So, rather strangely, I started writing this in 2017, but last year my own mother passed away. I’m sure I have no innate ability to predict the future, but it seems odd, reading it now. Nonetheless, the story begins here. The loss of her parents is the catalyst for Karen to return to her old house and raise the memories of a childhood event that is far from over. In life it is always the endings that signal the beginning of a new journey.
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The hired funeral car was peaceful and immaculate. Unlike the outward journey, the return home was at a steady pace, through country lanes and then pretty urban streets where people carried on their lives obliviously. Karen sat in the back row of the Mercedes limousine next to her cousin Alex. He had done his best to hide the tears during the service. Karen had cried openly at losing her mother.
The few remaining relatives she had were heading to her parents’ house. Her childhood home that now was devoid of her childhood because both of her parents were dead. Her father had passed away almost three years earlier with a late diagnosis of cancer that had taken him from them in a matter of months. Karen had sensed the blackness, the hole in her mother’s life, after her father died. Her parents met at sixteen and married at eighteen. They’d had her soon after, but due to complications after the birth Karen had remained an only child.
They had always been a tight family unit, but the last three years had seen it blown apart. It pained Karen that her mother couldn’t look forward to life with her and only seemed to focus on the life she had lost with her husband. She always thought she was the most important thing in her mother’s life, so to discover that her father somehow held a place above her was a difficult thing to adjust to. She’d struggled with frustration and a feeling of rejection, trying to encourage her mother to live in the present. They had done lunches, shopping trips and even a weekend away but something was always missing. Her mother had been so sad. And now she was gone too. Karen felt like she had a hole where her chest should have been. It brought back the grief from her father’s death all over again and that made it even worse.
The car pulled up outside her parents’ house. A neat, semi detached property among many others on a wide street. The driver got out, walked around the car and opened the door for her. He was the same man that she had met with at the funeral home and she was grateful for his presence. Without her parents she felt slightly lost. He spoke to her briefly about arranging collection of the ashes, and then shook her hand warmly and left.
Karen let herself into the house, her cousin following behind. He’d said nothing since the service started and went straight to the fridge for a beer. Karen welcomed the few others into the house that had attended. Another cousin and his mother, from her father’s side. A couple of her Mum’s friends, a few of their neighbours. She sighed inside and realised that she didn’t really want any of them there. There was a mixture of relief and misery that the funeral was over, and she just wanted to be alone. She laid out some sandwiches and offered teas and coffees to everyone.
For the next couple of hours she chatted amicably, until they all started to drift away. Their normal lives called them back to normal living, her mother’s death already moving into the past. No one outstayed their welcome and for that Karen was grateful. Her cousin was the last to leave and gave her a great bear hug at the door. He wobbled slightly from all the bottles of beer he’d drunk and told her to keep in touch. He waved from the rear window of his taxi and Karen put in the effort to raise a smile for him.
When she’d waved him off she closed the front door and sighed a huge sigh, letting out all the tightness and formality. Her shoulders dropped and she felt the tears swilling around in her eyes. A couple of them escaped down her cheeks and she wiped them away. There had been so much crying already.
She kicked off her shoes by the door and walked softly to the kitchen. She poured herself a glass of wine and put two sandwiches on a plate. She carried them through to the lounge and sat down on the sofa, legs stretched out, back to the arm of the chair. The house was quiet and the only noise was the faint ticking of the clock on the living room wall and the slow approach and departure of an occasional car passing through her street. It was early on Friday night, so elsewhere people were getting ready to go out, full of excitement, meeting with friends and lovers. Celebrating the end of a week, rather than sitting at home and mourning the end of a life.
Karen thought about her father, who had passed away three years earlier. He had hated doctors and refused to visit them for all but the most serious of problems. And it had turned out to be a most serious problem when he was finally diagnosed with lung cancer. It had metastasised to his liver, and he was already very ill when the doctors discovered what was wrong.
The fear of the disease itself seemed to feed the cancer and he deteriorated rapidly. Karen thought back to his last weeks and how frail and unwell he looked. He lost weight and became a bony, elderly version of the man she remembered from her childhood. It was awful for her and her mother. In his last days he seemed to shrink and sicken measurably in each 24 hour period until his body could not fight any longer. More tears made their way down Karen’s face, dripping onto the top of her dress and blurring her vision so the sandwich she was trying to eat became a beige triangle in her hand.
She put it down and allowed herself a few sobs. Deep heaving breaths in, catching in her throat. She blew the air out of her lungs, trying to calm herself down. She had already cried so much for her Dad. It had become easier wth time and until her Mum had died she tended to think of him mostly as he had always been. Big smile, busy hands, but always happy to stop what he was doing and engage in a bit of a philosophical chat. Her mother’s death had brought all the sadness and horror of watching him die back to the forefront of her consciousness. It wasn’t that she had forgotten it, just that she’d learned to live without thinking about it all the time.
Karen wondered, not for the first time in her life, if things would be easier if she hadn’t been an only child. Maybe she’d have a sister here now to talk with and share feelings with. Or a brother who could hug her and make her feel like her family hadn’t completely disappeared. Her imaginary siblings were invariably wonderful people whom she got along with brilliantly. She felt their absence when relationships ended, career paths changed and whenever she felt lonely and isolated, and a call home wasn’t the right thing because it would just make her parents worry.
After several hours of mindless background TV, Karen made her way upstairs. She had decided to stay for the weekend and make a start on clearing out the house. She went into her old bedroom. There was nothing much in the room, but it still contained a single bed and a couple of pieces of her old furniture. It was where she always stayed at Christmas. She flicked on the lamp on the bedside table. It made her feel small again, being in that room.
But it was also full of memories. Thoughts of her old best friend Emma surfaced. She remembered crying at night for a long time after it happened. She pushed the thoughts away. That was the last thing she wanted to start going over. The wine and emotional exhaustion pushed her towards sleep. She drifted away, certain that she only needed to empty the house and get it sold as soon as she could. There was nothing for her here any more.
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