There is always a lull between Christmas and New Years Eve. Most years, it is spent playing with the toys that Father Christmas had bought, spending your hard earned cash in the sales or eating yet another Turkey sandwich even though you couldn't manage anything else. (not even a wafer thin mint! as Gary would always say when some one mentioned they were full). For me and my father, the final days of December 2015 were spent planning the funeral of my husband. Leaving the children with my Mum, my Dad and I drove home to complete various paperwork and meet the funeral director to discuss service arrangements.
Now, this may be inappropriate, but when I met up with the funeral director, I had to hold back laughter. It was nothing against her, she was extremely professional and very down to earth, Exactly what you need in this situation. It was the whole surreal experience that I could not comprehend. I am comforted that Gary would no doubt be laughing his socks off at the situation I was now in. We were sat around a round table, drinking luke warm milky tea discussing flowers, coffin designs and if Gary wanted a horse drawn carriage or perhaps a hearse would be more Gary. Well, I just couldn't keep a straight face. There is no way Gary would have wanted a horse drawn carriage showered with flowers spelling out the word "Dad" or perhaps "Gaz". We had joked about this early on in his illness when we thought death would not be on the agenda. It was a conversation over a couple of glasses of wine but I did reassure Gary that I would not go down that route, so he didn't have to worry.
So, after confirming that we wouldn't need a horse and carriage, just a straightforward Hearse please. The type of coffin was next to be discussed. Again, I know discussing funeral arrangements is a very sombre affair but I really did have to hide back a smile that was starting to form on my face. Gary was very well known for his story telling and one particular favourite of mine was his renactment of "Fernando" the Portuguese Undertaker. When the subject of coffin design came up, I immedately thought of this story.
Gary was Repping in a hotel in Portugal in the winter months when the hotels were very popular with the retired and shall we say "Older Generation". Unfortunately, Gary was advised one afternoon that a guest had passed away in the bathroom of the hotel. The guests travelling companions were obviously very traumatised, so Gary went to the room to assess the situation. The man was dead and so an Undertaker was called. Apparently he appeared in the hotel cellar and travelled up to the floor in the customer lift. Gary opened the door to him and was faced with a pointy looking narrow face, wearing back clothes and a shory black cape. "My name is Fernando" the man said in broken english with a heavy accent. Next to him was a very small, rounded man who was the assistant. Between Gary, the Undertaker and the assistant, the man was put into an open coffin and taken to the lift. Gary had instructed other Reps in the hotel to monitor the lift so nobody called the lift, leaving the path clear to carry the coffin to the cellar and into the waiting hearse. Unfortunately this did not go to plan. An old lady called the lift without the Rep knowing. Meanwhile Gary and Undertaker weretrying to get the coffin into the lift. The only way was to stand the coffin upright but unfortunately rigamortis had set in and this caused difficulty in closing the coffin lid. The poor old lady was faced with a dreadful sight when the lift reached her floor. There was Gary in his Airtours blue uniform with fetching yellow shirt and multicoloured tie, trying to hold down a coffin lid. Next to him dressed head to toe in black with a floating black cape was Fernando also trying to hold in a stray arm that kept poking out. Next to Fernando and no taller than knee height was the round little assistant. Gary mumbled something along the lines of "Good Afternoon" and the lift doors closed and off they went down to the cellar.
This story always makes me laugh. I always think of it as a mix between a scene in Fawlty Towers and The Adams Family. Anyway, as soon as the coffin discussion started, my mind wondered to when Gary used to tell this story. I lost track of what the undertaker was telling me but came back in focus just as she was explaining the benefits of a wicker coffin. Gary is more traditional, I explained. "We'll go with the rectangular box shape". There was no way I could have Gary rest in a coffin shape after the story of "Fernando" and it didn't seem right, Gary having his final resting place in a wicker basket. That was like putting Gary in a laundry basket.
