A Child's Farewell

In memoriam Ivor John Richmond, died 6 April 2009
and Daphne Marion Richmond, died 6 May 2009

1.

I told her he had died.
She said he’d gone ahead to his reward,
then calmly turned to telephoning, writing letters,
dealing with the surpluses of other people’s grief.

Their separation was a little month
until I turned to telephoning, writing letters,
dealing with the surpluses of other people’s grief.

To me, their sixty years’ acquaintance was a long road, jointly travelled, at an end.
To them, it was the courting prelude to a marriage
where their spoiled and shrunken bodies would be beautiful again,
as in this photograph I keep deep in my wallet:

field, hedge, sunlight on branches, and the two of them;
he’s laughing at the camera,
she’s riding on his shoulders,
loose skirt sexily hoicked up behind his neck,
hands holding on to handfuls of his thick black hair,
for balance partly, mainly for desire.

2.

And yet I think there was a doubt in her.
He never doubted, never ceased to sing God’s praises, utter in strange tongues,
convinced that when the light of this world failed
the moment’s darkness would be but the blinking of his eyelids
to adjust to greater light. His faith was bottomless.

Her illness broke her slowly, like a torturer.
Please, Jesus, where is God in this? she sometimes wondered.
Should I call this ‘testing’? Just suppose
that all this time I’ve… She refused the thought.
But fear was in the bedroom where her children smiled at her.
‘Open a window, please.’ The night air brought relief.

3.

‘My body’s fine; my mind is shot.’
The theologian/scientist/inventor
asks me how my work is going
how my work is going
how my work is going.
I reply in even tones each time.
I tell him, ‘Dad, suppose you broke your leg
and afterwards you limped. You wish it hadn’t happened
but it’s not a cause for shame.’
He sees the logic, but it doesn’t help.
My mother calls. Straightway he runs upstairs.
I hear their voices, not their words.
He runs downstairs again. ‘Now what was it she wanted?’
I go up to check.

4.

Her mind is fine; her body’s shot.
Head girl/head teacher holds the household reins
as firmly as she used to in her strength.
In bed, she plans the supermarket order (internet),
the pre-cooked frozen lunches order (telephone);
from dozens of mail-order catalogues
she chooses plants and thermal underwear and birthday gifts.
She keeps up correspondence (missionaries from Jordan to Nepal to hearten,
relative in Kent — bad-tempered all her life — to soothe,
and widows scattered over England to supply with news).

Most constant of her duties: give instructions to her constant husband
so the milk will not run short,
the teasmade will be filled,
the back doors will be double-locked at night.
He’s tagged, when out of earshot, by the cordless phones they use as intercom.

I’m sitting with him down the garden on a bench beyond the fruit trees.
Coffee time. A blackbird speaking from the hedge.
He smiles and listens. ‘Now we’re out of range.’

5.

A misery they carried all their married days:
the self-inflicted murder of the happy brain
to set at nought the useful pleasures of this life
before the coming judgement of the unredeemed.

This coloured all, spoiled all. No hope, achievement, love
could live outside that grand delusion feared as fact.
A stupid certainty! My father’s journal:
Daphne doesn’t want to go to heaven
unless she knows that all her children will be there one day.

Don’t tell me, when we scattered ashes, his and hers,
handful after handful given to the air where peewits called
and sky and cliffs and sea observed but kept their distance;
don’t you tell me, as the ashes touched the turf,
that somehow, then or at some day of reckoning,
my parents were or would be somewhere else.

6.

My father’s epigram: ‘The only thing
to do about your parents is forgive them.’
Here’s a child, in homage to his father
stepping back along the separating path he took
to where their ways divided.
He pursues the single pathway further
till it opens on a park, an afternoon.
A man and boy are playing cricket. For the boy
the game is purest happiness, the surest proof of love.
Neither is aware of being watched. The only thing
the solitary spectator, standing there,
can do about the young man playing cricket with his son
is offer, not forgiveness, but his thanks.