Hunt the Slipper
Each time we try and start to walk on time we are disadvantaged to find our shoes have been liberated by Dinah so we have to hunt the slipper all over the garden. Dinah thinks this a great game! She has also perfected the skill of tripping me up, which she does simply by winding the long lead round my legs so I am swaying unsteadily and immobile while she stares challengingly at me with her vast red tongue hanging out,
The highlight of today was Ruskin’s view outside Kirkby Lonsdale which has to be one of the most attractive small towns in Merrie England,
Two lovely walkers come with us and one drove all the way from Newcastle to do so
Gone with the Wind
Jane and I are now at an age when we could host rooms full of friends and relatives whom we have loved deeply and who are now dead. This culling appears to be a slow but inexorable process. The cast list of our lives remains static for a long time then suddenly the grim reaper plays catch-up and cuts down half a dozen with a single swish of his scythe. And these individuals have not “passed away” or been “gathered” – they are bloody well dead. Dickens was not being morbid when he described Scrooge’s late business partner, Marley, as “dead as a doornail”.
Yet, I find the absence of these loved ones an outrage. I can see their faces sometimes and we speak in my dreams. At unexpected moments, a voice catches me unawares, or a place, a smell, a picture or a snatch of music triggers a vivid memory. I can feel a presence so powerfully, it’s as if that person was with me still. But of course, I’m dreaming – they have gone with the wind.
Dying and Done For…
When people die, what happens to all their work and activity? Where does it go? I have a small photograph of my mother set in a silver frame. She must have been about 11 or so when it was taken; she is playing with a straw and giving a half smile. She was a deeply emotional woman and perhaps the fact she grew up without a father made it hard for her to express her feelings. In her youth, she was beautiful, talented and carefree until the experiences of wartime, betrayal and a broken marriage conspired to batter some of the innocence and joy from her.
After my father died relatively young – few fully recovered after being gassed during the First World War – there was little money to go around. In order to pay for schooling and the rest of the bills, Mum morphed into a highly successful scriptwriter and crossword compiler. For 25 years, she wrote the music and scripts for the Edinburgh, Glasgow and Newcastle pantomimes. Today her scripts lie forgotten, filed away in slim, neat envelopes buried in a grey trunk. Yet in her day, Mum’s clever scripts filled theatres and she made thousands of people laugh. She achieved all this as well as bringing up three children. This was before she coughed her lungs and life away in a slow and hideous death by courtesy of British American Tobacco (the outfit which, now I think of it, comprehensively did for my father too.)
Just before she died, when I was very busy being an MP, I managed to find a little time to fly to Edinburgh to see her. It was a shocking trip. My once magnificent and very able mother lay in a room surrounded by the ghastly apparatus of cancer: ranks of pills, bottles and potions. She had shrunk from nine to about four stone, and lay inert like a large bird as the illness pitilessly scraped the flesh away from her body. She was half drunk on morphine and her frightened, grey eyes stared large from her ravaged, parchment face. My mother was mentally acute and she knew exactly what was happening. She would gather herself for an immense effort, muttering softly between harsh breaths; then a fit of coughing would silence her and she would slump exhausted between the pillows. I heard a few whispers. In my despair at her plight, I wanted to give her a morphine overdose but I didn’t know how. If I could, though, I think I would have helped to end her suffering, for she was dying and to hell with the consequences. Then I wept, for it was far too late for me to restore our relationship to what it might have been. I could do nothing for Mum, for dying is a lonely business. As I watched her lying there, all the laughter, struggles and the achievements of her life seemed to slip away.
Now of course my mother is dead, but where have the laughter and love gone? Do the lines from Betjeman’s poem “Song of Nightclub Proprietess” sum it up?
But I’m dying now and done for,
What on earth was all the fun for?
For I’m old and ill and terrified and tight.
Does my mother’s striving and achievements make any difference to anything at all? Of course it’s now family history and of no interest to anyone except me, but I want to know. No wonder people drink and take drugs in order to hide the pain, despair and the utter randomness of it all. And then at Mum’s funeral, the bloody vicar got her name wrong.
