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


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

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment


film review
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

    Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

    Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
    Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

    'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

    Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
    Compton Cricket Club

    Compton Cricket Club

    Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
    London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

    Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

    'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

    The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

    It helps a winner keep on winning
    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'