Being at a funeral with someone who is terminally ill was always going to be difficult. After a long drive I pull up at the crematorium in a relentless grey drizzle. I spot a kestrel hovering over a tree from which mourners had hung ribbons and soggy things on string. The bird seems to be the animal embodiment of the man whose funeral I am intending, his way of showing his presence when his physical body is sent into the fire. I wonder how many others have assigned this same bird a greater symbolic meaning, and remember the story of a huge eagle descending on the church where The Sopranos actor James Gandolfini's funeral was being held, and how those attending the funeral were convinced it was Gandolfini.
On the drive here I listen to a piece on the radio about laughing at inappropriate moments. There is a story about a man at a funeral bowing his head in prayer rather too enthusiastically, dislodging his hairpiece and sending it falling from the balcony down into the mourners below. When someone threw it back up the vicar lost his composure and descended into a fit of giggles. I begin to worry about inappropriate giggling this morning, but I needn't have. The funeral is beautiful and awash in tears and I don't last more than a few seconds before I am also crying. My sorrow is complicated. I feel guilty that, unlike the children and wife of the man whose life we are celebrating, I am not simply crying for the loss of him, but for losses past and for those to come.
I glance over at my mum and stepfather, neither of whom are crying but both of whom have terminal cancer. I am imagining having to bury them - soon it will be me standing at the front, looking ashen and crumpled and uncomprehending. Yet the strongest feeling I have when the service is over and he is gone, is that what matters most when we die are the precious memories and stories scattered amongst our friends and family. Not one of his children mentioned any material things in their eulogies, instead they spoke of how their father had taught them to draw, how he would sing to them and play the banjo, how he ignored SatNavs and instead took elaborate short cuts that were rarely short. Their love was simple and deep and not dependent on external measures of 'success' or 'wealth' or parenting skills. What our children, friends and family want is our time, and that time is fleeting and slippery.
Afterwards I drive my mum to the wake. In the car I realise that the new natural deodorant I have been using has not worked and I am really smelly. I pull over in a lay-by and engage in some awkward, indiscreet personal hygiene rectification. We discuss my mum's cancer treatment and her plans for her own funeral. It is all abstract and distant and I can't connect the conversation we are having to the rawness of the love and sorrow that has made me sweat and cry throughout the morning. She tells me that cardboard coffins are not as environmentally friendly as you might think and we discuss whether wicker would be strong enough to hold my stepfather (who is built like a bear). I drive on through the drizzle, thankful for life, for the man who is gone and for this time, but wrapped in a gossamer shawl of dread.