Out & About · Thoughts

Living

Why do we do this – or employ someone to do it? Why do we wash their faces and dress them in familiar clothes? We do it for the sake of the living. Even if we have no religious belief, we still believe what has been human should be treated as human still; witness the indignation if a corpse is desecrated, and the agony of those who have no bodies to bury. It is almost the definition of being human: we are the animals who mourn. – Hilary Mantel, The Reith Lectures, ‘The Day Is for the Living’.

I don’t know how best to talk about this, except to just be honest and write down exactly how I feel. Grief is weird, man, and you never know beforehand what it’s going to be like.

A couple of weeks ago, I went to the Eden Project with one of my best friends. It was a brilliant day, but utterly exhausting, and my pictures are a bit blurry because my camera lens was smudged – but I feel like that reflects my current state of mind quite well.

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I came home, my feet killing me, absolutely ravenous and bursting for a wee, to find both my parents sitting at the dining room table with sombre expressions, and it’s very easy and not entirely plausible to say I knew straight away – but you get a feeling for these things, sometimes. Everything coming full circle. The world turning too quickly beneath your feet.

My grandad died two days later, on the 29th June, and his funeral was a few days ago, on the 13th July. It’s been a strange few weeks.

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St Augustine says, the dead are invisible, they are not absent. You needn’t believe in ghosts to see that’s true. We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. Are these good times, bad times, interesting times? – Mantel, ‘The Day Is for the Living’.

I’ve only listened to one of Hilary Mantel’s Reith Lectures so far. I’m going to save them up, like jewels, savour each one. In the first, I love how she talks so affectionately about the dead. What I have found most comforting, about the entire funeral process, is that the day before my aunt brought round pictures of my Grandad at all stages of his life, and we put them all over our living room, where we held the wake. We’ve not taken them down yet. I had no idea how handsome he was, how much he looked like my dad. I wish I knew more about his life, and I plan to find out, but I can tell you that he was a captain in the Royal Navy, that he fought in the Second World War, that he was private and stubborn and steadfast and he had a twinkle in his eye. In the past three years we’ve lost one of my dad’s sisters and both of his parents, and each of these deaths has made me increasingly convinced that we never, never truly know what we’ve got until it’s gone.

Perhaps it’s just me. Perhaps it’s real, or perhaps it’s all in my head. But I hold myself responsible, each time, for not squeezing as much as I could out of each person before they were gone.

Commemoration is an active process, and often a contentious one. When we memorialize the dead, we are sometimes desperate for the truth, and sometimes for a comforting illusion. We remember individually, out of grief and need. – Mantel, ‘The Day Is for the Living’.

Is 93 too soon? I thought he was going to be a hundred. I thought we wouldn’t have to do this again for years more. But we’ve done it. The line is drawn again, underneath. The past six months have been gruelling. I am bowled over by admiration for my wonderful Dad, who has bust a gut to keep my Grandad living at home, particularly while there have been so many other difficult things happening in all of our lives.

The past few weeks I’ve been low, sad and drowsy and slow. Most of the time I haven’t been able to cry, I haven’t been overwhelmed, instead the sadness sits like a lump of cold iron at the bottom of my stomach. It always feels a bit like a holiday – everyone takes time off work, and family come down from upcountry, and then there’s a day where we book caterers, and rearrange the furniture to fit everyone, and we all dress up in smart clothes and get to ride in fancy cars to a place we only ever go to for one reason. I think it’s time to feel better now, and I think I can. I’ve got things to look forward to. It’s the end of term soon, and then we’re going on holiday after all, and then it’s my birthday, and then I’ve got friends visiting from London, and then later in August there’ll be more family and friends down. I’m getting better, and I have a blog and a book to write, and I’m going to start driving lessons. I’m all set to wring out the rest of the summer.

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Hurrah! I surpassed my new fortnightly goal and posted again only a week later. I don’t think I’m going to manage that every week. Question is, do I do the next one a fortnight after the one where I said I’d do them every fortnight i.e. next Sunday, or a fortnight from this one, the Sunday after? We’ll see. And next time I should probably challenge myself to write a blog post that’s under 500 words. Need to kick myself out of essay mode.

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