Tomorrow is a promise to noone
I would do anything for another minute with you because
It’s not getting easier, it’s not getting easier
I hope that you’re folding stars
Simon Neil from Biffy Clyro sang these powerful words about the death of his mother, Eleanor, in the song Folding Stars (I’ve always assumed the title is a reference to her doing patchwork). And this week I’ve been thinking a lot about people who have died myself.
I think it started because I watched the songaminuteman videos and read their facebook page in which a man about my age, Mac, is singing with his 80 year old father, Ted, who has dementia. Mac described on their justgiving page (which has nearly reached £100,000 for the Alzheimer’s Society) how difficult it is for him and his mother to cope with Ted’s aggressive and disoriented behaviour, and how singing has been a great reprise from that. Ted has been a club singer and Butlins host for much of his life. Singing is clearly something he loves and shares with his son. You can see from the videos that as soon as the backing music starts, it is something he immediately connects with, recalling the lyrics of a huge range of songs, and the banter and demeanor that used to accompany it.
That reminded me of my paternal grandfather, Jack, who died in 2009. He was also a talented singer, who had the opportunity to make a professional career from it had he been willing to emigrate to America, although he chose to remain in South Africa and have a more conventional lifestyle, running a shop and later working in commercial real estate. I didn’t ever get to know him very well, as my parents had emigrated to England before I was born, and so we would typically spend two to four weeks per year with my grandparents, alternating visiting them in South Africa with them visiting us in England. After I was twelve and needed an adult seat on the plane, the cost of flights became prohibitive and we only visited South Africa once when I was a teenager, and I can only remember them coming to visit twice more. When I got married in 1997 they were unable to come to the wedding as my grandfather had recently had a stroke, so they sent us the airfare to come and visit them the following year. I took my husband to see South Africa and meet my grandparents, and my parents overlapped with us for a week during the trip to show us some of the places they had grown up. We also visited Cape Town and the Kruger Park.
After that trip I heard about their decline through my parents. My grandmother sank gradually into Alzheimer’s style dementia, to the point she is now almost non-verbal and needs constant nursing care, and my grandfather had the stepwise decline of multi-infarct dementia, with Lewy body type hallucinations, until his death 7 years ago. I don’t have a very clear sense of Jack as a person from my childhood. I can recall his wry smile, the habitual sequence of cleaning out and restocking his pipe with fresh tobacco and the pungent smell of him smoking it. I can recall the paranoia and acceptance of racism that years of living in South Africa had normalised contrasting with the fact that they had been very much ahead of their time in how they had supported Ben, their black “garden boy”, to have accommodation and paid employment in Johannesburg, rather than having to commute from Soweto (the nearest “township” or black slum). I can recall the taste of sugar coated dried fruit sweets in various colours and flavours, and the enormous avocados that would fall from their tree. I remember trying to explain how to use their new video recorder and remote control. I can picture the pale blue of the air letters he used to send to us regularly, and the way we would all take turns to talk on the phone to them when it was the birthday of any member of the family, long before the internet and skype made the world seem smaller. Overall I remember him being a bit of a grumpy man, who was anxious about single lane country roads, and didn’t like my grandmother’s religious rituals.
I also remember being unkind to him once as a child, and being told off by my parents. The memory is of being quite young and making a den with my cousin out of blankets hung between furniture in my grandparents’ back room. We would have been about seven or eight years old, and we were pretending to be cats. I don’t remember what my grandfather said exactly, but I remember that he said something mean that implied he thought our den was stupid. We wrote him a note that said it didn’t matter what he thought because he was a big rat who wasn’t welcome in our den, and signed it “the two cats”. As a kid it seemed like a fair response in kind, but my parents said that although he was grumpy it was a mean thing to do because he was old and had arthritis, and I remember feeling ashamed. As an adult I gained another layer of empathy, as I learnt about how much happened during my grandfather’s lifetime. How as an infant he had to flee persecution in Eastern Europe with his parents and move to South Africa where they had to learn English as a third language and live in a single room. He used to study by torchlight so as not to wake his father who worked night shifts. As my grandparents reached adulthood and got married, Jack had to do military service, and there is a photograph from when he was a fitness instructor in the army. They lived through the second world war and heard about how two thirds of the Jews in the world were murdered in the holocaust, including 91% of the Yiddish speaking Ashkenzim to which they belonged. They saw the inaction of the world turning a blind eye for far too long. Then after the war, as they became parents, they saw the survivors return to their community with tattooed numbers from concentration camps. Having been brought up as a British atheist I have no idea how that must have felt, but it can’t have been easy.
