My relationship with death is one coloured by memory and tainted by experience. I kissed my first dead relative as a small boy in a funeral parlour surrounded by adults who all seemed unaware of my horror. To me it was terrifying. My paternal grandmother’s passing was all too much for me to understand properly as I was just a boy, but the imagery of the day is ingrained in my memory. I suspect my recollection has become misshapen by the trauma of the day.
Because I was only a small boy when my grandmother passed away, losing my first dog Rex had a far greater impact on me. I was too young to understand death when my father’s mother died. When my canine companion died I was a teenager and more susceptible to the effects of grief. That was very painful and my first encounter with genuine grief. I cried big boy tears for our beloved pet who had been part of my life ever since I was a baby. My poor Granny suffered from dementia and as a small boy, my ability to sympathise was limited. In many ways, my Nana was a hard woman. My memories of her included her strict adherence to the ‘no dessert if you don’t finish your dinner’ rules. When she stayed with us, she got to watch her programmes on TV over ours, so that fact combined with the inconvenience that she inevitably took my bed on sleepovers, meant I was sad but less affected by her loss emotionally as that tiny undercooked tadpole, than I was as a teenager losing his best friend.
I witnessed others in my family pass and as I grew up, their loss had much more significance. We even got through another full dog lifecycle and Scamp’s demise was equally traumatic. But then my father developed cancer and I discovered a whole new world of sadness. His was a slow and difficult decline. I watched the man my brother and cousin used to jokingly slag off as a ‘Fat Da,’ shrink away as his health declined through months of debilitating treatment. I watched my mother suffer beside him and it was cruel.
I was with him when he passed away. I saw the suffering up close and it was not a pleasant thing. Perhaps the struggle of his death stayed with me, for it has plagued my mind ever since. There is the kindness of words such as, he died in his sleep or, it was a quick death, but neither applied to my Dad. I watched him suffer as he fought the grim reaper to his very last breath. Once more I was horrified but worse was to come.
My dear mother died suddenly. She had an aneurism in her brain which she survived following an emergency operation and recovered well despite having a heart attack in recovery. That was in March of that year and by October at Halloween in fact, she had come back to herself enough to go out for a night with her sisters. She dropped dead singing, holding her sister’s hand and I never saw her again. That broke my heart. She vanished that night and despite the fact that I was the one who eventually waited with her to give a formal identification to the young policeman and woman who came to me with such discomfort, the woman I waited with was not my mother. That she was gone, that I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye became and enormous weight that almost crushed me in the years that followed.
In the intervening years my brother died at the young age of fifty three, my sister lost her son during labour and my maternal Grandmother, aunts, uncles and cousins have departed this world. Aging it seems increases the volume of funerals you attend. It never gets easier.
I used to wonder if I would become obsessed with my own mortality once I got to a certain age. I managed to cheat it already and have been haunted by visits from my dark shadow man ever since. Those of you that read my blog regularly will be familiar with Mr. Squiggles. But oddly enough despite my worrisome stalker, I don’t give my own mortality too much thought. I remember how it felt the first time and what stuck with me more than anything else was that I wasn’t afraid in the heat of it all. I guess I figure if I wasn’t afraid when death actually came knocking then I don’t see the point in wasting time worrying about it for the next God knows how many minutes, days, months, or years I have left. Joanna’s Mam lives with us and she is ninety two years young. What happens if I get to live that long?
Will my position change? Will I be counting days or counting blessings? I expect the later. Certainly it is what I hope I do should I live that long. Living life is what is important. So far I have done my best and always looked as much as I can to the brighter side. Some people stay the same throughout their life or at least think they have. Me? I’ve changed. Even if someone were to know me for twenty years and think “God you haven’t changed a bit” they’d be wrong. I change a little every day. I suspect we all do. What was it Mae West said in her ever so subtle way? “I used to be Snow White…but then I drifted.”
Age has changed me. Hurt has altered how I see the world, loss has scarred me and love has raised me up. I’m not the kind of person who could have ever have been satisfied with being born into a place and staying there as one generation passed into the next. I couldn’t watch everything change around me while I sat and watched it move about me.
Some people live all of their lives in one place, familiarity being a comfort and there is nothing at all wrong with that. In generations past, not so long ago, moving beyond the parish was an extraordinary thing. I was never made that way so I take neither credit nor blame for the part of me that has wings.
Risk has always been there in my life. I have always made choices with a leaning towards the new. It can be a precarious way to live at times but perhaps that is one of the things I cannot change about myself. We all have some bits at our core that fundamentally make us who we are, but if you can’t change or adapt at least to some degree, you will miss out on so much.
Perhaps the key thing is fear. Fear keeps you a prisoner and clips your wings. To overcome fear you have to take a step. All of my books have love at their heart I have always said that, but the other ingredient, perhaps the more important one is fear. It is the response to fear that I enjoy developing and it is a wonderful device whatever the genre that one writes in. My Darkly Wood books exude it of course and bad Blood and Larry Flynn are thrillers which always use fear, but even Little Big Boy is filled with fear. I doubt I will ever write a book so filled with both love and fear as the book I still hold dear to my heart.
It is something that we all face, to fight, despair of or overcome. I prescribe the latter. We are dying from the moment we are born so it’s hardly a surprise. Why waste time worrying about your inevitable demise it is far better to get busy living. What was it Woody Allen said?… “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.”
The only thing I know is how I’d like to go.. choking on gummy bears. That way when people asked what happened to me, you can say “He was killed by bears.”
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