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.