A friend dies

We have not met in over twenty years and yet news of my friend’s death has slowed me down and cast me back to the times I felt the thrill of connection to this wise and witty man. 

For years I thought we might rekindle our friendship, but it was all too hard for complicated reasons, the stuff of life and relationships and all the things that happen to people along the way.

Now he is gone, and I did not even say goodbye. 

I find myself thinking of the Bardo in George Saunders’ book, Lincoln in the Bardo, that strange in-between place where the spirits of our dead hover before they move onto whatever afterlife exists in the great beyond. 

In this place we should not ‘tarry’ too long for fear of ghostly tendrils that spring from below or behind and tie us to the ground, as ever withering, ever disappearing ghosts of our former selves caught in unimaginable boredom and longing. 

Ghosts who are neither able to move forward into death or back into life, like the characters in Saunders’s book hope to do because they have left something behind unresolved. 

Isn’t this most of us?

On a grey day in an Edinburgh graveyard circa 2015

If I was to die today I would sense so much unresolved as I floated skimming through Lincoln’s Bardo. 

In my childhood, death belonged to dignitaries or people overseas whose absences came to my parents’ attention in the form of aerogrammes bordered in black all the way around the envelope. 

Such a letter in the red brick box that stood out front in our garden had the quality of a soldier or policeman at the door bringing news that someone beloved had gone. 

Often my mother did not grieve visibly when such letters arrived, not for the person – a distant cousin, an ancient aunt – but she longed to be there with the rest of her family at the funeral of this person. She longed to share in the ritual of death with her family back home. It placed her in a type of living Bardo. 

All weekend I have felt a thin sliver of anxiety coursing through my veins. It sits like a weight in my gut as though something terrible has just happened or is about to happen and I find myself rifling through my mind, looking for its source.

I combine the two: George Saunders’s whimsical, and at the same time, devastating view of living death in the Bardo where Abraham Lincoln’s son Willie, who died at the age of eleven in 1862, hovers in his wish to return to earth to comfort his father with polyvagal theory, the notion that our bodies are as implicated in our experience as our minds. 

I was never one for bodies, preferring to cut mine out of the equation as though my mind carried the essence of me. My body was merely a sliver of my being, a shell. The characters in Saunders’s Bardo refer to their bodies as ‘shells’ and their coffins as ‘sick boxes’. 

Why these words tug tears from behind my eyes I cannot say. I find myself caught up in the emotional resonances of this huge cast of characters in Lincoln’s bardo.

It speaks to David Foster Wallace’s words: ‘I don’t know what it’s like inside you and you don’t know what it’s like inside me. A good book allows me to leap over that wall.’

My friend died of acute leukemia, a cancer of the blood. He was more than a decade older than me, no longer a young man. He had led a full and rich life, but I cannot switch my mind off from thoughts of what can happen to a person who was once here and alive in my imagination to this person now gone. 

My mind is a mish mash of thoughts that refuse to settle, as if I too am floating through the bardo. That space between life and death, which is indeed deathly because these people in their sick boxes are indeed dead, only they refuse to believe it. They are convinced they will be able to return to fix up or complete whatever was broken or left unfinished in the past. But the decades pass, and they remain stuck, becoming more wraith like and decomposed than ever before. The tendrils of death tying them down.

My thoughts are like this, they flare bright then fade to nothing. 

I suppose there is nothing more activating of the limbic system than death. Nothing more terrifying, our deaths or the deaths of others close to us. 

Have I flipped my lid? to use the language of the emotional trauma theorists who talk of the hand diagram of the brain, an image whereby the fingers on a hand, held up but curved represent our cortex, (the lid) that part of our brain which brings logic, reasoning and thinking into our lives. 

The open palm represents the limbic system, where most of our emotions reside and intersect with the area at the base, the wrist, where our brain stem sits along with the amygdala, the centre of all our physiological responses to trauma and stress and everything else. 

In calm states the fingers are lightly curved but when we are triggered the hand opens out. Hence the expression: They flipped their lid. It’s quant and simplistic but it helps people to realise, when they’re overwhelmed they might need to find ways of calming themselves, to soothe themselves out of this triggered state into one in which they can think again about their experience. Whereby they can put their experience into words and not shut down into a dissociated state. Such as we all tend to slip when things feel too much, and we are triggered into states of fright, flight or freeze.

These ideas are not new. People have been talking polyvagal theory for years especially those who practice as somatic therapists, but for someone like me who has long worshipped at the altar of the mind, they are a thrilling development, however much, like all ideas, they’re limited and must be approached with care.

It still does not answer my own question: have I flipped my lid?

Nothing so drastic I imagine, rather my lid is hovering between a state of calm and a hyperalert state of anticipation. As if I’m readying myself for what might happen next. As if I cannot calm down and need to move beyond my writing into some type of physicality to deal with the energy trapped inside.

I wish I was asleep just now and could soon wake again refreshed and ready for the day. But it is not to be. 

Tell me a story to ease the pain

Certainty riles me, even as I can sometimes slip into its treacherous grip, the one that says, ‘I know for sure’. Yet the only way to hold onto memory is to trace back through the years and clutch at the certainty this happened, when for all the world it might not. 

A life without memory is not a life worth living, despite the British philosopher Galen Strawson’s belief there are those of us who do not enjoy narrative lives, but whose lives are episodic. For them memories can slip away as though they’re visitors who have overstayed their welcome. 

Strawson ‘has absolutely no sense of [his] life as a narrative with form or indeed as a narrative without form’ and he holds no ‘great or special interest in the past.’ While for me, the past carries the heart of meaning, and helps to shape our future even while impacting on our present.  

