Introduction. Taking a step, walking beyond. A double-banded iron door; a gleaming aureate gate; a dark, sepulchral alley. What could these three portals be associated with? The entrance into a castellan's opulent inner chambers; a world beyond, where men, women and animals dine as equals with their deities, at greatest peace now, fully realising the veracity of religion, of gods, of destiny; and of course, the murky, unlit underworld, often beleaguered by a hotchpotch of cobblestones, crooked by unmindful treading, defamed by defecation, for alleys are the paths tread by those disregarding all decorum towards the outside world, are they not?
Many of us, wherever our peregrinations may lead us, pass through multiple doors, gates, alleys, each day. We pass under arches, some of limestone, some of sandstone, some of... triumph. We explore new towns and cities and perhaps even continents during the span of our existence, entering houses of stone, adobe clay and also of straw. Yet, do these portals transport us anywhere, is there really a place of deities and fully realised religion?
A cynic, disregarding a modern door of two or three inches in depth, might argue that we humans (I fear it would be presumptuous and perhaps even arrogant to speak on behalf of animals in this instance) traverse only two portals. Only twice, do we enter somewhere...new. The wholly new; the unexplored, the dangerous, the unknown, is profound in and by its very nature. We know nothing of it. When we are born, we are undeveloped, (or perhaps simply as-yet under-developed) and through helpful nurturing from parents, carers, family and friends, we are taught what is safe, what is dangerous, where to tread and where to avoid. We are shown the muddy, precarious lives of the poor, and the seemingly auspicious, lavish lifestyles of the affluent; and perhaps it is through exposition and the form of edification which we receive that ultimately shapes our opinions on the struggle of impecunious people and then the irritating ignorance of first world issues, such as being locked out of your house for five whole minutes while the tennis is on, blaming the world because you might not see the final match, or missing a bus despite knowing another will arrive shortly. (Really?)
Birth is the first gate, entering a world where other humans before you have thrived, prospered, become neutered, suffered and died; a world where, long after we as individuals transcend this world into the other, people will continue to thrive and prosper and suffer and die.
Progress, in its moments of poignant revolution, and (preceding these) dire strife, is a bullet train not stopping at any station. It rolls forward, inexorable. The track behind is littered with both nature and humanity's bloated corpses of history.
Thus, our second door, gate, entrance...or is it an exit? Death.
"Do not stand at my grave and weep,/I am not there; I do not sleep."
The opening couplet of Mary Elizabeth Frye's Do Not Stand At My Grave and Weep, seems, from where I stand, an interesting take on death. For those of you who haven't read the poem, give it a whirl. After several studies of the text, my view is that Frye argues that this dead narrator is not merely decaying in a barrow, but has been adopted by an afterlife administered (so it seems in the poem) by Mother Nature.
Death is all around us. Millions, no, billions of people have already passed on, have progressed beyond into the wherever. What of those of us left behind? How do we feel? When I say so, stop reading and spend a few minutes thinking of the last person for whom you cared dearly, that has died.
Could you picture their face? A grandparent's experienced, veteran smile, lined with wisdom? A friend's reassuring wink, their concomitant grin as you shared rambunctious banter, was it there in your mind? A lost spouse, to whom you swore to be "faithful unto death". Could you picture any of these, or somebody else, just as special, fully realized in your mind?
Why do we grieve? And who do we grieve for, ourselves? The dead person? The dead person's spouse, child, grandchild?
My grandma, Margaret "Peggy" Carter, was the only grandparent of mine that I ever really knew. As far as I'm aware, both of my grandfathers died before I even knew my own name. Peggy died on her 78th birthday, 8th July 2007. I was fourteen. Sixty-four years of experience the old gal had on me. I visited her with my father every Saturday afternoon. We would play chess or monopoly, watch F.A. Cup football on the BBC, and in her last eighteen months, my brother Alex (born in 2006) tagged along for the ride, too, causing mayhem wherever he wandered!
