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Saying Goodbye

by Maggie Mountford

In my first year at college I was called home. My father had died of a heart attack. A tall man, full of energy and ambition, only forty five years old. It didn't seem possible. On the train I tried to grasp the solemnity of the event. I read Dostoevsky, or stared out of the window, reliving old
conversations with him. The dominant emotion we had produced together was irritation.
          My mother was beside herself. "I've only got you, now, Mike," she whimpered. I patted her back, dutiful and horrified. "You'll come with me to see him?" she said, at last. "I'd like us to see him, together."
          I felt bound to consent. On the way to the undertaker her driving, as ever, was efficient. She smoked a cigarette, puffing on it frequently with nervous fingers. The scent of tobacco and her perfume mingled. She's a slender
attractive woman with sharp features. I was frightened of my parents. They had ways of looking that pierced right through you, laying down cellars of obscure guilt
          "Why did he have to go, Mike?" she said, her eyes fixed on the road. "Why, oh why did it have to happen? He was all right one minute, and the next - pouf - gone!" The way she said it sounded inappropriately flippant.

The Chapel of Rest was the worst place I had ever been in. There was this otherworldly smell, and in the background the muted strains of a tuneless organ.  My mother placed her hand on my back and gave me a gentle push. I tiptoed towards my father's corpse, shutting my eyes tight at first, then opening them quickly, my heart pounding. The face was waxen. The eyes, horrifying, half open. I had never anything so still before. His nose poked upwards at a peculiarly sharp angle. He looked angry instead of peaceful.
          "Say goodbye to your father, Mike." My mother's voice from behind me was unnervingly loud.  I'd stayed calm up to then, but now my nerves began to jingle like broken piano wires. I tried to speak, but I couldn't open my mouth. I couldn't even look at him any more. I fixed my gaze on a vase of chrysanthemums just to the side of the coffin, flooded with sudden nausea.
          "Say goodbye, Mike," my mother repeated, moving to stand by my side. So much taller than she was, I should have been capable of managing the situation, but all I could think of was rushing to find the nearest available toilet. I didn't want to vomit all over him.

          But then something happened. Something that not one person in this whole wide world could possibly conceive of. I can't conceive it myself, yet with my own eyes I saw it, and so I must bear witness to what is, to all intents and purposes, completely and utterly impossible.
          My father sat up in his coffin.
      He rose up against the satin in his dark suit, a roar issuing from him, a roar more like a bull than a human's. His eyes blazed out with what you couldn't call life and you couldn't call death, though you could call it, if anything, 'essence of fury.' His fury at dying. His fury at my
hopelessness. He opened his mouth. Words issued from it. Dark, and garbled, though still understandable.
          "For Christ's sake, boy! Didn't I teach you anything? Say goodbye to your father. Let's get this thing over with!"
          He lay down again. The room reverted to deathly silence.
          I leant towards him. My lips brushed his forehead. And for the first time that day, my mother smiled.

(c) Maggie Mountford 2001