As I write this, I listen to the rain outside. I also listen to the house shift like a boat on rough seas. I imagine water dripping down the chimney, seeping through the mortar in the walls. And tonight I feel fine about going down with the ship. There’s a little bit of peace in that.
You were sixty-one years and two days old when I climbed a mountain. You were sixty one years and one day old when you died and I learned what grieving is.
As I climbed Pen y Fan, every step hurt my tired, rung-out lungs. With each breath that filled my chest, the more I thought of them turning down your oxygen. As my breathing grew more and more ragged, my heartache rose to fill the space air wouldn’t enter and I thought of you leaving this world in a dreary hospital bed. Every step I took was drenched in a pain I had thought impossible.
I have found that navigating grief is so much harder when your family dynamics are fractured. It wasn’t until after my uncle died that I realised how many ways he had cared for me and my brother. Money was tight and, knowing this, my uncle paid a little each month into mine and my brother’s building society accounts. It was to cover birthday parties, new school shoes and the occasional trip to the seaside. He added a joy to our lives that he never took credit for – those small treats allowed us to feel a bit more like the other children at school.
My uncle was the person that made me feel as though I belonged to the family I was born into. We were both oddballs, people that our blood relatives couldn’t quite work out. Vegetarian, a fierce advocate for the planet and a deeply kind man, he showed me a world outside of the city and gave me the names for everything I encountered in the countryside – birds, trees, plants.
To give a child a language to describe their surroundings is the most empowering gift. His birthday presents to me were books and museum visits. He gave me respite when my home felt unwelcoming and he influenced the essence of who I am. He was the keystone of my childhood.
After the mountain climb I went to a wild beach, the water much too rough to swim in. The cliff jutted out, slicing the beach in two, obscuring everything beyond it. The tide was slowly making its way in, meeting the cliff face with its delicate lace of foam. I wanted to see what was past the rock. I threw off my walking boots and socks and sunk my toes into the sand. I trusted that the tide would give me some time to explore the other side.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen a beach look so green. Marram grass lay over the edge of the cliff. Moss, then seaweed further down, covered the sheer rock face. Pools of water sat in the sand, ringed with glistening green stones, with sea lettuce and gutweed reflecting the weak sunlight.
I heard water splashing on rock, as though from a height. I looked up, expecting to see what I believed was an overflow pipe. But once I had picked my way through the rock pools, I saw that it was a waterfall.
The falling water had made a small pool and then a gulley that led to the sea. Fascinated, I dipped my hands into the cool water nearest the cliff and put my fingers to my mouth. Fresh. No salt. Of course.
I’d like to say that I looked at this fresh, then brackish water – waterfall, to stream, to sea – and thought about the changing nature of grief; something like, it doesn’t stop being what it is, it just takes on other properties the further from the source you go…
But I didn’t. I sat for a long time and watched the water meeting the rock between the beaches rise to thigh height. I sat and felt very, very sad. I waited. And then I felt a little less sad and so I waded back to the first beach, remembering him.
Ali is a long-term Londoner and works in communications for a non profit. She is a staff writer for Aurelia.