The phone call I’ve been dreading but expecting for the last couple of weeks finally came late on Thursday night when my mum called me to let me know the Comrade had only just slipped away from us. I think hearing the tears in my mother’s voice was hurt almost as much as losing this wonderful uncle. When Mel and I lost our little furry Zag last summer it was a sudden shock; this was expected any day, bearing down with a grim inevitability on our family. Being expected rather than a sudden shock didn’t make a damned bit of difference though, as any of you who have been in similar circumstances will know.
I did go to work on the Friday; I felt gutted but to be honest I needed to keep myself occupied rather than dwelling on something I couldn’t change and if I went home I’d only be in the way as preparations are being made, so instead I got my head down and kept busy. My colleagues were very sympathetic and kind, with my boss telling me to go home if I needed to and just to let him know what days I needed off and so on, which I greatly appreciated. Mostly I got through the day alright, although a call from my mum to see how I was doing almost set me off. I had a very nice surprise though in the shape of a gift arriving from the States from Jeff and Ann VanderMeer, a delicious batch of Ann’s Bourbon Balls – it was a lovely gesture from a fabulous writer and they way the timing worked out was perfect because it gave me a little much-needed lift when I really needed it, as I tried to face the world that morning.
Towards the end of the day though I started to feel it overwhelming me. There’s a line in my favourite film, Cyrano de Bergerac, towards the end, where he feels as if he is shod in marble, gloved in lead. I felt that way by late afternoon, as if someone were draping cloaks of lead around my shoulders; I felt slower and slower, heavier and heavier and everything seemed more remote. When I got home I just curled up with my little portly pussycats and let it out while they snuggled up next to me and soothed me with their purrs. I’d like to think they were looking after me, but know full well that cats are mercenary and were more than likely taking advantage of a chance to curl up against me for tummy tickles and attention in a warm spot.
Mel had just returned from a business trip to London and offered to come right round, but at the time I needed a few hours just to let it out when I felt like it. Once I’d indulged myself this way I felt a lot lighter, so round she came and we settled down for the evening to talk and watch some movies. I went to open some wine and found the bottle my uncle and aunt had given me for Christmas, a lovely 1996 Rioja (where did my aunt get the time to buy presents with all that was happening???) – it seemed like a very appropriate time to uncork this bottle and enjoy it. I opened it just before Mel arrived and toasted the Comrade with the first sip.
Mel has been great at keeping my spirits up – not dragging me out to do things, but making sure she knew she was there to sit with me or take me out for some distraction and so we did go out on Saturday to my old second home of the Filmhouse to enjoy some distraction in the shape of the beautiful Japanese film Hidden Blade (from the maker of Twilight Samurai), a slow but gorgeously crafted work which made me feel much better and certainly beat the hell out of sitting at home and feeling miserable. Mel also volunteered to come through with me to the funeral, which is just one of the reasons that I think she is such a wonderful person.
Today I feel not too bad – relatively speaking of course – but the coming week will be quite emotional because we have the service and funeral to get through. Being a Catholic ceremony the Comrade’s body will lie in the chapel which he spent so much time in for the evening before the burial. Next Saturday was the earliest we were able to arrange. Its not going to be easy to say goodbye to someone who was such a big presence in my life, for the whole of my life; he’s been there for as long as I can remember, tall, strong, intelligent and caring and despite knowing what was coming it is still hard to come to terms with the fact that he isn’t there anymore; the finality of it.
And it’s not just losing him; events like this raise that spectre of mortality that we all are aware of but leave in the back of our minds for most of the time. It makes you wonder how long you have with the different people you love and the awful knowledge that such time is finite. We all know that is the case, but we don’t think about it too much and, let’s be honest, we shouldn’t. What will happen will happen and dwelling on such thoughts all the time only means that we fail to live that time and enjoy those people who matter as best we can while we have one another.
In many ways that is what funeral service are for – not just to honour the beloved dead but for those who remain; it is a way of saying goodbye and coming to an emotional understanding that they are gone and we go on, like cauterising a wound. It doesn’t mean you never think about them again – they will always be a part of you after all – but it does mark an emotional turning point. Like Neil has Morpheus say to his son Orpheus in the Sandman when he loses his wife, you’re mortal – you need to grieve, you need to say goodbye and then you need to go on with living. Not easy to do, but good advice nonetheless. Perhaps it is also the last thing you can do for those you loved and lost – you go on and live your life, the thing they would most want you to do.
2005 was the tenth anniversary of my graduation and in the last few days I kept thinking on the Comrade when he came to the ceremony. We were allowed to bring three people, so I had my mum and dad of course and the other person I wanted most in the world to be there was the Comrade, who was delighted to come along and I loved the pride in his face when I received my honours degree. He never made it to college himself, although he was a very intelligent man – he and I enjoyed many good debates and conversations over the years and I have his stubborn streak which means I stick to my guns when I know I am right; naturally I am almost always right J. He beamed when I refused to stand for God Save the Queen at the graduation ceremony (I don’t acknowledge anyone to be mine or anyone else’s superior, besides the second verse is anti-Scottish) and he was a great strength to me this time last year when I faced down my former employers. As a good left winger he was delighted to see my union supporting me so well and the support I had from so many folk warmed his heart as much as it did mine.
University wasn’t really an option for most working class men of his generation, but he made sure it was for his children. Today with so many people going to college it may not sound such a huge deal, but believe me for the working class son of mining stock to get several of his children to university was an enormous deal and I know he was proud to see me go as well. I held off going to college until my mid twenties; when I did the Comrade started giving my mum ‘pocket money’ for me again, like he did when I was a boy, so whenever I came home there would be a little bit of dosh there for me to enjoy a few beers in the Union with – that was the sort of little kindnesses he would do. It doesn’t feel right to know that he’s just not there anymore and that I’ve had my final conversation with him.
But at least I got to see him several times in the last few weeks and we talked and, more importantly, we laughed. My aunt could hear us guffawing from the upstairs bedroom as my dad, the Comrade and I shared some jokes and reminiscences. I still believe laughter is right up there with love as our defence against the world’s worst aspects. And in our family we balance this awful loss with a recent arrival as my wee cousin in Canada had her first child, while my other wee cousin and his new wife are eating for two as we speak, another new entry to the family due in the spring. And with the treatment he got and the support of his family the Comrade survived several years more than we first thought likely; he got to see grandchildren turn into great grandchildren and was still fit enough to not only reach but to enjoy his Golden Wedding anniversary last summer.
I’m normally not bad with words, but I am going to miss him more than I can express, I just can‘t shape the words to articulate it. Everyone in your life is like part of the jigsaw of your existence; some are background characters, some are major parts in the centre while others somehow manage to be major jigsaw piece in the middle while also being edge pieces, the parts that define the shape and parameters of the jigsaw or mosaic of your life. The Comrade was one of those special people who fulfilled both roles for me. It’s very hard to write this right now, I can feel the emotions bubbling up as I do, but it is even harder not to write about it, so I hope you’ll forgive my indulgence.