My father was a problem-solver. He was a physicist who designed components and systems for complex machines. But he also applied a calm and thoughtful and methodical approach to many things in other areas of his life: helping his children with university applications; supporting a relative through a serious illness; buying a new kitchen mop. Problem-solving was so innate to the way that he lived that it was not something that I recognised as one of my father's definitive characteristics until after he died.
His death was not a surprise, not exactly – he had lung cancer; we knew that he would not recover. But that my father couldn't fix the problem of his death? It's so obvious, but that hit me like a ton of bricks. It was the first time that a really bad thing had happened that he could not repair or improve.
When you become an adult, your parents will die. This is true for the most part. This is the best-case scenario. This is more likely than the other things we tell children will happen to them when they become adults – finding fulfilling careers, falling in love, getting married, becoming parents themselves. Fair enough – talking about it is too scary. But when it comes to defining adulthood, nothing has made me feel more grown-up than knowing that one of the two people in the world who loved me the most, without condition, was no longer in the world.
When I heard the news that my father had died – from my brother, in an anguished phonecall – I thought at once of my mother. Not just because she had lost her beloved husband, her life's companion, but because her own father had died when she was just 16 years old. The fact of my grandfather's absence was something that I'd always known, and never grieved – he'd died so long before I was born. But when my father died, I felt a shock of empathy for my mother, the realisation that she had known this particular grief when she was truly a child.
After my father died, my very first instinct was inertia, to give up. How could I live in a world without him to love and guide me in the way that only he could?
Here I was, twice the age she'd been when her father died, but I felt a sense of profound, irreversible abandonment. I recognised the feeling from only one other time in my life, nearly 30 years earlier. I was three or four, and my dad had missed a train connection at the end of a transatlantic journey, which meant that when we went to pick him up at the station he was nowhere to be seen. Of course he turned up on the next train, but my mother had no idea quite where he was – it was the early 1980s, after all, when your whereabouts could still be a mystery. Truly believing that my dad was lost for ever, I remember crying for most of the hour or two until he appeared, completely cheerful and unaware that I'd feared I'd never see him again. After he died, I felt that abject fear again. But this time there was no hope of resolution – an unfamiliar and devastating feeling.
As long as your parents are alive, I think, you are a kind of child – their child. “We're too young for this,” my brother said to me once, some time after my father's cancer diagnosis and before his death. I did not disagree. After all, we'd watched our parents grieve the deaths of their remaining parents when they were in their mid-fifties and sixties. We were only in our thirties. Our father was only in his late sixties. And yet I also thought about when our father's father had died, not even four years earlier. Our father had been 65, not yet ill himself, and our grandfather had been a month shy of 92, with the kind of life behind him that anyone would describe as rich and happy and interesting. A good life. But my father was still very sad – just because my grandfather was old and suffering from a cruel final illness didn't mean that my father didn't want him to be alive anymore. Maybe there's a kind of adulthood that you never achieve until there is no longer a generation ahead of you.
After my father died, my very first instinct was inertia, to give up. How could I live in a world without him to love and guide me in the way that only he could? Moving through the crushing grief seemed impossible to contemplate. But then I realised that all of my father's problem-solving wasn't just about making his family's life easier – his can-do attitude equipped us to move forward in our lives without him. “It's what your father would have wanted” was a phrase that always sounded clichéd to me until I realised that this was really true. My father would have wanted me to find resources within myself that I never had to tap so long as he was around to solve problems for me. My father would have wanted me to keep growing up.