Saying goodbye

Our family and friends had the sad task of saying goodbye to my Uncle Ted this weekend. On Friday evening his body was moved to the chapel where he worshipped for years and worked in a variety of groups and movement to help other parishioners out. A great many of them turned out to pray for him at the requiem mass and on the following morning for the actual funeral service. In fact there were so many people there taking communion or a blessing after the service we were late getting to the cemetery; he was a well-loved man and it was uplifting to see how many people outside of our family came along.

In a bitter twist the requiem on Friday the 13th (of all days) fell on the day which would have been the Comrade’s 74th birthday. It was pretty emotional as you can imagine; for a moment I was going to have to step in as one of the bearers as another bearer was held up, but thankfully he arrived just in time. Naturally I agreed right away when my aunt asked me if I would step in, but I was also relieved not to have to do it as it was emotional enough already.

I was, however, one of the cord holders at the actual burial, the first time I’ve ever had that sad, final duty. I couldn’t say no, but it was one of the hardest duties I’ve ever had to perform. Obviously the professionals there have the large straps to properly lower the casket, the role of the cord holders is ceremonial. But if means that I was standing there right over the plot and I helped to lower my dear uncle down into that deep, damp hole. That really hammered home the finality of it all as I let the black rope slip through my fingers and watched his casket sink deeper and deeper. I know that what’s in there isn’t really him – the thing which made him the person we love has gone from that vessel – but its still damned hard to do.

It breaks me up even a few days later just thinking about it, the image of the wooden casket with his name on brass retreating into the earth. It was onerous but I felt I had to do it for him; many years ago my uncle asked me to do this when we buried my papa, his father. That was the first time I had been old enough to go the graveside part of the service and I was too young to handle it and had to say no. This time I carried it out for him, but I was so relieved to get back to stand with my mum and dad as soon as it was done. Still, hard as it was to do, it did give me a sense of closure.

The awful weather of the last week lifted for us on the day of the funeral and we had a crisp, cold, clear sunrise coming in through the stained glass of the chapel early in the morning; a huge full moon still hung over the Campsie Hills when I woke up at my parents. Naturally more than a few of us joked that with all the work he did for the parish the Comrade’s connections upstairs had arranged a decent bit of weather for the day. He never lost his faith even to the end; we never argued over this sort of thing, he knew I didn’t believe and he did but we both knew everyone has to take their own path and left it at that. I almost envy him the strength of his belief and, much as I personally dislike religion, I know it was a huge strength to him. There were three priests carrying out the services, including a rosary at the grave, which I’m told is unusual. One priest was his brother-in-law while the senior priest was also a good friend of his and as such he made the eulogy far more personal than these things sometimes are – he was, after all, mourning a friend as well as giving a parishioner his last services.

But he’s out of it all now – regardless of which spiritual belief system (if any) that anyone follows he is now free of the pain he was in. And the doctors and the support of his family – not to mention his own strength (and that damned stubborness, which I think I get from him) – he had more years than we thought; four years ago or so when it was first diagnosed he was so ill we thought we’d lose him within a few months at the most. Instead he enjoyed four more years and for most of that was fit enough to make the most of them, including making his golden wedding anniversary and to see his brother become a grandfather for the first time only a few weeks ago.

And I got to see more of some of my family members than I have in ages (sad, as you get older that sometimes you only see some folk at funerals and weddings), including my uncle who made the trip over from Canada to bury his brother and stayed over for a couple of nights with my mum and dad back home. I’m not five anymore and know that a hug from your mum can’t make everything better anymore, but it certainly still helps. Okay, maybe that’s a little slushy, but I don’t give a damn, we’re a touchy-feely family for the most part and even the most cynical of us knows deep down that a good hug from your folks is one of the best things in the world, whatever age you reach.

The phone call comes

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.

Christmas

Apologies for the gap between posts, but I’ve been busy with last minute Xmas shopping, then back off to the outskirts of Glasgow for a nice time at my parents. While there I also took the opportunity to visit my dear uncle – known to most of the family as ‘the Comrade’; he’s old school socialist with a human face and has proudly worn this alternative moniker I dubbed him with many moons ago.

