Bereavement is cruel. Take your time.

This will be our first Christmas without my father. An unfamiliar sense of disquiet, even dread, keeps intruding into the preparations for the season. 

Ours was always a very traditional Christmas. The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg in the warm kitchen. The sweetness of candied peel. Fat, golden sultanas making their annual appearance. The brandy for the pudding. And the lopsided snowman perched atop the iced cake, his jaunty hat tipped forward as he observed his all too-transient frosted domain.

Cloves for the ham, and honey and brown sugar. Cloves for the hot port too.

We’d trample to the back of the park, or to the Dublin mountains, to get the berried holly and pull down long strings of ivy. Sometimes a scatter of stowaway spiders made their way indoors with the greenery: they’d be spied scooting down towards the floor before vanishing somewhere behind the skirting.

Then suddenly, in that mysterious way that time gathers speed on Christmas week, we’d be driving home from Midnight Mass in the glinting, expectant night, Oíche Chiúin sung by the frosty stars.

We’d tumble from the car into the frozen porch, giddy with the promise of what Santa might bring, and touch the red candle to welcome the Christ child before scrambling up the stairs to bed.

And next morning after the paper-ripping, tumultuous excitement under the tree, the preparations would begin.

Don dinneár mór.

The silver, bought at auction in Old God’s Time, was polished until it gleamed. There was white linen for the table, starched for the occasion, the steam iron releasing the scent of freshness from the cloth.

The Waterford crystal jug, sparkling in the candlelight, was filled with Club Orange for the feast. As we grew older, wine bottles and stout joined the jug and stood to attention by the glasses, as the bird was served on Granny’s old platter and the gravy boat was passed around.

We sat elbow to elbow around the laden table, always with an eye on my mother’s famous stuffing. It was the only part of the dinner ever in short supply. There can never be enough Christmas stuffing. Potatoes, fresh herbs and onion, chopped tomato and butter. No sausagemeat ever darkened a turkey’s cavity in our Christmases.

One year, with a flock of grandchildren, there were twenty-nine for dinner in the small room. It took two sittings, even with great and small perched on anything that could be construed as a chair.

And after the plates were cleared, my father would begin the songs. Sometimes the night would tip into a party with friends and neighbours and relatives, but more often it was just ourselves and the carols and the songs and the stories and the tunes.

They filled up the room, and then the house, just as the memories of those sounds now fill up our thoughts. It was magical.

There is no feast like Christmas. But this year, Dad will not be there. He will not sit at the head of the table, always smiling, always humming a tune, presiding over the easy familiarity that is the most treasured gift of families.

All his laughter is quietened. His great, bright light is extinguished.

And while it is our greatest comfort to know that he will always be in our hearts, the incontrovertible truth is that he is with us no more. Despite nine months since his passing, that absence is still wounding.

Bereavement is cruel. Only time will mend it.

I did not expect grief to be first a frenzy, come crashing in, a marauder to the mind. Despite my father’s illness, I was not prepared, not ready for the rupture, for the wailing distantly heard that you come to realise is your own, your plea for an impossible return.

There is no return. That is the rupture.

You bury the people you love most with a heart hammering grief, as if the disturbance passes from your mind to the place that could better bear it.

It is an everyday thing, death. But it is not ordinary. I have thought, often, this past year of those left behind when a passing is sudden, or violent, or tragic. How long does it take their hearts to quieten? Perhaps they never do.

And this I now know: that even though you want to let go of grief, sometimes it will not let go of you.

We place these strange and difficult burdens on ourselves. We imagine a time frame, unspoken but agreed, for the sadness to pass. And we set ourselves against that standard so that we can steady ourselves once more.

But then we unexpectedly come upon his brown leather shoes with laces ready for knotting, and we are, again, undone. That, I suppose, is the price of love, a cost known to many but peculiar to each of us. Maybe that is why we hold grief, more than anything else, close to ourselves. It is rarely shared.

His friend wrote that he could not bear to speak of Dad’s passing, that his was a ‘vast and kindly presence’, now gone from us.

We are lucky, I know, to receive such rich and poignant reminders of how greatly loved he was. Recordings from fifty years ago, like a treasure that lay hidden and waiting to be discovered, of a young Dad at Denis Murphy’s house, flute and fiddle sharing glorious, mighty tunes.

Or Robbie McMahon and my father singing A Stór Mo Chroí at the Fleadh in Clonmel, their long friendship equally as engaging, as full of meaning, as the song’s poignant words – words made all the more poignant now.

“For the sound of a voice that is sorely missed”. The old songs knew of the deep ache in the hearts of the bereft, the particular lonesomeness of the bereaved, of those left behind.

But my father was always a banisher of sorrows. He only ever lifted others up. I know he would want us to take each other’s sadness and ease it, to mend each other’s hearts with our memories of him, our love for him.

So that’s what we will do, this strange first Christmas without him.  We know that the songs will not be the same, because they were always for him, to see him lost in their loveliness. But time will mend that. It eventually mends all things.

And in this season where we celebrate a child born in a stable come to save the world, we will take comfort in the knowledge that in God’s good time we will see him again as he once was, bright and merry and undiminished.
Nollaig Shona a Dhaid. Happy Christmas. 


C: PickPix
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