The planning started in late 2006. The unease, felt by all of us, was already there. Fifty years, they would have been married that spring of 2007 – and we, their five children, wanted to mark this Golden Anniversary with something special, fearful, as we all were, that they would not make it to another, though, at that stage, my mother seemed the more likely to disappear from the world.
There was only one possible destination: Devizes – and, to be more precise, the hotel where they had spent their honeymoon in March 1957.
I have told the story of that day before, that combined celebration (as all their wedding anniversaries were)of both a marriage and my father’s birthday. He reached seventy-eight – and I confess I was looking forward to his special eightieth in 2009.
He did not reach it.
I have told of his death, too, and the heartbreak of the funeral and the awful events which followed. It would be pointless to go over old ground once more, though some parts of the earth pressed down over the soil of bereavement and betrayal remain friable, the wounds underneath raw ten years on.
I tell instead of a series of visits which took place in April 2007. My parents did the rounds, as the saying goes, visiting the two of us living (at that time) in the South West and the one in Cambridge; the other two, both living in the Oxford area, were much easier to see on a regular visit.
My mother was, by then, unable to be left in a strange place: She wandered, got lost, couldn’t recall where, or who, she was. My father was stressed almost belief and had two hypos on this grand tour of children and grandchildren, one pretty serious. We were all concerned about their deteriorating situation, but none of us anticipated the tragic ending.
I have vivid memories of my mother wandering into what was then the marital bedroom (before my ex-husband and I started sleeping in separate rooms) and standing there, with a glazed look on her face, and my father, clad in a dressing gown I remember from my childhood, coming in to rescue her, his face all sharp planes and grim bones, tension vibrating in his body. I remember feeling such a wave of sadness and fear, deep fear.
The day they drove to the next sibling was a beautiful one – achingly springlike and colourful and bright with blooms of sun and flowers. I had bought my parents a long plastic container to put in the boot of their car. It had three boxes and would help to contain some of the possessions they had with them. I can recall hugging them both and feeling how frail they were. I can still feel the aching sadness and anxiety, and I think dread presentiment, I experienced as I waved and waved until their car was a dot in the distance – and this awful feeling I had that I would never see them again.
In a sense, I was right. I never did see them, as a parental pair, again. The next sighting was my mother alone; the one after that, my father’s coffin being unloaded from the hearse, outside St Andrew’s Church, Headington, and my mother, tiny in black and wearing a veil, protected by the five of us at the church’s ancient and familiar entrance.
I have often wondered, since then, if my father sensed that his journey was coming to an end – and wanted to see us all one final time. I shall never know, of course, and it can only ever be a suspicion, a feeling.
Two weeks tomorrow, he would have been eighty-eight – had he lived – and they would have celebrated their sixtieth, Diamond, wedding anniversary.
I miss him still – and that final visit is doubly precious because I never saw him again. He wasn’t perfect. They neither of them were. Who is? Of course I wish he had survived to see me leave full-time teaching, publish novels, extricate myself from an unhappy marriage, move to Glastonbury; of course I wish he had lived to see his fifth-oldest grandson grow to Man’s Estate; naturally, I would love him to have met the special friends made since his death…
…but, at least I have that golden-green April visit, for all its worry and sadness, to cushion some of the reverberating blow.