Apologetically, Adrian asked Lisa and me to drive him home early from the wake.
It was all too much – the photos of his dead wife circulating, her family and friends chatting about her around him, the beer and chasers being put in front of him not having their desired effect – all in all, it was proving difficult to celebrate her life when she wasn’t there. She was gone. Carol, his soulmate, his drinking buddy, his wife of 15 years, the lucky Liverpool Irish discovery of his middle age, she was gone.
I backed the car up to the entrance of the workingman’s pub where the wake was held, one of the couple’s locals, not a mile from their home in Headingley, because Adrian could barely walk. This was partly the grief, which was overwhelming him right from the start of the funeral, and partly the accumulated trips and falls of the last few years. Into the passenger seat he clambered, carefully setting the walking stick across his lap and attaching the seat belt.
He used to laughingly brag that none of his increasingly serious ailments were attributable to his remarkable alcohol consumption, meaning I suppose that nothing ailed his liver or other internal organs. But somehow he ignored all of the trips and falls. On the day of the funeral, he could barely walk with the help of his walking stick.
After introducing this celebration of Carol’s life from the front of the chapel, his daughter Astrid, now in her forties, gave him her arm to support him to the pews. He sat hunched over on the front row in the corner.
The celebration began with a tribute that pre-dated Adrian, written for Carol’s 40th birthday by the admirer who read it to us. I recognized her in the words, even though I didn’t know her well.
“So this celebrates you,
Carol Ann Dunn,
Mistress of Arts, . . .
Hon Sec. of the Fat Slags’ Dining Club,
Soprano among sopranos,
Bonne viveuse, wit and friend,
This is for you.
To wish you more . . . drinks,
And lots more years.”
Those wishes will never come true any more, will they? That’s why we were all there.
“It’s our place,” Adrian had explained when he asked for an early lift home from the wake, “me and the cat and Carol. I can still feel her there.”
When we arrived outside the house, Lisa jumped out of the back of the car and offered him her arm as he heaved himself out of the passenger seat. He politely declined, and hobbled his slow way down the garden steps, where social services had obligingly installed solid bannisters and handles which he could hang on to for safety. Unsteadily rounding the corner of the house, he finally made it through the front door.
I was sobbing my heart out, trying to ensure that he didn’t hear me, but sobbing nonetheless, just as I did as a child when dropped off at boarding school for the first time. I hadn’t even bothered to offer my help down the steps. Just because he had been bereaved didn’t mean that he had lost his pride. Or his stubborn streak.
I cried on, for Adrian perhaps more than for Carol. It wouldn’t stop. Sometimes you’re not quite sure of what keeps you crying. I’d seen the two of them for an hour or two a couple of months previously – it was going to be a longer visit, but Adrian had had a fall at home, gashed his head and spent a day or two in hospital. He was back home from the hospital when I stopped by and we chatted in their living room, but the nasty gash on his head was still there.
As it was that day when he sat down in his solitary living room after the wake; I could see the back of his head through the window. It still featured a red blotch, perhaps a little smaller than the month before. Healing takes longer as you get older, and he was barely healing. Plus, he now had a broken heart, at best a great drain of energy and willpower. At worst, well, I was crying for my mate, a good friend, some great years, some screw ups, and maybe not long to live.
He told me later that he and Carol’s families had met in the Skylark, another of the couple’s locals, and planned the ceremony and the wake together as a kind of “symphony” for her. He knew that he himself would be “in bits,” and wanted the plans to keep things rolling without him. That worked.
As the mourners ebbed and flowed around him, Carol’s Liverpool meeting Leeds, he sat quietly at the wake with Astrid and her family, including his three granddaughters, and an older brother who was not well himself. Another older brother was not there. Astrid left pretty quickly to drive the brother back to Lincoln, where he lives, and her husband took the granddaughters home soon after. After spending many years in Malaysia, Astrid and family had moved house a few years back to live on the Yorkshire moors, not far from Adrian. The older granddaughter latched on to Adrian as she was saying goodbye and would not let go. “Oh granddad,” she said, not loudly. His blue eyes lit up as he hugged her back.
Carol had written a poem for Adrian that her niece read out during the service. It was simple and true. “If you were an item of furniture, you’d be a mahogany writing desk, splendid and bookish and old, with deep drawers for all things valuable. . . . If you were a wedding party, you’d be champagne and pizza and glee and laughter and friends and all good things. Nine years on you’re still all that to me.”
Adrian, if you were a funeral, you’d be dying inside, and the booze wouldn’t work for once. Even though you love cricket, you’d pay no mind to the applause wafting overhead from the test match at Headingley, just around the corner from the pub. You’d stare around at the couples and groups sipping and chatting. You’d wonder why you and Carol weren’t still sipping and chatting together, and never would again. The luck of others can be infuriating.
I was searching the crowd, both at the service and during the wake, for anyone I knew. Adrian’s younger brother Gerald had been with us at Borlase’s, maybe two years below us, and I expected to see him. Couldn’t recognize him, of course. It must have been 50 years since we last met, in Reading, and so that didn’t surprise me.
I finally asked Adrian, “where’s Gerald? Is he still in Bath?”
“He lived in Swindon. He’s dead.”
Oh brother! “Recently?”
“Earlier this year.”
Celebrating a death is hard.
It was weeks later when he told me that Carol and he had jointly decided to modify their wedding vows, as illnesses threatened, to continue to love and cherish each other even after death did them part. That gave him real solace.