Some years ago, I went to Las Vegas and I saw an astonishing act where someone managed to make an elephant disappear on the stage. I am not a complete fool and of course I understand that the elephant disappears once a night on weekdays and twice on Saturdays, and that we are happy participants in a neat illusion. But the vanishing act of my parents, my relatives and so many of my friends troubles me. Are they such stuff as dreams are made of and is our little life really rounded in a sleep?
What happens in the great unknown to people with no faith? My mother was not a “believer” as tidy-minded Christians would have it, and I suppose some of them will think at worst she has gone to hell, or at best tell me, “God in His wisdom knows best.” But I don’t think Mum ever met anyone who knew the first thing about the Gospel so she ended up as a sort of wishy-washy, hand-me-down Anglican. So, where is she now? It’s as if God has pulled off a monstrous vanishing trick and I worry about it more than words can express. Dylan Thomas wrote, “Rage, rage against the dying of the light” – if anything, he understates my anguish for my mother by a country mile.
I told Jane about my sense of outrage. Being the Scottish farmer’s daughter with Presbyterian instincts that she is, she finds my anguish ludicrous. She never wastes time fretting about such “nonsense” and acknowledges that since so much is wrapped in a mystery, we are best to shut up and just get on with it.
“What’s the point in agonising about this sort of thing?” Jane asks. “The grandchildren have to be picked up from school and there are bills to be paid. We all do the best we can Dear, so stop wittering on in such a self-indulgent way.”
Okay, okay… to some extent, of course Jane is right. Life is as it is, and death completes the circle. All this I know… but still, I find the absence of the people I love an outrage. Perhaps the final paragraph of George Eliot’s Middlemarch sums it up well enough:
“But the effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as the might have been, is half owing to the numbers who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
That will have to do for the time being… have another drink?
Hi Jane and Tom
We are full of admiration for you doing another walk-all the best and may the weather be kind to you!
I felt very moved reading the blog about your talented Mother,Tom-it was refreshingly honest and I think as life gets greyer we cannot be so black and white about what happens when unbelievers die-I think God is so much bigger than our evangelical black and whiteness-we are asked to live life to the full which is what you 2 are certainly doing!
Much love Liz and Mike Moynagh
Interesting thoughts about people dying. Yes, as we get to the top if the pile it gets rather draughty, and what I miss most is the wisdom of those in the generation above me. Who do I look to for that wisdom for I feel I will never have as much as they had. Thinking of you both – love Judith
I remember a group of older women in Zimbabwe discussing death and confessing their own regrets – amazingly most of them said it was the time they’d not used wisely…. Go well Tom and Jane, you are making good use of time.
I remember sitting besides Mother’s bed a little while before she died. She had fallen into an uneasy sleep, wheezing and rattling as she fought for breath. I wanted to pick up a pillow and smother her to put an end to this, but I was afraid she might wake up and struggle, and I could not bear the thought of that. So I lacked the courage and she lived on for another 2 or 3 tormented weeks. I still wish I had been braver . Dear Tom, I understand entirely your thoughts on death and losing friends. We are both emotional creatures, you and I.
Mum’s funeral was awful, I also remember the door of that nasty concrete crematorium blowing open in the November gale, and a flood of rain and a swathe of dead leaves came swooshing in, leaving an island of debris on the floor. I avoided looking at you in case I burst into a fit of horrible, uncontrollable giggles.
I wonder if there is a hereafter, where we may meet up with lost friends? I haven’t enough faith to really believe in that, I wallow in doubt., but hope there isn’t just a dead end, and that’s it.
Although my soul may set in darkness,,
It will rise in perfect light,
For I have loved the stars too fondly
To be fearful of the night. (Sarah Williams)
Good luck and health on your new marathon walk, I enjoy reading your blog.
I found they above about Bimmy very moving. I do hope you’re well. We’re moving to Stroud nr Gloucester, so life is pretty full on at the moment.
Give love to Rachel.
My mother used to say that you cannot take anything with you when you die but you can leave care, love, charity and other good qualities which remain and get passed on. So Tom and your stalwart companions, including one of the furry kind, are adding to compassion, care and kindness on this planet. Lots of support for the rest of your journey.
thanks for all the kind comments.
please read on for it will not all be about death!