We were in the undertakers for over an hour, discussing flower arrangements, coffin designs, type of wood, type of handles and finally where the service would take place and what music we wanted. Once again, I found myself in a very surreal situation and it was so surreal that I found myself laughing. As they say, you either laugh or your cry. If I really thought about what I was doing (discussing my husband's funeral) I would have broken down there and then. If truth be known, I never ever want to be in that situation again. Not for my parents, in-laws or anybody. Once that discussion starts, it signifies that the end is real. My husband was really dead and now I had to face facts and somehow celebrate his life. Once again, I found myself looking up to the skies above as if to have a quiet word with with the big man upstairs. I needed his guidance more than anything in the next few days. He helped me out when Nathan was born 6 weeks early and he had answered my prayers to let Nathan live a full and happy life. I still don't know what his plans were when he allowed Gary to die so young but I hoped he would be there for me now & to support me as best he could. I surely needed it now.
With all plans in place for the funeral, my Father and I headed back to my parents to celebrate (if you can call it that) the end of 2015 and the start of 2016. Before that however, we had to register the death.
The Registery office for births and deaths in Maidstone is in the middle of the library. I was expecting a small office instead I was welcomed into a "pod" in the centre of the reference section of the library. It reminded me of the individual toilet blocks that you see in London, where the door opens 5mins or so automatically after you have entered. The "pod" was a cross between these toilets and the new toilets you get on the train. Whatever the image, it was not the venue I was expecting to register my husband's death. To make matters worse, the Registrar was busy when we first arrived so we were offered a seat in the reference library in amongst the plumbing and how to write your family tree research books.
A happy couple with a new born appeared from the pod and then my Father and I were invited in. To be fair the Registrar apologised for us waiting amongst the plumbing books and also acknoweledged that this was not the ideal place to register a death. I explained that it was myself who was registering the death and that it was my husband who had passed away. I'm sure the lady had seen many different people pass through her doors but I did notice a flicker of sadness as she looked me up and down. I held back the tears very well but my voice was a bit on the wobbly side. It was even more difficult when I realised that only 8 months previous, Gary had been in the very same place to register the birth of our daughter. I had not attended as it was 2 days after Darcey's birth and I was still a bit sore. I'm glad now that I did not attend and it would have been even more difficult to comprehend that I was back so soon under such dreadful circumstances. The Registrar was very professional and made a very difficult event, relatively stress free. We left the "pod" with several death certificates all ready to post off to the various utility and bank companies so we could cancel Gary off their books. Yet another horrendous series of events that has to be done following a death. I won't even go into the detail of how upsetting it is to phone strangers who (in the majority) have the least concern for your current situation. True, they will utter "oh, I'm sorry to hear this" but they're not really. As soon as they put the phone down, they will be back gossiping with their telesales colleagues and stressing how bad that call was as they were talking about a dead person. Welcome to my life. I have lost count on the number of times I have had to relay the same story. Most of my phone calls went along the lines of:
Me "Oh, hello, I'm phoning regarding my Husband"
Them "I'm sorry I can not talk to you I need to talk to your husband".
Me "Yes, that's the thing, I need to report that my husband has died"
Them" Oh.......um.....OK...right...I'll need to pass you to somebody else"
Them (new person) "hello, how can I help"
Me" hello, I'm phoning regarding my Husband"
Them"I'm sorry I can not talk to you I need to talk to your husband, is he there?"
Me "Er no, that's why I am phoning, my husband has died"
Them "OK, I'm sorry to hear that. Do you have his death certificate? You will need to send that to us as proof he has died. Once we have recieved that, we can cancel his account (or whatever it was I was phoning about)
Me "Yes, I have many copies of the certificate, I will post to you".
Them "That's great. Thank you, have a nice day".
To be fair, not all were that cold, but the vast majority were certainly in need of a refresher course in customer services and empathy. The sad thing is, I am not and will not be the last person who has to go through such events. One of the worst experiences was a couple of months after Gary's death when I sent o advise our rental company that Gary had died and I need to change the rental agreement into just one name. Not only did this cost me over £500 (plus a very large amount of stress) I almost lost my cool and calm exterior when the girl in the office (she was no older than 20yrs) asked me, when I informed that Gary had died, if I wanted to take Gary completly off the rental papers or just for the moment. "Errr, I would take him off permenantly, I stuttered" under my breath muttering, he won't be coming back but I wish he would.