The man in the queue

Death alters everything and changes nothing. Not least the world. The contrast is appalling. I went for a walk yesterday. The physical landscape remains the same. The same narrow foot bridge over the brown river, the same conker trees, the same rising slope to the park, the same view from the vantage point. The familiar rolling fields, the wooded hills fringing the valley. The perennial traffic hissing along the motorway. The same hidden, secret paths amongst the long yellow grass. Unchanged from yesterday. I’m walking. I turn. And I want everything to be as it was a breath ago. I can see it all. A brindle coat like chocolate chip, a white flash. A smile and the kindest eyes in the world. Come on, slow coach. Rocking his body, he picks up the pace, muzzles my hand as he catches up. But the mental and emotional images that I project onto it have gone. Though life may be the same for everyone else, what I see and consequently feel is altered forever. Familiar places look strange and empty. And it is I that am the ghost. The spirit wandering. Not able to depart.

And I ask myself: what am I going to do?

My grief has three stages. There is numbness. I function. I get up. Go to work. Drive home. Stare at the TV. Sleep. And repeat. Subdued perhaps, but still running. Serviceable. I assume my assigned role and carry out what needs to be done. I am here. Guilty by association. There is the howling loss. Faced with bleak facts. Disbelief. The thoughts played out. I stare incredulous at the empty room. My habits are interrupted by their incompleteness. I remove a DVD from its box. The reflection on the floor isn’t chased. I open a can of Guinness and no one wants to share. Death induced claustrophobia. Emotions caving in. The roof falling. Trapped. Like being diagnosed with cancer or facing a huge, un-payable debt. No escape. No happy ever after. Options exhausted. So there’s nothing else you can do? And then there are the small steps forward. I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me. We grieve for ourselves. For the country we’ve lost. In these moments it’s not a case of ‘getting over it’. But finding a way of coping. Of managing the pain. Like learning to carry an awkward object. Aware that I’ll take one step forwards only to take two steps back.

We are all on the same journey – whether we recognize it or not. There is no substance in the conceit we feel in our own good health or good fortune. Our patronizing sureness. Ordinarily we try to find certainty in routine. Incubate ourselves from change through the familiar route to work, the celebrations, watching the TV. Or else in our purchases. The material success. Longevity assured by the credit agreement, leather upholstery and the heated seats. His Dad’s dead, you know? Is he? Thumbing through the Thomson brochure. Do you fancy two weeks in Alcudia next year, Dave? John Donne and all that. Ask not for whom the bell tolls.

The older I get the less afraid I find myself of dying. The more people I love that walk through the door into that other room. The more familiar death becomes. The physical bits and bobs – the blood and the needles, the pain, the disappointment of leaving the party before it’s my turn on the karaoke – remain a worry. But the idea of death somehow consoles. Deep at the heart of death there is a comfort. Not in the grief. Not in the loss or the appalling pain of bereavement. Not in the apparent unfairness. Not in the separation. In what then? How? Where? When? In the continuity? Listen up, sweet child of mine, have I got news for you. Nobody leaves this place alive. We’ll die here. Join the queue.

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