I heard about my grandfather dying two days before I gave birth to my twin daughters after a very complicated pregnancy, at a time when I had enormous other stressors in my life and I was caught up in a protective bubble. And I just accepted it as a fact and got on with everything that was going on. I don’t think I had cried about it before this week. But I am sad that I didn’t get a chance to ask him more about his life or to hear more of him singing. Nor did I express my thanks for how much he changed the path of my life before I was ever born. It is an impressive achievement to progress in a single generation from being immigrants in a single room learning English as a third language to owning a home and a business and funding your child to complete university and travel to England for postgraduate study. He was probably the reason that my parents were able to choose their own path as London hippies, and therefore a big influence on my sense of identity. I’d like to think he’d appreciate how badly my Dad sat shiva with my much more devout aunt, given his disdain for religious ritual.
I had also lost a colleague and friend who had died unexpectedly a week before the death of my granddad. Phil was someone I had worked closely with for several years, and had great respect for. He was in his fifties and had teenage children. It was a mark of my great trust in him that I had cried twice when talking to him – once about seeing a small deer get run over and killed on my way to work, and once when he told me about the death of a child I had been working with. And yet, like with my granddad, when I heard he was dead and I would never see him again I just processed the news as a fact, and felt no emotional response to it. As with my granddad, it has only been over time that I have been able to mourn his passing. I think of Phil each time I travel to a new country or walk on a beach, because of his habitual request to “bring me back a stone” if you went somewhere far away, and the pile of stones he would bring back from the most northerly beach in Scotland. I have often made stone towers or arches, written his name on a stone and thrown it into the sea or photographed the stones thinking how much he’d have liked them.
Death is an enormous topic to even try to think about, perhaps because it is connected with such painful experiences of loss, but also our own mortality and the inevitable eventual death of all those that we care about. As an atheist, I believe death is the end. Trying to imagine death is like staring into a black hole – somewhere in the uncomfortable abyss between terrifying and impossible to conceptualise. Having children has made me much more aware of my own mortality, and more fearful for theirs. I always text before takeoff whenever I fly for work, and I tell them I love them an extra time every night as they fall asleep, because I’d want them to be sure of that if I ever don’t return. But I remain of the opinion I expressed as a five year old to a babysitter, that even if a butterfly lives only for one day that isn’t a sad thing if the day was a happy day, because all they would have known is happiness. And I feel the same about my life, that I’ve already had a huge measure of happiness from a wonderful family, good friends, and amazing experiences, so even if it were to all be over tomorrow I couldn’t feel short-changed.
My Mum’s father died before she was born, and her mother died when in her late forties, when I was an infant. In my childhood my Mum felt it was likely that she would also die young, and I remember her having life insurance to protect us from the financial repercussions if that was the case. She was the only person I know to be grateful to have greying hair, as it was a marker that she had lived long enough to go grey. She is now retired, with fully grey hair and is thankfully still in good health, but she has been a good role model of appreciating the time you have got. And that is such an important thing, to savour the present. We are taught to invest for the future, in terms of putting our time and energy into long-term plans, focusing on building our careers, saving money, accumulating possessions. But as Alan Watts so neatly explains, we need to make the most of now, and dance while the music is playing. We need to have time for relaxation, creativity and fun. I’m trying to change things around a bit, so I do that more. I’ll give the last word to Biffy Clyro also (from Machines):
Cause I’ve started falling apart I’m not savoring life
I’ve forgotten how good it could be to feel alive
Take the pieces and build them skywards
Take the pieces and build them skywards
Take the pieces and build them up to the sky.