined my dad walking me down the aisle (and probably getting drunk and ruining my wedding, but at least being by my side, genuinely proud and composed, for a few minutes. Like the childhood memories of making Toasted Toppers, it would be worth it for the rapidly fading memory of his true self), I had imagined smiling at him and getting one of my decade-kisses (only 3 times, not out of lack of love, but he was not that kind of man, he was shy) and then being released by him.
It struck me with shuddering, sickening force that it wouldn’t happen. It would never happen, it was gone, gone and could never be taken back. I had a new future and it was one without my dad. Without my children having him as a grandad, without my future husband meeting him (he did, when he was 18, and my dad baldly asked him, “Do you love her?”, to which my future husband replied, “Yes”), without arguments, without tense Christmasses, without shouting, without anything at all. He was gone. Was he even my dad anymore? Do they exist as parents, if they are dead? When they are 47 and I have friends older than that, who are alive?
I wanted to be sick. I shoved my head against the window and let tears roll down my face, too immobilised by shock and grief to even move, to get off the bus, to spare myself the embarrassment. When I finally did it was with fingers clenched in and drenched. I walked, I don’t even remember where- nowhere dramatic, probably home- trying to push the thought out of my mind, as I had done so many times before. But it wouldn’t go, it kept floating back, the awful reality of what had happened, that I had to accept and couldn’t bear to.
And now it is almost six years later. I’m getting married in August without my dad. Hopefully my mum will come, hopefully Robert’s dad will come, too. My little brother is giving me away. We’re having alcohol and I wonder if that’s like putting out lines of coke for the drug addict funeral. Should I raise a toast to my dad? Is that like saluting the Grim Reaper with a scythe?
But I know alcohol didn’t kill my dad, and that alcoholism did.
My dad should be here.