I left home this morning at 08h20 to pick up my courtesy car en route to see Malcolm in Broadstairs, who had very kindly arranged for Cliff's ashes to be placed into three mo-fo fireworks. It was a relief to exchange the Peugeot Diesel hire car for a Mini One - much more pokey, more control and less noisy. The unexpected bonus was that because I set off early'ish, the dogs thought I was going to work, and consequently didn't bark their heads off all day, culminating in me receiving a sarcastic text from my neighbours.
Malcolm greeted me on his driveway and I wrapped my arms round him and gave him the biggest bear hug I could muster. Cliff bought fireworks from him for years, decades even ... and even though Malcolm was our friend's father, I believe that Cliff was friends with him. I always sensed a mutual respect between them, and Malcolm always treated Cliff as an equal (rather than as a friend of his younger son). If he was ever concerned about Mick (many moons ago) he would speak to Cliff and ask him "to have a word, because the bugger won't listen to me." In fact, I remembered today that he wasn't the only concerned parent to ask Cliff to check on an errant young adult offspring ... my Mom used to ask Cliff the same favour, she'd even ask him to check on me - for a period of approximately 5 years, starting 25 years ago ... 10 years before we got together!
I wanted to spend some time with Malcolm, primarily because he was widowed, at the age of 78 only 7 weeks ago. When I let go of him, we walked into his new house - the house that his wife only spent 2 days in before she died - and immediately asked him how he was. He answered with honesty, "not very well at all". Of course he isn't. I wasn't really asking him how he was because I remember all too clearly what those early days are like. I was simply letting him know that I wanted to listen, to hear what he had to say, and I hoped that I might be able to give him a smattering of comforting words.
He so reminded me of my own father after my Mom died, it was tugging at my heartstrings. He opened the fridge looking for a teaspoon, "because that's where the drawer was in the old house". We took our coffees into the lounge and he complimented me on my handbag, then showed me the last bag that he bought for his wife, putting it safely back in its rightful place next to her armchair, which he was sitting in, all the while stroking the fabric, patting the arms of the chair gently, as though it provided him with a tenuous link to her.
I asked him about the photos of her on display, so that he was encouraged to talk about her ... because I remember needing to talk about Cliff and what had happened - in a never ending soliloquy - as I tried to make sense of it all - to no avail. That said, vocalizing what was in my mind - the fragments of sentences that I blurted out incessantly seemed to help me at the time or at least it seemed as vital as breathing. His mind was going off at tangents and he was getting impatient with himself, and I found myself comforting him, holding his hand, telling him that all he should expect of himself during these early dark days was to breathe, to try to get up every day and get washed and dressed (or not), to sleep when he could, and eat small amounts of anything when he could stomach the thought. He nodded and told me that he had employed a good gardener, that he'd received 250 sympathy cards and had bought his Christmas Cards and got his medicine, as well as a new TV. He was going out for lunch with his very good friend, "who is still grieving for his wife after 5 years" (he added solemnly, as if resigning himself to the same fate). He shared that when the gardener was round, or someone was in the house "doing chores" that it was easier because there was noise. He shared stories about the early years with his wife and then rapidly fast-forwarded his memories to her last days. He broke as he told me that he knew she was going to die, and I continued the flow of conversation to say that it didn't matter how much time one was given to prepare, the truth is that one cannot prepare for this loss. That until they took their last breath, whilst they were alive, the horror of it, the horrible emptiness didn't take residence. He nodded, agreeing and we sat there, in a comfortable silence, holding hands. He told me that she wanted to go, and then sat there mute. This generation, especially men, aren't in the habit of crying in front of others, especially women young enough to be their daughter. I filled in the blanks and said, "She'd had enough. She wanted to go?" Yes. Yes, it is a harsh fact to swallow. That she was suffering enough to want to go, to leave him even. I managed to tell him - in a steady voice miraculously - that when Cliff was dying, during his last hour I had told him that it was okay to go, that he could go to sleep. I admitted that it broke my heart but that "if you truly love someone, their needs come before your own, in fact their needs are the only needs that exist, and that you have to love them enough to let them go." He looked at me and I knew that he and I had both shared the same heartbreaking test and passed. "Faith" I suggested, knowing they were regular church goers ... "yes, he said, and Eileen had the same faith." Good. He has another link to hold onto.
It occurred to me while I was there, that although he and Cliff were equals, friends even, my relationship with him had changed dramatically during the hour I was there. Normally he treats me like a child, pinching my cheeks, hugging me, "mwah" on the cheek ... and me being me, I lap it up. I quite like being treated like a child by some people. He was still showing paternal affection, however our conversation was steered on to a level as never before. And to my shock, I found I was the one who seemed "older", because I had 19 months over his 2 months. It felt bizarre. It felt natural. It just was. We both accepted it.
