Re-mapping the world: grief and its aftermath

Marius Goring, the heavenly messenger, in Powell and Pressburger's A Matter of Life and Death

Marius Goring as the heavenly messenger in Powell and Pressburger’s A Matter of Life & Death

I want to think of it like this: that learning to live with death is the last gift our parents have for us.

When we were spring, they were already summer. Now their year is over we can see the full extent of life’s horizon before us for the first time. We have a chance to understand, to absorb the loss of those we loved before we knew there were words for what we felt, and in the same moment to see our own deaths rising to meet us like a road. It is not comfortable, often. Often we loved them ambiguously, with difficulty, I know, and it was aching work to set aside the ways they hurt us, to tease out the love that bubbled beneath.

And it is true that for many of us our parents’ deaths came too soon, when we were young and unprepared, some of us still children, some barely more than that, just over the threshold of adulthood, wondering what, if anything, maturity was, and whether it would suit us if we found it. Our lives turn on their axes when our mothers and fathers die; when it comes too soon, we can struggle to find north again. Some of us never do. We become homing birds with no direction home.

When we close our parents’ eyes after death, many things end. We lose an emotional resource, a bottomless well of contentment and discontent. We lose a presence. A doorway to the past, to our childhoods and our younger selves. We lose maps to realities whose mere existence we relied on all our lives. But we also lose a fact, perhaps the first, most vital fact we ever learned, the first and most fixed of points on our compass.

How we define that fact will vary for each one of us. But loved or unloved as we may have been, that fact doesn’t stop being true; it is nonetheless transposed when it becomes so abruptly historic and joins the present of things past. We hear unfamiliar parts in our melody.

It remains inside us, our fact, like the lodestones songbirds use for their migrations; it pulls us towards a destination we will never find again. But is externalised too, abstracted. It becomes a thing we can slowly disinter from our grief, hold up to the light, that we can anatomise and chart, burnish and tend as we choose — and that we can never dispose of, try as we might. It becomes an artefact; totemic, yes, however much we may learn about its provenance, the pre-history of our parents’ lives.

While they live, we learn to see our parents more clearly because we age ourselves. As we go through the same sad and lovely transformations they endured before us – often that they conspired to hide from us, as those who love us do – we begin to comprehend them as people as well as parents: lucky and unlucky, cocky and afraid, uncertain captains of their crafts, learning the cruelty and wonder of the sea as they go. Our parents establish a climate for us we will never outrun.

Later, after death, we slowly see that climate more surely for what it is. We can identify its streams and currents and storms, and through them learn more about our own systems, where our pressures and depressions are and what they lead to.

At death, our parents become ageless. We continue to age, to catch them, outstrip them even. If we are lucky, and they have grown old before us, our road is more known for having seen them light the way. We know a little of what is like for mind and body to decay, what enemies we have to expect by nightfall, with what ferocity they attack, and where and how. A little knowledge is a sobering thing. But that little knowledge is also a comfort because it comes wrapped inside the ordinary courage of the loved, who hid their horrors from us as best they could, and lived, as best they could, until life had enough of them, or them of life.

I suspect most of the little wisdoms I may ever have are in this last gift. I have only just begun to grub away the hurt and find them.

The Kiso Road (for William Scott Wilson)

I
Kiso: clear as a bell among the mountains.
Write me, the river says,
Witness the road beside me.

II
The clouds are still tonight.
The sky is smoke-blackened
But the fires here are cold.
The children grow and leave
And do not come back
Time claims the haiku
The rain on the water

The temple floor is charmed though:
Each step across it
Stirs another nightingale to song

At dawn, an old dog fox breaks
The hermetic line of the field
Holding in his mouth
A stone of nothingness
To lay at the shrine

He sniffs the violet air
As if to confirm a thought.
Go and come back, the fox says,
Watching where you slide the day open.

III.
Write me, the forest says,
Cypress, pine and cedar,
As if the road were blocks of ink
The mist a white brush wet with the river
And the air were paper
Partitioning you from the dead

The road asks for nothing
Remembering the curve of your life
As trees remember the shape of the rocks and stones.
The fields are damp with story.
Metaphor drips from autumn’s leaves.

Go and come back, the poets say.
Bridges burn by torchlight;
The barriers are where we meet
Shuffled together on our different travels
Lives and languages weaving together
Like the long dry grass of a sparrow’s nest
Or a ball of cedar hanging in the street at night

IV
Rest your feet, traveller,
Watch the swallow’s flight through the mountains

Go and come back, your book says:
What was first a gateway has become
A meeting place among us.

 

Note: I don’t usually post my poems here, but given this one’s provenance, I thought it more fitting than most.

One of the best things about being a writer is how generous and supportive other writers can be – both those you come to know personally and those who you have never met.

Just before Christmas, the author and translator William Scott Wilson got in touch with me on social media with some very kind words of praise for my book, Impossible Journeys. He also sent me, by way of a thank you, his own recent book, Walking the Kiso Road, an account of his travels on the ancient Japanese thoroughfare.

Walking the Kiso Road – and William’s generosity – was the inspiration for this poem. I recommend the book highly. It’s a beautiful, subtle, meditative journey through Japanese landscape, culture, history and myth and William makes the best of literary companions: erudite, passionate, self-effacing and insightful. I was going to review it, but this wanted to be written instead.

Books are many things, but they are also where many of us meet to share a little of ourselves, sometimes unexpectedly. They surprise things from us, including friendship.