His hands felt just the same.
I went to see Kieran today, nineteen days after he died. For various reasons – delays at the coroner’s office, the complexities of a pandemic world – this was the first opportunity I had to do so. Yesterday the funeral directors dressed him with care in the clothes I had painstakingly selected, and today I dressed myself carefully, too; if this was the last time we would be alone together, I wanted to look like I had made an effort. I wore a dress that he bought me, a brooch he gave me for Christmas. He would have said I looked nice. But he always said that.
In the first moment of seeing his body, I felt a terrible lurch of unfamiliarity. Even with the undertakers’ care and attention, of course he looked different. Nineteen days after death, the only way he could possibly look like he was “just sleeping” would be with a heavy coat of make up, and I didn’t want that. But after that initial stomach swoop of something close to horror there was a deeper pain – the pain of familiarity, of recognition. That so much of him was just as I’ve known it for so many years. His skin was very cold, but with his hand in mine I could feel the dear familiar fingerprints I have known for so long. Kissing his lips felt different, but the top of his head, the little fuzz of hair that grew there that I have scritched affectionately so often over the past thirteen and a half years – that too was just the same. I’m not sure I can quite explain the strange blend of comfort and agony of that.
I’m writing this to have a record of it, but I could keep that private. I already know that there are plenty of things about this journey that I will keep for myself alone. I suppose perhaps I’m also writing this because I know there are other people out there who have done this same thing, or who will face doing it sooner than they would like, and I want them to know they don’t have to be afraid of it. I am fortunate that my Irish and northern English Catholic background means that I have never found it disturbing to be in the presence of the dead; that to me it’s a natural thing to kiss the face of someone who has departed, knowing they are both themselves and not themselves all at once, and that this last taking care of their body is a ritual of deep love. I know not everyone is brought up to think that way, and yet they may find themselves in a situation where they want to see a departed loved one and they feel afraid of what it will be like. It should never be something anyone is forced to do; but if you choose to do it, I don’t think you’ll regret it.
After I picked my daughter up from school, I sat with her and told her about seeing Daddy’s body. I asked her if she wanted to see it – she said no – and I explained what a funeral means, and said she can come if she would like to. She said she isn’t sure, and I said that’s alright. She isn’t even six yet, but in this, as in much else, she deserves to make her own choices. I will guide her in this, as I navigate my own grief, but she is her own person, whole and entire. Adults so very often shy away from honesty with children, fearing bringing them pain; but while honesty sometimes hurts, it is a far cleaner pain than half-truths and obfuscation.
Just before she fell asleep, Grace turned to me and smiled – a very sweet sort of smile, one that comes from the heart as much as the mouth. She said she would have good dreams tonight, and fell asleep with her hand in mine. I held her hand as I held her daddy’s, and said to her what I told him today: I love you, and we will be alright. Time to sleep.