I have NO idea where this came from. Left field clearly. Or a distant and sad recollection of helping my Dad write out 200 Christmas Cards after Mom died, and having to soothe him each time he signed, "David and Maisie" in error. But I found myself offering to help Malcolm do his Christmas Cards this year. My offer was snapped up and we have a date set. October the 30th at 10h00. My duties are already agreed ... making coffee and addressing envelopes, and MAYBE ticking the names off the list. Apparently we have 270 to process :-)
It was nice to be treated as a child once more by him when he gave me the rockets, the launcher and the ashes for my locket though. He demonstrated twice, very clearly, how deep the launcher had to be buried in the ground, and he only just stopped himself from setting off one of them to ensure that I definitely understood. I found myself repeating his instructions back to him, in detail, so that he was convinced that I'd been listening. I don't take it lightly either. Cliff and I loved fireworks, and he NEVER let me set them off, not once in 15 years. I found myself visualizing lighting the first one in September ... and was relieved that in my mind, I could do it. I lit it. I watched it go up. I watched myself take a photo on my iPhone to capture the moment when I let him go, once more, free ... whoooooooooosh, bang, colour, pretty fireworks exploding across the night sky, blurred through watery eyes.
Malcolm asked me what my plans were for the fireworks, and I explained that the first one was for friends, and that I'd invited Cliff's ex and her children to come along (because they had stayed away from the funeral - unfortunately at the time I assumed they would attend and didn't get in touch to specifically invite them).
A grin spreads right across his face and he states, "Your husband was a one-man army." I laugh my head off. I laugh from my stomach. Throw my head back in abject glee and delight. "I love that you said that, thank you," I respond, with a grin to match his.
The second rocket, I explained, was reserved for family alone, and as planned, when the house renovations are complete, I'll make some of Cliff's cocktails, faithfully following his recipes that I captured down on paper over the years, accompanied by a barbie. Each of us will have a Chinese lantern to let off, if inclined ... and the opportunity to write on the lanterns with a message - starbound. I have also visualized this scenario, and am confident that the firework itself will be viewed by all of us through blurry eyes ... but we won't be maudlin. There will be laughter, shared memories, and plenty of blow-up beds to crash on when alcohol gets the better of us.
The third rocket is for one of Cliff's closest and oldest friends - Roy - who was abroad on the day of the funeral. I love the man, as did Cliff. He's a man's man through and through. Yet ... he still hasn't managed to read the entire Eulogy, because each time he attempts to, he gets so upset. I'm looking forward to his return home because I can share things with him that I can't tell anyone else. And it feels as though my baba is here when I'm with Roy. I guess they share a code of ethics, morals, standards ... not to mention secrets, to which I was privy.
Malcolm had even got one of his pyrotechnicians to sieve out a tiny amount of the finest ashes so that I can funnel them into my locket. One side houses a rose petal from his wreath and hair. The other compartment is empty. I'll add them tomorrow hopefully. Or not. In my own time.
Which leaves a tiny teeny amount of ashes. Those will be scattered in Stockbury by Steve (Cliff's big brother) and I, because as little boys they lived there with a lovely couple that fostered them when Cliff was only 3 years old. The couple are long dead, but it felt right. It still does.
So that's the plan.
Surprisingly it hasn't altered from my original plans.
He will be free in our old hometown, and our new home here. I will carry him in my locket into my future, wherever I go.
This is our thing - Cliff's and mine - to be honest. Fireworks. Any excuse - Nov 5th, wedding anniversary, NYE, Xmas, Birthdays, good news, moving house, just because, our rottweiler's birthday even (yes really, he loved them too). Just as a viking burial was entirely appropriate for my beautiful strong husband, so is sending his ashes up to the stars in an adrenaline-fuelled rocket. I know beyond any shadow of doubt that he'd approve.
But I have to admit that this is personal. Ours. Mine now. I ensured that the funeral took account of everyone's feelings and love for Cliff. We all lost him. Not just me. It was so important to me at the time that I "did the right thing". I obsessed over the minutiae. No regrets.
These fireworks, these ashes though - are my tribute to Cliff. It's my way of saying goodbye to him. In my own sweet time. Over a period of months, almost a year actually. Little by little of what remains of my big bear of a man. I've earned the right to do what I want, the way I want, with the people who we love and who are important to us. I'm not following any etiquette or rules ... he was mine. My husband. My baba. My world. My best friend. No apologies.
I so need that one final night out with his mates. As Boo. Without a care in the world. Once more. A taste of him. A last chance at craziness and fun.
The sky is the limit, baba, as ever.