On loss

The art of losing isn’t hard to master. Elizabeth Bishop.

We get enough practice every day. Every time our bodies fail us as we grow older, every rejection, personal or professional. Every time something you aspire to falls flat on its face. Every fall, every time you fall on your face or hip or wrist or shoulder and your bones, once flexible and lithe, lose their hydraulic power and begin to crumble.

I’ve been reading Hanif Kureishi’s Sub Stack entries of late. The Indian/British writer living in Britain. He fell during a holiday in Rome and hit his head or some such misfortune. Now he is paralysed from head to foot. His despatches from his hospital bed are sobering. He tells you what it’s like to lose your body overnight, to be left with a mind in fine fettle, apart from the depression that accompanies his inability to get up from his bed and walk. He still can’t believe he cannot do this, even as the body attached to his head refuses to do anything he asks of it. He cannot bear the alone. So he insists on rostering family and friends to be sure there are never long moments alone except at night. 

When he is alone he is overwrought and imagines he cannot go on. Kureishi writes that ‘children are always a cocktail of their parents’ desires’. I’d add an extra sentence here: children might consist of parental desires, but they also include resistance to the pressures put upon them to be all such desires. And they have minds and bodies of their own, however much a parent might reckon they’re in charge.

A week after enduring Covid, we are about to welcome visitor into our house, Anais who comes to attend a conference with me where she and I will talk about our work together over the past two years. All the way from Montreal, Canada she comes, and I sense a burden of responsibility greater than ever before. To make her trip worthwhile and meaningful. But more than that to reduce the clutter in this house such she will not be appalled when she arrives.

This is the hard task for the rest of this day and already my bones ache. A week after Covid which did not hit me hard but a congested nose still despite testing negative. 

The congestion in my nose matches that in my brain but it’s nothing so massive as Kureishi’s lot. The loss of his bodily function. He thought he was going to die as he lay there on the concrete, pooled in blood, and well he might but for the administrations of his wife Isabella, and the medicos who kept him going on limited bodily resources. 

Isabella is younger and she according to Kureishi is his shining hope. Her attention and love keep him going.

And what is life like for her with such a disabled partner? I cannot say. She does not speak except through Kureishi, who probably could not bear to contemplate any resentment from her having to nurse him. But he has a cohort of helpers, children, friends, admirers, so it’s not entirely up to her. 

He refers from time to time to his friend the writer, Salman Rushdie under the weight of a dreaded fatwah for his thoughts on Islam and more recently after someone shot this writer on stage. A man haunted by the prospect that there are others who want him gone because he has offended their religious beliefs and sensibilities. 

For all that Elizabeth Bishop reckons it’s easy to master loss, there are some losses that take a lifetime of grieving to overcome. And still they never go away. The water babies in Japan the missugo as Lidia Yuknavitch refers to them. Those still born who did not even make it into having to negotiate their parents’ desires, those little ones who reached full term but could not go further. 

Such losses to me are not easy to master because they are beyond us, outside of us. They do not happen to us, but they happen for us, with us, around us. Loss of hope and desire is the greatest loss of all. 

When I was young I wore my optimism like a cloak. I still do. Whenever something bad happens, and it happens often enough, I tell myself something good will happen soon.

I look out for the positive moments, the moments of joy that make it all worthwhile and refuse to be crushed by the disillusion of life’s disappointments but as I get older it gets harder.

I watch my grandchildren squabble over toys, over their desires to eat more of something they must limit or to be eternally with their parents who come and go like the weather and I see Elizabeth Bishop’s notion of mastering loss from the get go. But sometimes we need help to master our gains. To recognise our successes even as we stay alive. For Kureishi it’s writing which he dictates to his son.

Writing is his great joy and the knowledge there are others who care for him even in his infantilised state. But it’s hard when you spend your life growing into a state of semi-independence to find you can no longer walk, brush your teeth, defecate or eat without assistance. That’s a grim life beyond infancy. Impossible to master. 

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