I was warned by everyone to brace myself for his appearance, because he has deteriorated so much even since my previous visit two week ago. One of my cousins up visiting from the Deep South of England (land of thatched cottages) hadn’t seen him for many months, certainly not since the Big C came back with a vengeance and was so shocked she couldn’t stay long in his room. I can’t blame her for that – he’s wasting away before our eyes and growing weaker every day; frankly I was surprised he was still there, I had the horrible feeling that my previous visit would prove to be the last time I saw him alive. That’s a bloody horrible feeling – worse for my Canadian uncle over to visit his dying brother and knowing full well that it would be the last week he would get to spend with him.

So I braced myself and did my best not to let it show when I was with him, or round my poor mother who is fighting to stay together to help my aunt look after her husband, my mother’s big brother. Again we managed to swap jokes and share some laughs (the sense of humour must be up there with love as our finest defence mechanism), despite his voice growing weaker and fainter, as if every faculty is slowly winding down for him now, except his eyes which still shine. Lord knows what is keeping him going – he always was a tall, broad built, strong man with a good constitution; it is what helped him fight this awful disease the first time round, but now it is as much a liability since it is prolonging the inevitable. Part of me likes to think that he tried his level best to hold on through the holidays so as not to ruin Xmas for the family. Sheer speculation I know, but it would be very much in keeping with his selfless attitude and since no-one can prove such conjecture either way I choose to think it.

So I did manage to keep it together and spent some good time with the Comrade over my days back home. Between those visits, being around my beloved parents and seeing so more of my cousins and aunts than I have in ages (perhaps a positive aspect to all of this) I managed to keep it together, although I did fall apart in the car as my Dad drove me home after Xmas. We were just talking about it and the damned thing up and overwhelmed me, the sheer unfairness of this happening to such a good man. As regular readers know I’m not religious, but the Comrade is a devout Catholic (his absence at the special Xmas Eve mass finally drove it home to my poor aunt that his days were really coming to an end). If I hadn’t lost faith in any god decades ago I would now – he’s a good man, never missed mass in his life, did good work for the church… What sort of reward is this for any god to show to such a faithful follower? I know, life simply isn’t fair and bad things happen to good people, it rains on the just and the unjust, but it doesn’t mean I have to like it and it still doesn’t make it right. Naturally I keep such observations to myself – not really the time or place to air them around my uncle, aunt or mother (watching what this does to her is as hurtful as the thought of losing the Comrade).

Despite this we actually had some good times over Christmas. Spending time with my folks is always good (I am a very, very lucky boy in that respect). My mother’s home cooking was the highlight of course and naturally I did my best to eat absolutely everything she put out on the table until it felt like I’d swallowed a cannonball. Main veggie course for me was a gorgeous terrine of wild mushrooms, two types of cheese, two types of nuts and spiced potatoes, with an accompanying (and also home-made of course) spicy tomato sauce. My mum’s cooking skills are matched only by her baking skills (she is the official maker of cakes to the family) and her meringues crunched delicately under my spoon…mmmmmmm……

My birthday arrives tomorrow, on Hogmanay when I will be – ahem – years old, although I’m not especially in a birthday or New Years kind of mood really. Will try and post something slightly less depressing later on – its hard to talk about this stuff but equally hard not to talk about it, if you know what I mean. Hopefully go for a complete subject change when I next post (actually I wasn’t even going to write what I did today, but it just kind of came out and I feel a little better for that. I know all too many of you have loved ones who have endured or fallen to cancer as well, so you know where I’m coming from) – perhaps it is that time to do a review of the year (the one just ending, not next year; I would review 2006 for you now but I promised the Time Lords I wouldn’t monkey around with causality anymore)? Pick a few best of an worst of movies and books from the last twelve months, maybe some events – anyone wanting to add their own best or worst ofs for 2005 feel free to post (on which note I apologise for having to make the Woolamaloo comments non-anonymous, but I was getting some awful hate comments from some right-wing neo-nazi thugs for an earlier posting, and, as always with nasty folk, posted behind the cowardly ‘anonymous’ mask, so I had to withdraw that facility – apologies to the majority who used it for constructive purposes).