The Christmas Orphan & The Story Box

So, today is the anniversary of my Mum’s death.

And yes – as a result, Christmas has never really been my favourite time of year, not least because Mum actually slipped into a coma on Christmas morning.

You’d think that would make today, of all days, unbearable … but to be honest, apart from the fact it took me ages to get to sleep last night, today has been pretty much like any other day.  I went to work, went to the gym, grabbed something to eat, and then came home and tidied my flat.

You see the reality of losing a parent, or any loved one, is that you don’t simply miss them on the birthdays or anniversaries.

Every day that person is missing from your life.

Every day you face different things which make you think of them, and miss them.

Granted, some days are harder than others.

This summer some of my best friends got married, and every time I saw my best friends’ parents tearing up at the ceremony, or delivering speeches, I couldn’t help but think how my Mum and Dad will never get to do that.

But grief isn’t just about sadness.

Something ten years of being an orphan has helped me realise … and the only real ‘knowledgeable’ perspective I can offer when someone I know loses a parent and turns to me for advice, is that as the years go on, you see glimpses of your parents, in ways you least expect.

I’ll do or say something, and realise it’s exactly what Mum or Dad would have done.  My sister will pull a face, and it will remind me of our Dad, or she’ll cut her hair slightly differently, and look the spitting image of Mum.

And it’s those surprise glimpses, and new/old memories, which will make you crack a smile when you least expect it.

A few weeks ago, on what would have been her 64th birthday, I wrote about my amazing Mum.  And so, today, on my tenth anniversary as a Christmas orphan, I thought I’d tell you about my Dad.

Dad 2

It’s a story I wrote about a few years ago, on another blog….

For a number of years I’ve written fiction, and was previously represented by a literary agent for my teenage fantasy fiction – yes, teenagers with super powers.  Think Hunger Games but with cool powers ….

Anyway, as an ‘almost-there’ author, I was feeling particularly jaded about the waiting game.  I had finished three novels, and had ideas for several more.  It was time to sit back and wait to see if an editor at a publishing house believed in my work as much as my agent did.  Except I was rather impatient, and after three years of hard work, needed some form of recognition for my efforts.

I had always been a Daddy’s girl.  A tomboy as a child, my Dad was the one who taught me to play cricket.  He had taken me skiing, introduced me to Scouting, and sat up late at night reading me tales by Roald Dahl, Enid Blyton, C.S. Lewis and Lewis Carroll.  All experiences which influenced my adult life in some way.

My Dad was my idol, my role model.  And when he died, I lost my best friend.

Dad 1

I had grown up surrounded by my father’s stories.  As I’ve mentioned before, he had spent his twenties travelling the world, a natural-born linguist, and I not only inherited Dad’s passion for languages but also his desire to travel.

But travel wasn’t the only thing me and my Dad have in common.

My Dad was a writer.

When he died, I remembered an old RAF pal of sending Mum a package containing an old story they had written together inside, and two years ago, when I was feeling particularly down, I had gone in search of it.

Two hours later I gave up, empty-handed.

The whole writing business had just got me so down.  After months of trying to stay upbeat, and trying to keep inspired and active, I was defeated.  Fed up with not even getting rejections from publishers, just total radio silence, and beginning to doubt both myself and my talent, I needed my Dad.

I needed his advice.

Dad had been the one who had helped me with A Level options.  He had planned my Gap Year with me, and not just chosen Cambridge colleges with me, but walked me to the gates of my university interview.  Unlike other Dads, mine had never stood on the sideline of my cricket matches.  He’d been out on the pitch alongside me – the umpire, the coach, the facilitator of the match.  My biggest fan.

I needed my biggest fan again.

Dad 3

Writing had become such a lonely pursuit, and without Dad around it just felt even lonelier …

And then, just days after I had searched for Dad’s manuscript, I got a message from one of my school friends.  Her parents had tidied out their loft that weekend, only to find several boxes of things from my parents’ house. Things I hadn’t seen for eight years.

I’d assumed the boxes would be full of photo albums, or old clothes which we hadn’t been able to part with so soon after Mum’s death.  But the night I drove round to my friend’s house, I was in for a surprise.

The boxes were full of my father’s projects.

Thirty years of his work.

Pages and pages of notes.  Poems, letters, postcards to Mum, songs, books, research.  Loose-leaf binders packed with handwritten sheets, and boxes full of type-written stories.  Ideas, opinions, connections.

My Dad’s brain boxed.

Eight years after his death, it was the closest thing I would ever get to a new conversation with my Dad … and it genuinely couldn’t have come at a better time!

There I was literally a week beforehand wondering if I might have access to one single story written by my Dad, only to be presented by boxes full of his life’s work.  Notebook after notebook, one project after the other, it seemed like nothing had been thrown away since the early seventies.  I was never so grateful to discover a closet hoarder in the family!

I sat in tears, surrounded by my Dad’s work.  By songs, and poems, and sketches, and ditties, and family tree research, and research into Greek mythology, church names, and World War One.  Every intrigue, every interest had been documented.  In a world where most of my possessions have been bought post-Mum and Dad’s deaths, here were pages and notebooks that my Dad had physically touched!  Line after line of his handwriting, word after word of his own.

But that wasn’t the only way Dad spoke to me that night …

Because amongst those boxes of projects, were letters from publishers.

Letters very similar to the ones I had spent the past six months receiving.

Rejection letters, and alongside them frustrated queries from my Dad to other publishers, months after submitting manuscripts, asking why he had heard nothing.

In a world before the internet, in an era where literary agents were scarce, and in a time when stories weren’t written on computers, but arduously typed, page after page, on a type writer, my dad had been a frustrated almost-there author too!

And you know what, his stories had survived!

He may never have gotten published, or seen his name on the spine of a book, but his stories had still survived him.

And now, his stories sit on my book shelves. This time I’m his number one fan.

Because whenever I feel down, whenever I miss my Dad, not only can I reach for one of his stories, and have him speak directly to me once again, but I can remember that Dad was in that place too, and that if he were here now, he would be telling me about the time he submitted a book called ‘The Michael Enigma’ about the position of churches called St Michael around Great Britain (??? Yes really!) to publishers, and waited eleven months to hear anything back.

And while my Dad isn’t here to tell me those stories, the stories themselves still are.

Dad’s stories live on, on my bookshelf and in my heart, and you know what, even if my stories never get printed, I’ll make sure that I keep every single one of them, so that one day, my daughter, or my grand-daughter, will be able to pick them up, and hear my voice when I’m no longer able to use it any more.

If you’ve spent the holiday season with a noticeable hole at the dinner table – a space where someone used to sit, and will never sit again … or maybe the dinner table doesn’t even exist any more, and you’re not all too sure where home is any more … I promise it does get better.  It might not feel like it … but it does.

No matter how alone you feel, I promise you’re never on your own.  You just might not be looking in the right place yet.

Sometimes in life, you just have to take it a day at a time.  You’ll have good days and you’ll have bad.

Today was a surprisingly good day for me, given the circumstances.

And so I’ll smile at the pictures of me and my Dad, and laugh at our matching bowl cuts, and save the box of his stories for another, sadder day.

Merry Christmas guys.

Miss Twenty-Nine xxx

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