What I learned in February

1 Mar 2016, 11:51 p.m.
February was a hard month. Content note: death.

Fox's mum, Viv, died at the start of February. It was unexpected and sudden. I had known her my entire life and still, even after her funeral, can't really understand that she's gone. I can't see her in my mind in any other way than in the brightly-coloured chaos of her home, with books and spices and cats strewn around, or on the pink sands of Treasure Island beach up in Scotland, or in a car, at the bottom of the mountain our fathers were foolishly climbing up, where she had hung paisley cotton scarves over all the windows to make a cave where we children could shelter from the heatstroke sun. Lavender and carob. My brain wouldn't keep the information in at all to begin with; monstrously, after I texted my family with the news and was wondering who else to tell, I caught myself thinking, has anyone let Viv know yet?

Fox wrote a eulogy for her that is beautiful, and sad, and true. There were a lot of people at her funeral wearing purple. It was a good sendoff, as good as they could have made it, and far, far too soon.

Kelsey's cat Tesla, in her American household, died too this month. In his case it was the end of a long path, throughout which, although things had seemed bleak before, he was always loving, very loved, and loudly happy when he got to do his favourite things, like going outside on someone's lap or cuddling on top of a heated blanket. I never actually met him but I feel like I knew him, from photos and stories as well as video chat, and I can say with authority that he was an exemplary cat.

There has been a lot of holding each other this month, a lot of crying and a lot of just sitting and being with one another, whether in person or via the internet.

The first thing I learned in February was that pretty much the worst time for someone you love to die, if you live in a foreign country, is two weeks before your passport expires. After working myself into a tangled Catch-22 through the official passport renewal processes, I finally called the British Embassy in Bern, where a very calm person explained what I needed to do to get an emergency travel document for the trip to Leeds and back. It was pretty expensive but the user experience was good: you can book an appointment online and they let me sit and read my book for an hour while my background check ran.

Not unrelated to the above, I learned how to take an acceptable passport photo. Wash your hair, wear concealer even if you don't usually wear makeup, and walk to the photo booth, if you can, to build a healthy glow. Make sure you're sitting at the right height so you don't have to hold your head weirdly to get it in the right position. Don't wear all black. Don't think about The Things You've Seen.

Here are my first and second attempts at taking a passport photo, showing the effects of this good advice.

Kelsey helped me buy clothes for Viv's funeral, since I didn't have anything smart to wear in either 'menswear' or 'womenswear'. We hit gold in Caritas, the first shop we tried, and found a suit jacket, shirt and trousers that fit me comfortably and looked good. Lesson for future shopping trips: it seems like tuxedo trousers are more likely to fit me well, since they're cut more generously around the hips and behind.

In the times this month when I needed something to do to take my mind off things, I found that painting and tidying are both good but the best activity is baking banana bread. Recipe to follow.

Lastly, I learned that my public speaking education up till now had had gaps in it. I'd always heard that one should make eye contact with the audience, at least now and then, and not just stare down at a sheet of paper. If you're reading at a funeral, disregard this advice. I made it through the piece I read for Viv with only one serious wobble — when I looked up and saw the faces of everyone listening.