(in which I talk very frankly about loss and grief; please don’t read on if things in your life mean that this would upset you)
You reach the age where your fingers and thumbs twice over aren’t enough to count it, and life is good. You are contented enough to muddle through your days in a blur of routine and happiness and low-grade chuntering, you know who you are (mostly), you know where you want to be going (sort of), you know how lucky you are (always) in the same way that you know that the earth is round.
And then one day, driving, your phone rings. Your little boy answers for you. It’s Grandma, he says. Can you ring her back when you stop driving, he says. Her voice sounds funny, he says. And you drive on, with ash on your tongue and your hands slipping on the steering wheel, knowing that something is about to change forever.
And you park, and you tell the children you’ll be a minute, and you get out of the car and fumble out the number. And you realise, as she tells you, shocked almost speechless, that something terrible has happened. That your baby cousin (not a baby, but you, the oldest, seeing him, were always jolted anew by the realisation that he was, in fact, a man) has had a climbing accident. That he didn’t make it. And you realise, as the middle-aged couple next to you look horrified and scurry away, that the awful noise is coming from you, the sensible and rather dull woman in the supermarket jeans. And then you get back in the car, and you say something bright and vacuous to the children, and you take them into the fair as promised, with your mouth twisted, and your sunglasses jammed down and tears pooling in the frames.
And you know that it’s not the worst, for you, but that it’s the worst for those whom you love, and that things will never be quite the same again.
You see grief beyond your worst imagining, but, treacherously quickly, your mind crimps itself into prim Victorian modes of condolence, only to trick you and flash, suddenly, unbearably, a glimpse of understanding of the loss of those who loved him best. Forever and never aren’t words anymore, they are sentences, life sentences, of lack and longing. The world tilts, and the fragility and transience of life, which you always knew in your head, seem as fundamental a concept as breath itself.
Two days later. your little boy asks if he can play out with his friends, and what was everyday, albeit with a niggle of reluctance, suddenly feels like sheer, wanton squander. You never want to let him, or his brother, or his sister, or any of those who carry your happiness lightly as they go through their days, ever out of your sight or your doors again. You have seen, now, that the world is round.
And then, you listen to your cousin’s partner speak, his sisters, his mother and father, with voices cracked and dazed with pain, but with such love and pride. You read the cards, the letters, numbering dozens within the first day. You realise, and you regret so bitterly, that in living away you have missed your chance to really know this man. The boy-child in your head, the gorgeous face, the huge hugs, the laughter and mischief and sheer kindness; these, you knew. But the man, the son, the lover, the brother, the friend, who scaled mountains and moved mountains, who led and inspired and made the world better for those who lived in it with him? These you can never know now.
You writhe in the knowledge that an outsider would sniff, turn the page, and sigh over a squandered life. But you have learned that life is not there to be hoarded, like pennies in a jam jar, lips pursed slightly as another safe, joyless year is slotted away. That doing something you love, well, with passion, is pretty much as good as it gets. And that you do not lease their lives to those you love, but rather guide them as you can and let them spend their gift as they will, knowing always that they go with your smile and your blessing.
For my gorgeous cousin, whose death is an unimaginable waste, but whose life never was. And for those who loved him most, who gave him his life and who let him live it to the full.