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?

Or

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
Blackman: Landscape of children’s literature does not reflect the cultural diversity of young people
booksMalorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
musicReview: Wembley Stadium ***
Arts and Entertainment
‘Dawn of Planet of the Apes’ also looks set for success in the Chinese market

film
News
Arts and Entertainment
The successful ITV drama Broadchurch starring David Tenant and Olivia Coleman came to an end tonight

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Chocolat author Joanne Harris has spoken about the financial struggles most authors face

books
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from How To Train Your Dragon 2

Review: Imaginative storytelling returns with vigour

film
Arts and Entertainment
Josh Hutcherson, Donald Sutherland and Jena Malone in Mockinjay: Part 1

film
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Characters in the new series are based on real people, say its creators, unlike Arya and Clegane the Dog in ‘Game of Thrones’
tv
Arts and Entertainment
A waxwork of Jane Austen has been unveiled at The Jane Austen Centre in Bath

books
Arts and Entertainment
Britney Spears has been caught singing without Auto-Tune

music
Arts and Entertainment
Unless films such as Guardians of the Galaxy, pictured, can buck the trend, this summer could be the first in 13 years that not a single Hollywood blockbuster takes $300m

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Miley Cyrus has her magic LSD brain stolen in this crazy video produced with The Flaming Lips

music
Arts and Entertainment
Gay icons: Sesame Street's Bert (right) and Ernie

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Singer Robin Thicke and actress Paula Patton

music
Arts and Entertainment
The new film will be shot in the same studios as the Harry Potter films

books
Arts and Entertainment
Duncan Bannatyne left school at 15 and was still penniless at 29

Bannatyne leaves Dragon's Den

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The French economist Thomas Piketty wrote that global inequality has worsened

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant and Benedict Cumberbatch

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Affleck plays a despondent Nick Dunne in David Fincher's 'Gone Girl'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty (L) and Carl Barât look at the scene as people begin to be crushed

music
Arts and Entertainment

tv
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Iraq crisis: How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over the north of the country

    How Saudi Arabia helped Isis take over northern Iraq

    A speech by an ex-MI6 boss hints at a plan going back over a decade. In some areas, being Shia is akin to being a Jew in Nazi Germany, says Patrick Cockburn
    The evolution of Andy Serkis: First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes

    The evolution of Andy Serkis

    First Gollum, then King Kong - now the actor is swinging through the trees in Dawn of the Planet of the Apes
    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial: Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried

    You thought 'Benefits Street' was controversial...

    Follow-up documentary 'Immigrant Street' has got locals worried
    Refugee children from Central America let down by Washington's high ideals

    Refugee children let down by Washington's high ideals

    Democrats and Republicans refuse to set aside their differences to cope with the influx of desperate Central Americas, says Rupert Cornwell
    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Children's books are too white, says Laureate

    Malorie Blackman appeals for a better ethnic mix of authors and characters and the illustrator Quentin Blake comes to the rescue
    Blackest is the new black: Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...

    Blackest is the new black

    Scientists have developed a material so dark that you can't see it...
    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    Matthew Barzun: America's diplomatic dude

    The US Ambassador to London holds 'jeans and beer' gigs at his official residence – it's all part of the job, he tells Chris Green
    Meet the Quantified Selfers: From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor

    Meet the 'Quantified Selfers'

    From heart rates to happiness, there is little this fast-growing, self-tracking community won't monitor
    Madani Younis: Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Five-star reviews are just the opening act for British theatre's first non-white artistic director

    Madani Younis wants the neighbourhood to follow his work as closely as his audiences do
    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    Mrs Brown and her boys: are they having a laugh?

    When it comes to national stereotyping, the Irish – among others – know it can pay to play up to outsiders' expectations, says DJ Taylor
    Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy: Was the otter man the wildlife champion he appeared to be?

    Otter man Gavin Maxwell's bitter legacy

    The aristocrat's eccentric devotion to his pets inspired a generation. But our greatest living nature writer believes his legacy has been quite toxic
    Joanna Rowsell: The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia

    Joanna Rowsell: 'I wear my wig to look normal'

    The World Champion cyclist on breaking her collarbone, shattering her teeth - and dealing with alopecia
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef gives raw ingredients a lift with his quick marinades

    Bill Granger's quick and delicious marinades

    Our chef's marinades are great for weekend barbecuing, but are also a delicious way of injecting flavour into, and breaking the monotony of, weekday meals
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014 preview: Why Brazilians don't love their neighbours Argentina any more

    Anyone but Argentina – why Brazilians don’t love their neighbours any more

    The hosts will be supporting Germany in today's World Cup final, reports Alex Bellos
    The Open 2014: Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?

    The Open 2014

    Time again to ask that major question - can Lee Westwood win at last?