Testing my memory, sense of direction and knowledge of Cardiff city centre, I decided to walk from my meeting at the university, near the Welsh Government building in Cathays Park, back to the station. It was a good decision. Importantly, I found my way without too many hiccups, although one detour, and managed to find time for a quick stop in Waterstones – a well-deserved reward for a good meeting and a good piece of work. I was presenting my report to a client I have been working with since the start of the summer. Great people. Great work. Great fun.
I didn’t have long so perused the “new releases” and “recommended” shelves. Something immediately caught my eye and quickly made its way into my bag – via the till and an exchange of money I hasten to add. I bought Kevin Toolis book ‘My Father’s Wake; how the Irish teach us to live, love and die’. As readers of this blog may have noticed, there is something about loss, grief, death, that fascinates me. It is the not the act of dying or some macabre or morbid interest in how people die and what happens to them but what happens to those left behind that preoccupies me. The feelings of loss and grief that can engulf us. I have not read a word of the new book proper yet but can see that it explores some of the rituals of loss and rememberance – uniquely observed in Ireland – including of waking the dead.
As I get older – and ultimately nearer to my own end – that is just the reality of life; along with taxes as Benjamin Franklin told us – I become more and more convinced that loss and grief are the most powerful human emotions – the most impactful experience we can have. Our sense of loss and grief is magnified by other human emotions we feel towards those we have lost; love being the most profound. I have written previously about the loss of my Mary – my Nan, for whom I was her world and she mine.
I have written frequently about Mary – although nowhere near as often as I think about her – perhaps in some subconscious way I write about her as a way to try to get closer to her, I’m not sure. But, all these years later, I remain deeply moved and affected by her passing and still walk around with a huge hole in my life. In the years since she died, I am so lucky to have my life filled with the love of my wonderful wife – my extraordinary Aileen – and my darling daughter – my amazing Aoife.
In Mary’s eulogy I said that the hole in our lives was gigantic now but that we had been so lucky that she filled it for so long. I thought of this today when I picked up my new book; I thought of it when I watched my friend and his family take their father to his rest recently; I thought it when I watched my father-in-law, his brothers and my brothers-in-law carry Aileen’s granny from the house to god’s house at her funeral. It is this sense of losing someone – saying goodbye to them in a formal, ritual, solemn way – someone that was so integral to the lives of those around them that is almost hard to contemplate. It is hard to imagine never seeing the again; never hearing their voice; never touching their hand. But that is the new reality of their death.
During my lecture yesterday at Liverpool John Moores University – we were talking about public information campaigns, many of the most successful by charities – I showed the class an advert made by the British Heart Foundation. It was called sudden devastation and shows a young dad who has died suddenly form heart disease – he appears before is son (called Ben!) who is in class at school to say he won’t be home tonight and asks him to look after his mum. The message – deeply powerfully delivered through the advert – is that heart disease can kill anyone, no matter how young and how healthy – it is cruel. As I put the lights back on after the ad played, I heard and saw the tell-tale signs that others in the room were also deeply moved.
The truth is that the devastation of loss – sudden or otherwise – never goes away, it just feels further away and easier to ignore or deal with as time passes. We were at my mum and dad’s recently when an old home movie of me looking and sounding daft was shown – I was temporarily out of the room – a mistake – and when I retuned there I was, aged thirteen, wearing a dressing gown; a gammy teenager. I had a near miss in that moment as Mary was about to come on the TV – a scene from later the same day. Discretion was the better part of valour and I was spared the potentially distressing experience of hearing her voice for the first time since she died – the first time since 7 February 2004. I have thought about it a lot since; should I have insisted on it staying on and seeing and hearing her; perhaps it would have made me smile; maybe cry; maybe it was the fear of feeling nothing at all that made me recoil. Who knows but it went off and the silence remains.
I don’t write about this today because I am sad or overwhelmed by my loss or grief but because I want to remember. Just like everyone else who has lost someone or some people important to them, I want to hold her in my heart forever.
I am looking forward to reading my new book and hopefully continuing my understanding of loss, grief and death. I am looking forward to continuing to think about my Mary, today and every day. I am looking forward to never letting go of her; I want to remember her every day; this memory reminds me of my loss, of the hole in my live, of our love for each other.