Towards the end of my grandma's life, her hearing and her sight both deteriorated. For over ten years when we would visit, we would talk about football, horse racing (she had bets from time to time), school (she enjoyed testing me on times tables, did my grandma) and all the other stuff that families discussed. She was a humble woman, without expectation; she didn't even seem to care about expectations. You were a human, just as she was, and nothing in Peggy's mind left either you or her devoid of equality. Yet, during the final few weeks, she couldn't hear as much, and her mind seemed...elsewhere. In her last moments, my father has since told me, she apologized that she wouldn't be here to see Alex and I grow up fully.
In her dying moments, she apologized.
Take it from me, grandma, you have nothing to apologize for.
Often when people we love die, we grieve. Natural, yes? We are upset that we won't converse with them ever again; we cry because we'll never see their stolid or reassuring or wise or happy or simply human face ever again; we ultimately grieve for our own loss, fair admission? During a funeral, it can be customary for people to approach the close family of the dead person, and proclaim "we are sorry for your loss" and I believe that these people's hearts are truly with the families closest at this point, because we have all experienced death. Yet, should we not also grieve for the dead person? They have died, after all. In a civilization where death is feared, where no longer do we seek to die honourably as the Ancient Greeks sought, how can we not grieve for the dead? If death is so fearful, what awaits must be pure evil, must it not? No longer can they witness the breathing of trees, feel the promise of Spring, the heat of Summer, the bitter cold of Winter. They've become detached from everybody they loved: family, friends, icons. Imagine if they have died halfway through writing a novel, or through reading their favourite series, or midway through a job trial. What of their losses? The activities they will never do again in our company, on this tactile world of ours. We, each of us, lose one person we hold dearly, while that person held so dearly loses everything.
Is there an afterlife, and if so, does it depict a Heaven or a Hell? Maybe, who knows? Perhaps one day I'll write about this. Today, our focus remains still on grief, on loss, on what it means to live. Think back to your loved one you cannot be alongside any longer. What was your happiest moment with them?
Saturday, 3rd April 2004. Manchester United VS Arsenal, F.A. Cup Semi-final. Leaving my grandma's house shortly before kick-off, she said to me "Scholes will win it."
31st minute, Paul Scholes gave Manchester United a 1-0 lead; the score line before you was the final score. Was my grandma a prophet? If she was, she did a remarkable job of keeping it a secret until that superb moment, a moment that was, as far as she was concerned, just a chance prediction. A voice thrown into the wind, a wind that consumes our predictions, proclamations, confessions, day after day, and are they heard? Some, yes. Others, sadly, are lost to the most fickle deity of them all: time.
In my own way, this moment, this day, was my favourite that I shared with Peggy. Ultimately, I'll never know whether it was some stroke of adroit foresight; I never even mentioned it to her the week after, I don't think. Maybe I did. It's amazing how, if I did, I have forgotten, yet the prediction itself, and the magical feeling inside me when this forecast realised itself, will live with me for as long as my memory serves me. At this moment, it seems apt to quote another poem: "If suddenly you do not exist,/if suddenly you no longer live,/I shall live on." Taken from The Dead Woman by Pablo Neruda, I implore you to peruse these lines once more, and also seek out the poem. If you die, I shall live on. Is that the message? Does life require death for sustenance? If I lose you, I shall continue to hold high the standard of our friendship, of all that we believed in, of all that we loved; is that it? Is there a missing third line that might say "do not fear" unto which we read, "I shall live on"? Do the dead feel and/or experience fear? I'm afraid I have no concrete answer, not for you, not for myself.
However, in my heart, all three of these possibilities ring with an element of accuracy as far as my belief is concerned, an accuracy that resonates not just through my emotions, but through my memories, too. Memories of Peggy, of others I have lost, of those around me who have lost close friends and relatives, for whose loss I am sorry.
If birth is our introduction into this world, where many of others earn success and some of us are unable to, alas, is death, then, a world of blissful reunification with those we lost? And in that moment of bliss, would we be able to reflect upon those living who have lost us? Those who grieve and won't ever hear our infectious laugh, the acoustics of our voice, be it throaty, adenoidal, or deep and solid, who won't ever see the qualities in us we have seen in so many others, ever again?
Is there a message, here? Everybody grieves in death, everybody seems to lose, and the human condition transcends with us; hold dear those memories that mean so much to you, even if they would mean nothing to a stranger. Perhaps they are the very strongest of memories, in their vast inimitability.