If anyone asks me what did my father die of, I'd be tempted to say that 'he died of a Monday', borrowing one of staple family corny jokes. But that he did - die of a Monday - two years ago this week.
It was his anniversary proper on Thursday. Other than an early morning phone call from a cousin asking how I was, closely followed by a message from one of oldest friends, which caused a brief wave of emotion, the day was uneventful. That morning, at tea-break, I sat in the same cafe, at the same table, (but with a variation of work colleagues present), at the time as that memorable day two years ago, when I received two phone calls, one after the other from my brother. The first one saying that my father had a heart attack and the second, saying 'he's gone Lucy'. I thought about mentioning the anniversary at tea-break, but the banter was in full flow and I let the moment pass.
So much has changed within the the steady backbone of Milltown in the last two years. In the summer of 2015, our neighbour's son Robert, only 19 years of age, died in a tragic farm accident. Nothing that has happened there before or since is comparable to their loss. At the time, my mother remarked to me that my father had driven over to the wake, instead of walking, which would have made much more sense. The signs were there that my father wasn't well.
The elderly couple up on the hill, who were there for forever and a day, died within a relatively short period of each other. And our dear neighbour Dinny, living just down the road, passed away in the last few weeks. Coincidentally, his grave is directly beside my our family grave. If you put your head to the ground there, you might hear my father giving a colourful running commentary on the politics of the day, with Dinny, head bowed, smiling. Quietly agreeing. Nodding. 'That's right John, that's right'. No doubt there would be a dig at Dinny for his liking of my mother's baking and 'The Case of the Freshly Baked Flan' that disappeared from our back kitchen, where it was cooling. My brother's eyes popped out on sticks later, when Dinny offered him a slice of flan in his house, my brother recognising the pattern on the plate.
Visiting and enquiring about the couple on the hill and Dinny had become part of my mother's new routine since my father's death and now that will change too. She announced recently, with a touch of melancholy, that she now was the oldest person living on the road and I feel for her and have a heightened sense of her vulnerability. But with that, a gratitude for her family, family and neighbours that have rallied around and made a new routine.
Looking back, my father's death had much more of an impact on me that I would have ever expected. I didn't think I'd miss him as much as I did. In the years coming up to his death, my visits to Milltown were brief and conversations were few. My marriage was falling apart and I wasn't able to talk about it. I worried about my mother worrying about me and about being an embarrassment to my father - Not so much ME being an embarrassment, just the situation. Not exactly the conversation for the pub on a Saturday night now? Not when it's your daughter. Is there a good way to break news like this?
I standing in front of the stove in the old kitchen, hands gripped on the rail, the story spilling out of me. I'm trying to be matter-of-fact about it. Giving the appearance of someone who is fine. My father remains seated, elbows over his newspaper and listens. He doesn't understand. Didn't see it coming. Liked going for a pint with my husband. I have to tell him more than I initially wanted to, things that he can't comprehend, things that I am struggling with myself. He's quiet. Disappointed maybe. Taken aback. But no harsh words. I leave him to consider the new reality for me and for his grand children.
There have been many times since his death when I have felt his presence, not that I've looked for it. It just was there and not always subtly either. This is John Russell we are talking about, remember. Bad Country & Western music blaring in the Square, as I enter court for a challenging appearance; his energy right in front of me after a visit to my neurologist, a feeling so real that I can almost reach out and touch him and it startles me. Although, if he was reading this, he might say it's a 'heap of shite'.
His death gave me a boost to my writing too. Writing about him gave me both comfort and a new confidence. Funny, I suppose, because I'm not sure if he ever read anything I wrote. If he did, we both would have been to uncomfortable with each other to discuss it.
My children and the other grand children mention my father regularly. The general gist of the comments is that 'Granddad was great fun'. I'm heartened that even the youngest grandchild Eliza describes him in visual accounts that I know are her memories that not ones that she has heard from someone else. As time goes on, the distinctive Russell genes come to the fore and I, and others, see my father more and more in his two brothers. JR is never far away.
I took on the job of getting his memorial cards. A simple task in terms of text and graphic design, compared to the publicity material and reports that I prepare regularly in my work capacity. Yet it has taken me the guts of two years to get around to it. I had underestimated the emotional impact of this relatively small task, this final gesture. The graphic designer asks kindly 'Were you close to you father?'. 'No', I say and the tears start and don't stop for a fortnight in the run up to his second anniversary. This doesn't suit me at all. I thought I was done with this. A new wave of grief pulls out from my chest like a tacky glue stuck to my fingers, in a way it hadn't before.
I put it down to the new peace in my life that has created space for untapped emotion to flood in like a tsunami.
The finished memorial cards look well. In the photograph, my father looks relaxed. It's a photo taken on a European forestry trip. I had looked for a suitable poem to include, a Seamus Heaney one perhaps, but then I realise that I have no idea what my father thought of Heaney, or any other poet indeed. If he has strong views either way, I'm sure that I would have heard. My mother chooses a prayer. Images of Milltown Glen will be recognisable to anyone who ever travelled it.
I show my daughter the card. She approves. 'Granddad is smiling!', she laughs. Granddad had a bit of a reputation for not smiling, or indeed looking in the general direction of the photographer and sometimes, disappearing before the photographs were taken.
We used to joke with him that we wouldn't have a decent image for his memorial card.
'That's a shocking thing to say', he would say, put the head down and continue reading.
'Make me a cup of tea, like a good girsha'.