Five-minute memoir: Carol Topolski recalls a moment of life and death


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The Independent Culture

I'm in the bathroom with Clea. Cassie's chortling with her friend downstairs. My head's full of sweet, milky haziness as I sponge my 12-week-old baby, then wrap her in a towel nearly as soft as her skin. I'm 31 and all's well with my world. The front door crashes open. I hear urgent steps on the stairs. My husband's here. "Your dad's dead," he says. He's panting.

The bruise at the base of my spine takes weeks to disappear. I suppose it must have been the edge of the bath as I sat down suddenly. As I tried not to drop my baby.

I'm sitting in the car, Clea's carrycot's in the back, Michael's at the wheel. "Cassie's gone to play with Nell," Michael says. "She's fine, don't worry." The clouds are pregnant with rain. We're driving along maddeningly slow country lanes, through leafy tunnels, to the house. My dad's house.

I'm holding my baby as I get out of the car. My breasts are leaking. There he is, sitting in the conservatory he built, his head gently tilted to the left. He's wearing the dressing gown Mum made for him. He could be watching the sunrise, but his eyes are closed. They can't see, of course. I cry for the first time. Blinded myself, I hand Clea to Michael barely knowing what I'm doing, but it feels wrong to hold the only recently living when going to greet the dead.

It's my first dead body, but it's not a corpse, it's Dad. He is – was – 53. My mother sits next to him, holding his hand. She invites me to kiss him, but I can't, I can't. I stroke his bald head with my fingers, his skin cool against their tips. Cold.

When the undertakers come they zip him up in a black plastic bag and carry him down the path. The irony of wrapping an environmentalist in plastic makes me grin, but Dad's not grinning back.

Clea stays at home when we go to the funeral parlour. One of my brothers, my sister and I. Dad's waxen face peeps out of a frenzy of ruffles. A hectic photo of a beach takes up the wall behind the coffin. He hated holidays. My brother Mark grabs me and whispers, "That's not him," and I nod. As we leave, he elaborates. "It's just a ruse," he says, "to put us off the scent. Dad's off somewhere far away," he says, "on secret government business." I wish I could believe him.

But what do I do now?

Bask in the joy of my newborn?


Prostrate myself with grief?

I mustn't weep when I'm holding my baby or laugh out loud when Dad's dead. Mustn't spoil things.

Iknow about mourning. I've read the books, worked with the patients, held a friend as she sobbed. I know that everything's dusted with grief while you work it through, that there's no headspace for anything else, but I don't want my baby to begin life with an absent-minded mother. She wouldn't understand.

I understand, though. My job is to unpick the psychic knots that make life unliveable for my patients: I understand for a living. I could understand myself, but I don't want to. Don't want to fire up the professional engine and analyse this pain away. This pain that makes me human.

So I indulge it. The grief that is, but I also contain it. When Clea's asleep, or out with her father and sister, I flood. I play the music Dad loved and am awash with memories. I rage against old men in the street. "It should have been you," I hiss in my head. "Why are you alive when he's dead?"

But with Clea in my arms, I can smile. It may be watery but it's a real smile. She's there at his funeral, asleep in her pram. She sleeps through all the God stuff that Dad would have hated, which frees me to miss him. To weep again.

When I was little and much bothered by death – maybe my cat had died, or some small rodent or other, there were many – my mother soothed me by telling me that every time someone died in one part of the world, a baby was born somewhere else. But surely not both in my backyard. Not both at once, wringing me out like a dish rag.

It's 31 years later and I'm in another church, at another funeral. I'm standing with my hand on Mark's coffin, talking about the brother I adored, and look over at my family. There are my daughters, both of them mothers now. There's Clea with her hand on a pram, tears coursing down her face. There's her baby asleep. Dylan was born a few short months before Mark died at 57. Four years older than Dad. Birth and death are jousting again.

What do I do now?

Carol Topolski is the author of 'Do No Harm', published by Penguin. She is also a practising psychoanalytical therapist