I recently went to the celebration of a friend’s life, who passed away not long ago at the tender age of 38 from cancer, leaving behind a two year old daughter and a twelve year old son.
It was, as you might expect, a heart-rending memorial, but she had been keen for people to enjoy it as a joyful reliving of the many marvels her life had brought. About a hundred of us gathered on a field above the river near her home and sang some of the songs that she as choir mistress had taught us, shared a few memories, and read some poems (one of which was the poem posted here). And, surprising as it might sound, it was joyful, not just in remembering all our funny adventures with this colourful being who we could not stop loving now, but also in recalling that life is insensitive to our clinging: it keeps moving on without looking back in anguish, only racing towards its meeting with the ocean.
Two things occurred to me on that field: one, that death is so utterly real that it renders everything else frivolous and temporary in comparison. It was the first time I had ‘lost’ someone close to me; all the funerals I had ever attended had been of nonagenarians who lay in their coffins with an expression of deliverance on their static faces, while family members happily ate strawberry and cream on scones in the sunshine. These were people who had watched the door every day for decades in anticipation of the Angel of Death. For those saying goodbye to them, bereavement doesn’t sound like the right word: bereliefment might be a better term for it.
The other thought was this: “When the sky weeps, the earth rejoices. Don’t be sore that your sheets get wet.”*
It’s not much solace to those of her family mourning her, for whom their sheets are not just wet through but fairly ripped to shreds. But seeing her twin sister since then, and other relatives and friends who held her in a cocoon of reassurance and round-the-clock care for the last months of her life, the refrain that keeps returning is of the exquisiteness of the atmosphere surrounding her, utterly peaceful and loving in every way. Some likened it to the atmosphere around a birth; others said it reminded them of a saint’s tomb.
So many golden filaments of love being sent from hearts dilated in waiting and hoping that it wove a light, permeable, glowing cloud around her bedside, impossible to reproach or hate, unless you only saw the facts from the frosty distance of a medical report. Everyone who passed through those doors felt this coalescence of sadness and wonder, the way a parent watching their first child leave home gazes after the receding train through eyes blurry with borrowed anxiety, and a heart blown open by the realisation that they were not their property in the first place. This is the path they take alone, threatened by trials and yet free.
I wonder how we can find it so easy to forget – or ignore – that everything we think we possess, including our bodies, families, health, homes, wealth, kudos, career – will eventually be no more than a few words in a historical document, at the most. (And if that’s all digitised, how permanent would it be?) Yet those very things occupy so much of our mental space that we allow them to outscream the wisdom of our better nature, which is to hold them lightly in the palm of the hand, instead of clinging to them like a drowning sailor to a rope.
But death always seems to put a sour note into things. It never happens the way we want it to; it’s never fair. Rowan Williams observes in a recent book review of old German and Arab fairy tales that these archetypal stories offer an antidote to the cotton-candy world of Disney’s logical conclusions and pop psychology morals. They portray (more accurately, I think) the way in which our chaotic world can bring ‘bad’ things to innocent people, and yet assistance also comes from unexpected, wondrous sources. The protagonists reach a point at which they can only really throw themselves on the mercy of the Divine and accept whatever may come. The interesting part of it is trying to work out what it all means, the state of questioning itself.
Rewind to the very beginning of life and you’re faced with the other end of that spectrum, that spiked threshold of life on which the most astonishing pain gives way to the most astonishing bliss. Once the sharpness of a contraction ends, there is an endorphin rush to balance out the suffering. But – and here’s the stinger – if you’ve anaesthetised the pain of the contractions, the hormones that bring on the bliss afterwards are inhibited. Hence decades of screen births involving buckets of blood, screams of agony and women pinned down to hospital beds like they were having a Gremlin surgically removed from their bowels. Virtually every woman who’s had a non-intervention birth would tell you that it could not be more different (though her mother-in-law might still have a few scare stories up her sleeve).
Perhaps it seems strange to begin the year with this post, especially as Cavebabe the Third is due in barely two months. But I get a strange sort of satisfaction in the reminder that everything is passing. It makes it much less stressful knowing that it’s not ultimately in my hands, and that the only wealth to delight over is the appreciation of what is here now. How many people regret not telling someone they love them once it becomes too late for them to hear? How would your life be if you loved people as though they might be gone from your life tomorrow?
In conclusion, life is peppered with insults to our idea of what it should be like, and isn’t it all the more wondrous for that. May this year be filled with good stuff for you, and if that’s not the way the dice roll, then at least you can be safe in the knowledge that it’s made you wiser. Or, with all that good material, a writer.
(* To be included in a forthcoming collection called the Aphorisms of Cavemum, available very exclusively hand-written in saffron dye on antique gazelle skin from a bloke called Abu on a street corner in Marrakesh.)