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. 

Eulogy for my mother, 13 August 2014

On the fourth anniversary of her death, here’s the eulogy I wrote for my mother.

Our mother never made it to one hundred, as she so often told us she had wanted.  She could go on living as long as her body held out and, mostly, she was comfortable and without pain, but these last three weeks have seen her stop eating, stop drinking, and eventually lose all will to live.  Even then she held on as long as her body could.

Our mother was a woman of her time.  Her choices were limited.  As it is with all of us, Mum was a complex person, with many different sides.  The way she presented to the outside world, her warmth and kindness, her generosity and thoughtfulness towards others, made her loved by all those who came in contact with her, her friends in the parish, staff and residents at Park Glen, her bible study group, and many more besides.

Our mother took pleasure in her appearance almost to the point of vanity. She loved to read and to play the piano. Her passion for the intellectual, her pride in her children, grandchildren and great children – her progeny – as her way of leaving her mark on the world, contrasted with her need to disappear into a well of optimism that sometimes excluded those most dependent upon her.

Our mother had always loved to read, she told me.  From the time she was a little girl, as young as eight years old, she raced for the front door as soon as the newspaper arrived at four o’clock in the afternoon, to beat everyone else to it.  By then her mother was busy preparing for the evening, her father was still away at work, so our mother could have the whole newspaper to herself, being the oldest and being the only one in the world who loved reading as much as she.

There were a number of things my mother told me, repeatedly every recent week when I visited her.  She talked about her room, how lucky she was to have such a room.  She told me how pleased she was to be able to have all her things around her, all her memories of life rolled up in one, the good things about her life, especially her childhood. Her wonderful childhood. She did not dwell on the awful aspects of the past, she told me, and nor should I. After all, she told me, there’s nothing she could do about it.  It had happened, and some of it was awful, but it was over now, and her life was good.

Still she wondered out loud from time to time how much longer she could go on doing nothing.  At 94, she argued, what else could she do but sit and read?  At least, she had her reading.  She told me, again, how pleased she was to be able to sit in her chair and look out of her window at the small garden outside her room at Park Glen, and watch the trees change shape and colour with the seasons.

Our mother hated to disappoint people.  She wanted others to be happy to a fault.  In her later years, she tried to reconcile what had happened throughout our childhood.  Held hostage to a marriage that was abusive, within a dysfunctional household, she did not have many options.  Catholic women did not leave their husbands in those days, nor was contraception an option, and my mother had no money.

Here, I want to share my mother’s words in a letter she wrote to all her children, ten years ago.  They perhaps best describe her struggles.  She writes:

‘Ten years ago, I wrote the story of my life, but now I know that I owe you more of an explanation of my feelings during the dark days of all our lives.  I blame myself, not so much for when you were babies because I know that I looked after you all very well.

‘But as time went on, and your father’s drinking pattern worsened, I couldn’t cope with the horror, and started to read all day, everything I could lay my hands on, to stop myself thinking about the reality of the situation.  And I didn’t see that I did not listen and see your needs also.  Now I am old, I see this clearly and am so very sorry, because I know that all of you have suffered then and are in different ways affected by your father’s behaviour, and my reactionto this.

‘During that time, I started to work, first cleaning in Genezzano, which was physical hard on me, and after that, I got a good job in Allambie as children’s officer; only the hours were very long.  From nine in the morning till five, but twice a week till eight at night.  I was exhausted during those days, could never have done it without Gemma’s help. It allowed me to pay some school fees at the different colleges, because I wanted for all of you to have a good education.

‘A few years later I found Al anon, and with the help of many people, I managed to change my life; but this was after many years when most of you have left home.

‘I want to thank all of you, because each of you often helped me by working after school and giving me all your money.  Dad gave me no housekeeping money and paid the grocery and green grocer once a month.  When I did the washing, I often found a five or ten-dollar note in his shirt pockets, and that was often all I had.’

My mother ended her letter with these words:

‘When we have scars, after an operation it takes a long time to heal, and they never go completely away.  And so, it is with all of you; there still are scars, and I am responsible, but I can’t change things now, except to ask you to forgive me; because that will give peace and maybe we should try to come together and talk about the past; I realise that will be difficult, but not impossible…’

My mother was a woman of her times, and so you see these aspects that impacted on her made it hard for her to cope, but she did her best. Likewise, we can all try to find the peace that my mother sought in her later years.

When I was young I thought my father ruled the house, but there came a time when my parents were around the age I am now, not long before my father died, when the tables turned.  My mother took up voluntary work with the church, visiting impoverished families in the high-rise estates in Fitzroy.  My father by now had retired.  He did not like her going out while he was stuck at home alone.  He did not want her to learn to drive, for fear she would never stay home.  Instead he drove her in and out of the city from Cheltenham every day, in order that she should be near.

The tables turned and my father, once the strong one, became the helpless, dependent one, right up until his death.  And my mother grew stronger once he was gone.

My mother to me is as timeless as the sun and she lives on in me, as traces of her exist in my children and further traces will exist in their children into the future.  And so, it is for all of us here, memories of my mother remain.