At this point in my life, given my hobbies and my heritage, I shouldn’t be surprised that a few barstools, beer taps, and feet of lacquered wood can stir my emotions to boil. But as I sipped on a pint of Boddingtons on the same stool that my dad might have sat on decades earlier, all the sediment on the bottom of my soul roiled into a turbid mess of love and sadness. That pint was like any of the other hundred pints I’ve had – twenty ounces of cask-pumped bitter – but it was somehow different, too, like a golden, cascading, liquid echo of every pint my dad had ever had; all the laughter he’d sent into the rafters; all the life he’d lived in Cheshire, in England; all of him that is now in me.
Today marks one year that I’ve been without my dad.
Fifteen odd miles south of Manchester, after a brief jaunt on the M56 and a serene wind through the arbor tunnels of Castle Mill and Mobberly roads, I found myself outside a cottage, all white and black, a pub-turned-piano playing its history across the countryside. The inn, like many others in small English towns, juts perilously into the edge of a sharp turn, like a hitchhiker sticking his thumb out a little too far to attract the attention of passing cars. A faux-gazebo has been tacked onto the front of the building and the main sign has been updated with more contemporary font and filigree, but it looks almost exactly as it did thirty years ago, when my dad used to come here for a pint of bitter, a game of darts, a bit of nightly spoil to counter the daily toil.
We’d arrived midday on a Tuesday, as the pub was changing staff due to a pending sale. The kitchen was closed and it seemed all the locals knew no lunch was to be had at the Chapel House that day, leaving the entire building to us and a flustered barkeep who didn’t know where the previous owners had stored the pint glasses. What would have normally been a bustling bar stood empty, a graven memorial instead of a monument to conviviality.
We have a societal obsession with anniversaries, as if the tangible measurement of one full orbit gives us power, validation, reassurance that we’re alive. A birthday isn’t just a time to remember your origins, but a time to celebrate your victory over another cycle. Many people said to me, and I even said to myself at times, “it hasn’t even been a year” like a roll-over of the calendar would somehow temper my feelings, reset the pain, wipe everything clean by cosmic, solar virtue.
So here’s a year – fully, finally – and nothing feels any different.
I’d never been inside until now, but I felt I knew this place from stories and family legends. Rarely named directly, the Chapel House Inn was the cradle of my dad’s rambunctious zeal, the place he came to life with his companions, became the overflowing fount of energy and fearlessness that I’d known him for my entire life. My dad’s essence had merged with the building, with the bar, with local lore. Stepping through that door, into the tiny front room of the pub, into a past that was mine in name only, felt like ghost-wrapped nostalgia, a physical body possessing a lingering spirit, not the usual other way around.
We rendezvoused with Rhona, the widow of my dad’s best friend and fellow Chapel House haunter. She still lived in Knutsford and knew the history well; seemed to know more about my dad and his adventures as a thirty-something than even me or my sister or my mom. She’d lost her husband, Ken, three years prior, and I wondered why my dad never mentioned the loss of so dear a friend, even one separated by years and careers and continents. She even brought a pile of 3×6 pictures of the six of us – toddler versions of me and my sister with four grinning young adults – little reminders that when Rhona knew my dad, he was almost exactly the same age I am now.
A year, when mourning, is an arbitrary designation that’s supposed to make people feel better after a loss, a token that proves you made it, didn’t collapse, didn’t give in to all the suffering and stress. One year, in theory, marks the last “hard” milestone, claims that nothing from here out is new and if you made it this far, you can make it indefinitely.
I longed for some meaning that I hadn’t found in the rest of his memory, hoped that being there, where I’d never been but my dad had, would stir in me some epiphany, some extra understanding of who he was, and why, beyond the obvious, his loss took so much from me. I wanted his favorite pub to bring equal parts resurrection and closure. I wanted to walk in and see him there, smirking and joking, here, not gone, alive, not dead, my father, not a ghost.
And in some ways, I did. Time, when forced into years, seems linear, unbreakable, unrelentingly progressive. The way we approach life makes it seem like what has been taken away can never be given back, if only because so many years separate then from now. But if you take a moment to let your memories swirl and blend with the memories long-stored in a special place, let all the prosaic blandness of an empty bar whir to life with all you know, and remember, and love about a person, you can, if only briefly, meld the present with the past, be here and there simultaneously, see the one you love raise a glass from across the bar, and wink.
It’s been a year without, but only in a physical sense. This year has been filled with more of my dad than any year in recent history. His memory permeates my every day; his influence guides my every decision. We say “without” after a loss because that’s what makes rational sense. Emotionally, the first year after you lose someone, when you’re forced to face and digest the echo of their life, would be more aptly named a year “within.”
We didn’t stay long, just a few minutes to breathe in the family history and relatively unchanged charm. The soul-sore part of me wanted to relish that pint for hours, sit and try to commune with my father using the built-in Ouija board of musty chair cushions and sagging wood, but it didn’t feel right. My dad was a creature of habit, but never one to dwell. A pint of bitter, a pinch of time, and a punch of emotion was all he would have wanted. And all I could have needed.
Today marks one year that I’ve been without my dad, if I really believe he ever left me.
To live in hearts we leave behind, is not to die