“Look, the daffodils are all dead,” I say to my son who is in the back seat as we wait to turn on to the ring road. When we arrived in Oxford three weeks ago the parks and gardens were full of the golden trumpets we had only seen in florists before. At first, I thought someone had planted them all, until we saw them blooming even on the side of major roads and realised they could grow wild. Their leaves were browning now and the once-proud heads that remained were drooped, the colour drained from them.
“So, they’re dead now?” my four-year old clarifies and before I can interject I know where this is heading.
He’s been talking a lot about death recently. It started as a punch line, a cheap plot device from the morning cartoons he watches. Incrementally his questions have crept off the screen and into our own lives. He understands flowers die, the fish my husband brings home are dead, my husband’s grandmother whose funeral we attended is dead along with my own father Dave who died the year before he was born.
“Yes, their dead…like Dave.” I read somewhere early on—back when I thought I could learn parenting from a book— about the important of honesty, even when it came at your own expense.
“So, you only have one parent now?” he turns my father’s mortality over in his mind like putty, not in a cruel way, but so as to understand the limits of its dimensions. He hasn’t realised the twist yet, that he and I are not immune to the same fate.
It’s spring in Oxford but the air is still cold. We felt it as soon as we disembarked the plane at Heathrow, the cold gathered around us and stuck to our skin. I liked the chill, it was a constant reminder that we were far from home. At the immigration desk we pulled out five passports for the four of us. We all had a navy blue Australian one and I had a crimson British passport as well.
“So, you’re a Brit?” the officer asked.
“Yes, I suppose so, or dual citizen.” I was getting used to this new description after having the document lying in a drawer latent for many years.
“It says here you were born in St Leonards, is that East Sussex then?”
“Not quite,” I answered as he let us through the gate, “St Leonards, Sydney.”
“Do you remember our first date?” I was with my mother in the hospital room. My father sat in the padded hospital chair trying to eat the puree lunch that was sitting in front of him. My mother sat opposite him on the bed. I was near the door in his wheelchair, the only seat that was left. The wheelchair was the same faded blue-grey that had become synonymous with hospitals, the only shade of the colour that managed to look depressing. I folded down the metal foot plates, rested my shoes on them and leant back into the chair. This ward looked like any of the others but there were no shared rooms, and the pictures on the walls were of mountaintops and coastlines. The sign near the elevator said Palliative Care.
My father, his parents and brother arrived in Heathrow sixty years before I did. They fled Alexandria after the Suez Canal crisis, when their property and liberties were stripped from them. Through a sponsorship with the Jewish society and my grandmother’s Maltese heritage they were eventually granted British citizenship. My father went to grammar school in North West London and won a place to study aeronautical engineering at Imperial College. He met my mother, an Australian teacher while he was still at university.
When they left their adored Alexandria, my father’s family left a factory, their apartment and most of their belongings. The city is now run by Egyptians; and despite multiple generations of my father’s family being born there it was a term never deemed to describe them. That conflict is over now, but of course there are others.
The humane British foreign policy that saved the lives of my grandparents went on to benefit my father, me and now my son—a flow on for at least four generations. The sheer chance of it all never escapes me, how different it might have turned out. Now there are people like us out there covered in dust, being starved, or their bodies washing up limp on shores in shapes that resemble sleep.
These days countries like Britain and Australia are securing their borders, closing their doors, battening their hatches. The hearts of the many have hardened in a way that they weren’t after World War II, when perhaps more people lived with loss. Have people these days forgotten the shared humanity of grief? Perhaps fallen under the illusion that there is something more that separates the haves from the have-nots, something more substantial than luck? It never took that much to make even the most established families seek refuge. It could all turn with a change in government, in ideology, through wars, illness or theft.
The people I meet here are kind. When my husband and I struggled to manage our two children in between the plane and the luggage carousel a woman stopped and offered to pull one of our carry-on cases. “I don’t mind,” she said in a way that was simple and honest. People have struck up conversations, near our house there is an abundance of charity shops full of second-hand clothes and toys that are a goldmine for our children. Doors are held open, others encouraged to go before them.
There is a softness that sits in among things.
I’m not used to the light. Back home the sun glares and bounces; a harshness to the weather that’s mirrored in the way people interact. Maybe it’s part of living in a bigger city, there is a directness, an impatience of speech and action.
“Our first date…was on the Serpentine.” My father answered my mother as he sat holding a plastic spoon of mashed potato. After that his throat caught and he started vomiting so much that a nurse was called in. It wasn’t food but long reams of clear mucus that kept coming up. When she lifted his shirt, there was a needle taped to his abdomen sticking into him. A butterfly needle, she called it as she injected medication into it. It seemed dishonest to use language in that way, to rename sinister things as benign. I’d never read of a butterfly that could pierce the skin.
“Should we write him a letter?” The traffic lights turn from red to orange and I put the car into gear as I wait for the green. I’ve been lost in thought and missed the trail of my son’s conversation.
His four-year-old self was conceived in the shadow of my father’s death. Despite that all I ever see when I look at him is a joy so fierce it punctures me daily.
“Write who a letter?”
“Dave!” He says, exasperated. He names him like an old friend, as if from cobbling together the stories he’s heard and the photographs he’s seen that he has a real sense of who my father was. Sometimes his tone is so knowing I quickly do the calculation again, reaffirming the certainty that they never met.
They are not similar, but also not dissimilar. When I sit behind my son I trace the shape that forms from his neck and between his shoulders, whatever the dimensions are, from that angle that blunt triangle is exactly as my fathers. They have the same insatiable appetite for mango, and they think in numbers. My son calls weeks rows and months pages, marking time on an invisible calendar. He asks about distance, weight and length and I can already tell that way of relating to the world through integers has apparently skipped a generation.
When I sit behind my son I trace the shape that forms from his neck and between his shoulders, whatever the dimensions are, from that angle that blunt triangle is exactly as my fathers.
I’m on the ring road now, the car is moving away from our terrace, but if I stayed on this track it would eventually loop back around; the way life pushes you out sometimes from where you begin and moves you away. There are different forces at play, a tension that pulls you back towards places that have been significant in your life or the lives of those who are close to you.
After my father died I couldn’t speak about it for nearly five years. It felt too raw. To even explain to an acquaintance that my father was no longer alive became an impossible maze to navigate; whichever words I chose would lead me back to a time of trauma. Strange then, in seeking some kind of new beginning that I ended up in the country of my father's emigration, near the city where my parents met, to circles within circles.
“Yes,” I say as I drive West, looking for signs to a swimming pool, “we should write to him.”