It would have been my Dad’s birthday this week, if he hadn’t died three and a half years ago. I miss him in ways I’m constantly surprised by: I begin to think I’m used to his not being here, and then I realise that there are people in my life I’ve known for three years who’ll never meet him. Any knowledge they have of him will only ever be from my memories. It knocks me sideways from one breath to the next.
But at the same time, I’ve known since I was seventeen and my grandmother’s funeral was held at a crematorium in the unfortunately named Herefordshire town of Cinderford, that humour sometimes bubbles up in the least appropriate places. Some people might feel it’s a bit disrespectful, but one of my Dad’s favourite poems was a hilarious one about cancer which opens with the lines, “I wish I had the voice of Homer / To sing of rectal carcinoma,”* so I reckon he would’ve been fine with us having a laugh about the whole thing.
To that end, here are 5 awkwardly funny things about bereavement:
1) Cancer optimism
My Dad died at the Royal Marsden cancer hospital (though not actually of cancer). There were well-intentioned posters everywhere with slogans of the “Let’s beat cancer together!” variety. All I could think of was that scene in Scrubs where the Janitor pretends to be a doctor, puts on a white coat and glasses and says, “Let’s make cancer feel foolish!”
2) Mistaken identities
At Dad’s memorial service, I was standing outside with a friend who looks nothing like me (I look very much like my Dad, except for the beard and the bald patch). An acquaintance of his came up to us both, looked my friend in the eye and said, “I’m so sorry.” There is no social etiquette for dealing with this situation.
3) Mistaken identities (part 2)
When I was in hospital, a well-meaning nurse knocked on my door and asked if I knew that my Dad was coming to visit today. “That seems unlikely,” I replied, “he’s been dead for three years.” Turned out it was my brother. The poor nurse was mortified.
4) Conversation killer
There’s a point in every conversation with a new acquaintance where you get to talking about your family and have to navigate the awkward apologies they make when you tell them your Dad died. After you’ve had this conversation enough times, it’s difficult not to come out with really smart-arse answers. When I was working in Paris and my Mum was coming to visit, a colleague asked me if both my parents spoke French. I had to fight the urge to tell her my Dad didn’t talk much these days.
5) Cold calls
It takes cold calling companies a while to twig that someone’s dead; letters addressed to Dad still get forwarded to us, and I suspect we only don’t get cold calls any more because we changed phone numbers when we moved house. I never had the guts to say it, but every time someone phoned and asked to speak to Mr Paul Olive, I was sorely tempted to reply, “I’m sorry, you’re a bit late. Though not quite as late as him.”
*He actually emailed a verse response to the person who showed him this poem. It began, “I heard of this and thought I’d beam yer / A line or two on my leukaemia.” Sadly I have no idea where the rest of his poem ended up.