I’m hit hard by the children going back to school and turn to drink
Millie and Matt are apprehensive but ready to face the day. Their pose through the lens looks perfect. As the camera clicks, Matt shouts “Harry!!!” and the tableau explodes into blurred movement as we three reach for our gargantuan Siberian Forest cat, who’s making a run through the open front door to the dangers of the road.
It’s 8.20am and I’m capturing Millie and Matt’s first day of the new school year. This is something I’ve always done but this is Matt’s first at secondary school and their first without Helen. He complained about the photo but I retort with, “It’s a big day you’ll not want to forget”.
Later, kids happily departed, I’m alone in the kitchen. What next? I’ve taken the day off to support them on what I’d thought, wrongly, might be a difficult morning for them. Instead it’s me who’s struggling with Helen’s absence, and as I idly pick up the camera my sadness nosedives into a whole crater of grief.
Thanks to smartphones, we use our camera rarely so the photos on it stay for ages. Flicking through these are pictures of a happy, healthy Helen from long ago but the further forward I scroll, the less well she looks. Her hair gets thinner during treatment and then thicker as it grows back. Her face gets fuller with the drugs then becomes drawn when she loses weight, her cancer killing her. In every photo she’s smiling, her ability to see the best of everything transfiguring every scene.
It’s the first time I’ve seen this sequence. Changes that were incremental over many months are all there like some appalling time-lapse film. It’s my lowest moment in months, which is saying something given just how subterranean loss can drive you.
The extra kick in the nuts lies in the photo of last year’s first school day. Millie and Matt smile with no sense of the heartache and tears that will land in their laps months later. It’s too much to take in and I do something I’ve not done outside of a stag weekend. It’s 9.20am as I pick up the first bottle of wine and start guzzling.
OK, I know that Annie, the nanny, will be in later and the kids cared and catered for. It’s not like I get immediately pissed – the benefits of drinking too much for some months means that it takes more than it used to for the same effect. What keeps me boozing is when I look at the kids’ faces in past and present photos and see how much they have grown up. I’m hit hard by the knowledge that Helen won’t see them move into adulthood. It seems obvious but I haven’t clocked it so painfully before.
These musings turn into mutterings and then ramblings as I drink my way through to lunchtime and, nicely warmed up, head to the pub where I sit among the retired, beige-clad bar-room stalwarts. There’s stage whispered, “drunk”, “disgrace”, “dickhead”, as I put myself on the wrong side of many drafts of beer. To be fair, I’m wearing my “are they clothes or pajamas?” tartan trews and T-shirt (they are pajamas).
There’s a buzzing. It’s the alarm on my phone, which I always set to remind me to take over from Annie at 7pm, but today of all days I should have done so earlier. I look around and am in the driver’s seat of the car, which thank Christ is in the garage where at some point I’ve retreated for a kip. I feel appalling and have been sick, largely down myself. Not my finest hour. Fortunately I can change because there are overalls hanging on a peg and so when I appear in the kitchen I’m looking and smelling like a very down-at-heel Kwik Fit fitter.
The kids have had a good day and are happy. Noting my odd outfit, Matt picks up the camera, which is still on the table and points to it saying, “Your turn, Dad.” I protest but with his usual fast wit he skewers me, “It’s a big day you’ll not want to forget.”
He’s right. I never want to forget or fall into this well of extreme grief again. A self-destructive dad is not what the kids need or Helen expected. A hard lesson on a sore head.
Adam Golightly is a pseudonym