This month I’ve been given the amazing opportunity to stay in Strömstad, on the west coast of Sweden, and write. This is thanks to the generosity of Air Litteratur, to whom I applied last September without much hope of acceptance – and here I am. I’ve left my paid work behind until March, and am aiming to survive on the bursary that comes with the residency.
It’s been a strange and beautiful time in many ways. My dad was half-Swedish; his father came from Åmål, about 50 miles inland from here. When I was a child, we spent several holidays in Grebbestad, about 50 km down the coast. Part of my reason for coming here was to do location research, because Grebbestad was the mental setting for the novel I recently completed. It’s been affirming to learn that my memories rang true, but also helpful to put more specifics in place, and to fill out the colours and nuances.
February is also the anniversary of my dad’s death (the 24th) from motor neurone disease, and his birthday (the 28th). It’s generally a horrible month. I don’t sleep well; I get sick; I stumble around as if my limbs were made of stone. My body remembers the horrific ten years that led up to his death, even after sixteen years.
So I was worried about being here for this month. Away from my partner and family. Alone with my grief. Alone with my writing – and the aforementioned novel was very much a tribute to my dad. Alone with certain themes I can’t seem to get away from, like the desperation of a child trying to connect with a distant parent, or vice versa.
And I am feeling it, especially as those dates loom nearer. But this month has also brought extraordinary gifts. For so long, my memories of my dad as a healthy, lively man – a man who taught me everything I know about compassion and consideration for those who have the least power in our society – have been subsumed by the last ten years of his life. The neural pathways laid down by that experience were so awful, they obliterated almost all my memories of him from the first twenty years of my life.
Here, in the country he loved so much, I am finding him again. In a walk around a lake, or on a mossy forest path, even amid the snow and ice, he is here, teasing me, taking me and my sisters swimming or jogging, sitting outside a log cabin with my mum and listening to stories of our day. On the soft, pine-cone-strewn paths, or over the granite slabs by the sea, my family amble happy, together, in a time before banal tragedy invaded.
I can’t have him back. But being able to recapture some of those memories is priceless.