Sister Dominic took her class of six students to the University of Melbourne for a Latin seminar. An opportunity for Latin students throughout Melbourne during the late 1960s to get a sense of the way the Latin language could be adapted to contemporary states. 

Hey tu, Georgica…’ we sang alongside the musician at the front, a Latin scholar with a mellifluous voice who led the Latin translation of the Seekers’ classic, Georgie Girl.

Singing in Latin took me places I had not been before. The way it blended with the clackety desks in the central lecture theatre at the university’s Old Arts Building. Who would have thought there could be so many people studying what most others at my school considered a dead language?

In the frontispiece of my copy of The Aeneid – a hand-me-down from several of my brothers – someone penned the words,

‘Latin is a language as dead as dead can be. It killed the ancient Romans and now it’s killing me’. 

Latin was a mystery to me. Try as I might, I could not get my mind around the language’s six cases: the nominative, genitive, dative, accusative, ablative and vocative. References to the way Latin uses its verbs. Its way to speak. 

An oratorial style and deeply patriarchal I observed but in those days I felt no distress at the way in which the language was full to the brim of warring men on the battlefield.

Elsewhere tall men in white togas stood among the colonnaded buildings of their leaders, while women languished at home tending the fires and cooking food as though they were ornaments on the shelves.

We never talked about this as we sang the words of Judith Durham’s Georgie Girl and chanted lines from Catullus, Oh mea Lesbia. A mystery woman who lived on the Island of Lesbos and about whom we could not think too long for underneath every word there were hints of the salacious.

The other day as my chiropractor man-handled my body from side to side with all the confidence and certainty of a mechanic wrestling a bolt from a car’s engine.

’There must be people who come here,’ I said, ‘who’d find this experience confronting.’ He’d already apologised for giving me an oversized gown which fell off my shoulders.  

‘We need to get our washing off to the cleaners,’ he said, by way of apology.

The chiropractor tilted my body from side to side and then tipped me forwards as he inched up my spine with a probe to measure movement. ‘In and out,’ he prompted me to move my torso forwards and back as he checked off each vertebra until he located the point of pain. Most often L5, the fifth. Close to the base of my spine. Though on this day he also detected discomfort higher up. He made a joke about people in our professions, his and mine, who work to do ourselves out of work if indeed we give people what they need. In his case a better spine. In my case a clearer mind. 

Mind and body.

When my spine was straight.

I had hesitated to see this man, but my regular chiropractor was unavailable, and my back was causing me to walk at an angle as if overnight I had developed the walk of a woman in her nineties. A woman who had lost all cartilage from her hips and could no longer keep herself upright. 

‘The people you’re talking about,’ the chiropractor said, ‘don’t come through my door.’ For several minutes he pressed down hard on the point of greatest pain on my lower back and held what I imagined was his finger. 

The pressure at first relieved the pain but as he persisted and time passed onto thirty seconds, a minute, more, the pain intensified. As if to distract me, the chiropractor told me the story of his father. 

It came out of nowhere as my mind focussed on his words against the pain radiating from the point where he pressed. 

‘I read recently,’ my chiropractor said as he stood to one side of my body for ballast against the pressure he needed to press on. ‘By the time we reach twenty-five, most of us have learned to use logic and reasoning to help us with decision making. Whereas until the age of 25 most people make all their decisions based on feelings.’ He pressed into my pain 

‘Unless there’s been significant trauma,’ he said finger in place. ‘My father, for instance.’ He went on speaking as the pain seared into my brain and I resisted the impulse to respond, holding my breath as he used all his strength to push on that sore spot.

‘My father is such a person. He bases everything on his emotions. He broke his ankle and was in a private hospital recovering. From one day to the next he changed his mind. Then one day in rehab he’d say how much he’d miss this place when he left. The next day he’d tell you much he hated it. The staff were all butchers. Same with selling up and moving into care. The other day he said to me, “Let’s get down to selling this place.” The next day he’d changed his mind.’

‘What was his trauma?’ I asked trying hard resisting the urge to sigh as the pain peaked.

My chiropractor then described his father’s experience as a child born with deformed feet who spent many episodes undergoing surgery. His parents sent him to a private boys-only school, and whenever he returned from a bout of surgery the other boys would jump on his feet.

At this moment I let out a cry of anguish at his father’s horror, and the chiropractor released the pressure on my back. 

Later as he explained why my hip was slightly twisted. We examined my Xray on the screen. To me it looked like a storybook Xray of a human spine, only my name was attached.

When he pointed out the discrepancy I recognised the minuscule difference on the left and right sides, which means I lean more heavily on the left and put pressure on that hip.

‘Your cartilage is wearing away,’ he said. ‘But you never know. You might need a hip replacement by the time you’re 94, but by then you might be dead.’ 

I had told him earlier about my mother’s three total hip replacements from the time she was 59. Three decades apart. She had endured eleven pregnancies. These must have caused extra strain. 

She died at 94. What a lucky number to fall upon. How did the chiropractor know, by the time she reached 94, my mother was dead? 

When he left the room at the end of the consultation, he apologised for loading me up with the story of his father.

I did not mind. Such stories, as much as they hurt to hear are also essential to my survival. They connect me to my pain and that of other people who inhabit my worlds.

The faint whiff of my chiropractor’s aftershave stayed with me as I drove home mulling over the state of my back and his father’s feet. The cruelty of children who attack the deformities of another.

And all the time behind these stories, the chiropractor, my Latin teacher trying to keep a language no longer in regular use alive, like my old bones, the words of the past lose their intensity, fade, and die.