Sophie White writes about her father’s illness and death, and its impact on her.
DUBLIN-BASED AUTHOR Sophie White has just released her first essay collection, Corpsing: My Body and other Horror Shows. The book – which is a bestseller – explores subjects including grief, motherhood, creativity, the macabre, drinking, addiction and mental illness.
In my life to date, my responses have rarely fit the situation. I find responding appropriately is challenging. If the moment calls for sincerity, I want to revolt. I want to make jokes. I make jokes that I find funny, but no one else gets. Funny comes first above all else when I’m trying to create something. I complain to my husband about how this book I’m writing about grief and addiction is ‘minus craic’.
‘It doesn’t all have to be funny,’ Seb sighs, because living with someone who is in a perpetual state of trying to be funny is, presumably, pretty horrendous. Like sharing a space with a precocious stage child.
‘But if it’s not funny then I’m just boring people with my crap life.’
Funny makes things worthwhile. Funny gives plain women value, we’ve been told. Funny is also perfect for distracting us from real life – that absolute buzz-kill. I have an annoying tic. I cannot be placed in a group situation without a knee-jerk impulse to try and entertain everyone. It’s a grotesque pathological type of attention-seeking.
While my dad is dying, I write a bit of comedy about death with a view to performing it for an open mic night. Thankfully, I can’t remember many of the ‘jokes’ but there was definitely one about how in near-death he had finally reached his ‘goal weight’. I think I wistfully described him as ‘Victoria Beckham-thin’.
The truth is that watching death is not all that funny. It’s frightening. It smells bad, it leaves a taste in your mouth. It slips into your life, it clings to your clothes, it infects you, and if you sit with it long enough your humanity starts to atrophy. And then you laugh inappropriately because the goalposts have changed. What’s funny has changed. The feel of your life has changed and the things you need to do and say to stave off the dire truth of your situation mean you are constantly out of step with other people.
People flinch at my glib comments. A well-meaning acquaintance asks after him and I belch out a ghastly joke, having dispensed with so many of the niceties we persist with to keep the social equilibrium intact. Anything rather than cry or explain that death is infesting me.
An infestation. It reminds me that at a molecular level, we are all a shimmering mass of atoms, brushing up against strangers and loved ones, park benches and pillows at night, melding on this atomic plane for fleeting or even prolonged periods. So sometimes I am fully a part of this keyboard; each time my fingers hit a key, the key absorbs a bit of me and I of it, the same when I bury my face in my baby’s hair or hold the hands of my dying father. We cannot perceive this connection. In fact, what our eyes can tell us of any given moment is limited; in many ways we are ridiculously ignorant, as ignorant as a joke about a dying man wasting in a bed.
Perhaps because of the unruly atoms, during his dying days, I believe I have caught some of his death. I believe myself to be dying in time with him. And in a way I am. I am murdering myself. And our respective illnesses have some commonalities. Loss of memory and cognitive function – his tragic affliction meted out by what? The universe? Some trick of genetics and nature? Mine is meted out by me. I lift the glass and greedily suck down every drop, but I don’t control this thing. Like my dad, I am lost, roaming the empty rooms in my head, groping in the dark. It’s a punishing search for numb comfort to cope with these unremarkable days.
During these years, I can’t remember my real dad at all. I sit by him and try to summon one single thing about him before his illness swept in. This illness is a thief and a liar. It ransacks my happy memories until, just as my father can no longer recall me, I can no longer recall him. He has been a helpless drag forever. He was never beautiful, and strong and wise and funny.
I sit by his bed and berate myself for not doing more deathbed-appropriate activities. Like what? Like fond remembering. Hand-holding. Crying for him. Loving him. I know that tapping out the minutes until I leave again is not the proper way to do this death thing, but I also cannot cannot cannot allow myself to feel the full force of his dying. I’m too afraid to, so I keep myself gently anaesthetised to the facts of him.
In 2017, he is dead. It is May and I dispense with breast- feeding in favour of drinking. It’s really all I can come up with to do in this new world that doesn’t contain him.
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The howling hunger is back and also I have new ills to treat: guilt, rage, boredom. The current of my fucked-up life runs quietly beneath my normal life. My drinking when it’s at its best, its absolute optimum, makes my days manageable. But I’m not participating in the world. Not properly at any rate. I feel like a corpse myself. Like a corpse done up to resemble the person I was. My make-up is heavy, hiding the perpetual cycle of drinking and hangovers. I am a sweet-smelling corpse; perfume masks the sickly decay seeping from my alcoholic body. I always chew gum. I’ve switched to white wine for prac- tical purposes. No staining.
I have all the appearance of functioning, I am a high-functioning corpse. However, I don’t really feel things, which, I suppose, is my goal. I search for sadness in the months after his death, but come up with nothing but guilt and relief that I no longer have to watch him die, and then further guilt at the relief. The main objective is to very carefully and quietly drown this life in wine. In the main, this works exceptionally well. I am an excellent secret drinker. Only occasionally does my careful management of the situation slip from my grasp. In other words, I corpse.
In theatre, ‘corpsing’ is breaking character on stage, usually by laughing. On the stage of my little drama, I corpse by revealing my true hungry nature. I go on a Sunday afternoon playdate to a friend’s house so our kids can play, and I bring a bottle of wine. I pour us each a glass and then focus every shred of my attention on sipping the glass slowly. Even still, I’m finished long before her. I top us up and persist in attempting to be a relaxed normal drinker but it really is futile. It’s like trying to stop water from draining down the plughole. Eventually my concern for appearances is eroded and I give up. I drink the rest of the bottle myself.
I made pathetic efforts to hide what I was doing from her, but given we were in the same small kitchen, our children playing in the room next door, I presume I was embarrass- ingly obvious. Thankfully there is a cure for embarrassment and shame. I leave and buy another bottle on the way home.
In the days after this afternoon, I metabolise the shame and make note of the fact that I must temporarily suspend this friendship. This is what I do at this time: I try to spread my dysfunction around so no one can compare notes. In 2017, the alternative – to recognise that my corpsing at a playdate and downing a bottle of wine mid-afternoon is not the behaviour of a normal drinker – is unthinkable. I know on some level that this thing is getting bigger than me and that the stench of decomposition is starting to taint my meticulously compartmentalised life. But I just cannot admit there is something more wrong than the obvious things that are wrong. And as much as I think drinking alone daily is becoming hard to manage, I also cannot countenance not drinking. Being without it is just not an option. The pain of continuing must outweigh the pain of stopping before I’ll ever consider burying her: the wine-sodden corpse.
Sophie White is a writer and podcaster. Her books, Recipes for a Nervous Breakdown, Filter This and Unfiltered have been bestsellers and award nominees. Sophie’s publications include a weekly column Nobody Tells You for the Sunday Independent LIFE magazine, and she has been nominated three times for Journalist of the Year at the Irish Magazine Awards. She is co-host of chart-topping podcasts, Mother Of Pod and The Creep Dive. She lives in Dublin with her husband and three sons. Corpsing is published by Tramp Press and is available in bookstores now.