Today – March 16th – is eight years to the day since my younger and only sister Clare died, and since she was two years younger, it means, very strangely, that I have had a decade of life which she never saw or knew. I could write down a fairly substantial list of influences on how and who I am, but her death had more impact than anything else. It was as if someone had reached inside me and not only switched a lot off, but also yanked at a series of levers. Within a year, I had left the job I’d been doing for nearly three decades, and started trying to do something else, something I wanted, before I ossified. (Much the same happened to my younger brother, and also to my mother – it almost literally sobered her up, made her more resilient. I only saw her crack once, and that was when we – the four of us, the fourth being her husband – went together to see her body in the hospice. She simply said, ‘I remember the day she was born’. Banalities like this are more moving than anything else.)
Death can make you – me, maybe – very selfish. For quite a while, my attitude to the world was that it had known nothing about suffering; coming to terms with the death of others, of people I hadn’t known at all, became hard. It was wanting to own the death as special, a predictable but unworthy emotion. And viewing her, still and cold, was a particularly strange experience, because it was the metastasis of an eye cancer which did for her, and she had had an eye removed over three years earlier. So when we went to see her, she had one eye – the false eye – open. The illusion of her being able to see was disturbing and memorable in even measure.
She was cremated on a Friday. The only significance of this was that it was the local vicar (not that she was a believer) had Fridays off. So we were allocated an as-it-were locum. He was called Norman. Norman came round to discuss the funeral. ‘How long have we got?’ we asked him (we meant, how much of the service did we own?). He thought a bit, weighing up the thirty minutes, and thought that we (my brother and I) should certainly have, between us, a minute. Unless I am mistaken, everyone else left the room at this point.
‘Look,’ I said, ‘my brother and I have things to say.’ In fact, I had at least twenty minutes already written, although I knew I’d have to cut it. ‘But,’ he protested, ‘people get very upset when they are talking at funerals.’ That remark has stuck. I explained that we were both teachers, and that talking was what we did for a living. He wasn’t reassured at all, but, after what seemed oddly like haggling, we got Norman to take the minute – he introduced the closing song we’d picked, You Don’t Have To Say You Love Me, while we took most of the rest.
My father used to comment, of funerals, that there was ‘a good gate’ (or otherwise). Clare’s half-hour attracted a very large gate. (Ironically, she had re-trained as a teacher of the visually impaired not long before she lost half of her own sight. She was popular.)
Now I need March 16th to have a gate of one. I have a simple ritual, which is to play a series of songs she liked (suspecting she was dying, she had written out a list to be played at any wake), between one and two in the afternoon: she died about about half-past one. I buy some flowers, tulips probably, because I know nothing about flowers, but have a vague attraction to tulips. Somewhere in the centre of this suite of songs is the Mamas and Papas version of ‘Dedicated To The One I Love’, not for the twee title, but because it was a song we both liked, for its contrasts – the soft intro, the swelling and almost raucous chorus. (Really oddly, John Phillips, the leader of the Mamas and Papas, died on pretty much the same day as Clare – two days later, to be precise.)
Every year, I have the same fear, which is that I won’t be able to weep. But I do, and I will.
Dylan Thomas wrote, very gnomically, in his poem ‘refusing to mourn the death of a child, by fire, in the Blitz,’ that ‘After the first death, there is no other.’ I can’t be sure what he meant, but the line makes a lot of sense on its own. I was too young to take in my father’s death (although I was 34): its impact was limited. But after Clare’s death, for me, there will be no other.