Monday, 6 December 2010
Partings and connections
Crumbs. The Righteous Brothers. Bet that takes you back! John Wimber used to play keyboard with them, back in the early 60s!
That song, along with this one, has a strange effect on me – sets up an almost unbearable yearning and lostness. And then I want to hear it again. And again. Like you go back to woggling a loose milk tooth again… and again… as a child – fascinated by how much it hurts.
Connections, separations, how strange they are.
Decades ago, we were travelling back from Yorkshire to Sussex in our family car, having stayed there with my parents. My mother was driving back to Hertfordshire, so we came down the A1 together, eventually reaching a roundabout where she would peel off east and we would continue the journey south. I remember the moment when we reached the roundabout, and I looked for her, and she waved from her jaunty bright yellow Renault 5 – and then she was gone. I remember the feeling, of total loss, like a death within a life. Partings always affect me like that. Standing at the railway station waving goodbye as the train pulls out sends me crazy with loss. Unbearable.
But final partings – death, divorce – send me into different territory entirely. Feelings reach a certain level and then (in me) they flat-line. There comes a point where my soul reaches beyond the register feelings are designed to cover. Feelings are a kind of luxury item, for relatively simple, relatively trivial things. Some experiences in life surpass feeling.
On those occasions when, like rotten fabric giving way, I have felt my life tearing in two from top to bottom, I have experienced very little in the way of feeling. Feelings are more for The Righteous Brothers and Ben E.King, not for the moment when everything topples and you think, ‘This is it,’ just before it all goes down.
I had a dream – maybe twenty years ago – that we lived in a ramshackle happy little house by the edge of the sea. Its light frame made of graying wood exposed by the white paint peeling back in the salt and wind and sun held the glass panes of many windows. It was a house of light, a summer house, built on the sand of a beach where wiry grasses grew among the dunes. In the next bit of the dream – I worked as a hospice chaplain in those days – I saw myself urgently begging the hospice receptionist to supply me with some kind of lethal medicine so that I could bring my children’s lives to a close if the impending disaster proved more than they could bear, and she refused; said it was not their policy to give out such drugs. Then, in the dream, I saw the shabby little house standing bleached in the joyous sunlight and the children playing in the sand round about; when suddenly, from nowhere it seemed, a tidal wave swept in and engulfed everything. The flimsy wooden frame was broken to matchwood and swirled in the sucking waters that smashed the house to pieces before I could even move. Frantic, I struggled in the sea-water that swept me away, desperate to rescue my children, but among the roaring commotion of waves over my head, I could not even see. Eventually, kicking and struggling, my hand made contact with the hand of one of my children, and I knew she was dead. I knew they all were. And so I let go. It didn’t matter any more. ‘This is it,’ I thought. Only a sadness as vast and fathomless as the sea.
I never forgot the dream, and in terms of life story (taking the sea, the house and the death as metaphorical), it came true. The circumstances that swept our life away were as sudden and comprehensive as that freak wave, and just as irresistible. The security I had in place to shelter us proved as flimsy and insubstantial as a wabi-sabi little shack built on the sand.
When I was a child, if I or my sister went to a party, or some special outing, my mother waving us goodbye from the door as we went our way would call to us; ‘Have a nice time!’ If we were going to school, she would send us on our way with the words, ‘Best work!’
Every year, I save the Christmas cards I have been sent, secure them into a bundle with a rubber band, and tuck them away in a drawer. When December comes around, instead of looking through the address book and making a Christmas card list, I take out the bundle of cards and read them through, with their accompanying letters, reminding myself of the names and circumstances and tastes in Christmas cards of those who like to keep in touch. I did that this morning, with a slightly strange feeling, because I knew that somewhere in the bundle would be a card from my father, whom I found dead in his cottage last March.
My father and I were not close. Gentle, eccentric, untameable, he lived his life on the edges of everything like a feral cat that can neither leave nor come home. As far as I know he never read a thing I have written – he certainly would not have discussed it if he had. I visited him dutifully but not often as he grew old. I tried to be kind to him. I am very like him, the Norse ancestry is very plain in us both, and we had a certain like-magnets-repel thing going on. But, away on his own planet where no-one else dwelt but him, he cared about me very deeply in his unique and incomprehensible way. My mother, infuriated by him, once (among many times) berated him for his difficult temperament, like a broken branch jammed sideways in a stream. ‘You think I’m difficult to live with?’ he half-joked: ‘How do you think it feels like to me? I have to live with myself all the time.’
One time in the last year or so of his life, my mother was regaling us all with some story of how she is often (she doesn’t know why) mistaken for an Austrian when travelling abroad. Musing on why this might be, she lost track of the word she was searching for. ‘I think I must remind them of… remind them of…’
‘Hitler?’ he said.
A unique sense of humour. An unforgettable man. As a child, I adored him. He had effortless, natural glamour, and was quintessentially kind. As an adult? I cannot say what I felt for him. My relationship with him spiraled up into one of those places feelings don’t reach; like metal plates rubbing together the discord between us was intolerable. He was my father. I was like him. That was all.
So, I found his card.
This was the moment, I think – not the moment I found him dead or paid tribute at his funeral or watched the curtain close around his coffin – that I saw him wave goodbye as his rickety chariot peeled off into the blue.
‘Have a nice time – love Daddy,’ said his card; and on the front a picture of a snow bear curled protectively round its cub.
So. He is on his way. Things must have been resolved. In this, as in so many other occurrences, I have the sense of touching a living web of meaning that sings along its every thread with joy, and at the same time sweeps through my soul with the music of intensest sadness.
Goodbye, Daddy. God bless you.