16 August 2012

Carrying my father's weight

My father died suddenly last week. He had been ill for some time, but it was still a surprise ending to his life, though not a painful or terrible death, as far as I know. I have been in the shock part of grief for a few days, and now this is shifting to a different set of feelings. To say we had a complicated relationship is the understatement of the century, so my grief, too, is complicated.

As a child I was told over and over again that I looked like my mum, but these days I see a lot more dad in me, and some of that is down to my fatness, my ginger colouring, and my sense of physical strength. I related to my dad as a fat man, but he was not always fat. This has implications for how I see my own body as a fat person; was I always fat too? What if I wasn't? Looking through old photographs, I can see that his body changed quite a bit, getting fatter and thinner at various times. In his thirties, he was sort of chunky, then the drinking took hold and he grew a belly and a double chin. Physical memories of my dad are about being a kid snuggled up to his big chest, invariably clothed in a rough, chunky jumper. I remember seeing him in hospital just over ten years ago and being shocked at how thin he had become with the cancer. But he had a strong body, he survived that cancer, he carried on, and although he was very ill when he died, he also drove a moped and gardened, and was relatively active up until the end.

When my mum died in 1987 I got scared that I would die if I didn't lose weight. I was 18 years old. I went on the last diet I would ever do, and because I was doing the cooking and cleaning and was basically keeping everything together, I also put dad on the same diet. On Monday, when I went to his place to pick up some photos and things, I saw that he'd got that same diet book on his bookshelf, he'd decided to do it again. He also had that creep Paul McKenna's I Can Make You Thin. My own book, Fat & Proud, wasn't there, he told me he'd ordered it when it came out in 1998, but that could have been a lie. In any case, we never really talked about it, or about fat, apart from in a video project I did for my Master's degree in 1994. To me it looks like my life's work passed him by.

Dad was cremated early on Tuesday morning. When the funeral director invited people to carry his coffin, I was one of those who stepped forward. I wasn't even sure that I was allowed, despite my feminism, and having attended many funerals, I've never seen a coffin carried by women. But no one stopped me, so I took my place and I helped carry my dad's body. It felt like a metaphor for the emotional carrying I've done in relation to him over the years. But it was also a very physical experience. He was heavy! I had to use all my strength to carry him, from my feet planted firmly on the ground, through my legs, arms and belly. As I carried him I thought: "I am a strong fat woman carrying my dad's body, I can feel the weight of him, this is a fat man's body, a body to which I am connected. I can do this, and I can see what I am doing." And then it was time to say goodbye.