[The poet Alasdair Maclean's parents were the last crofters in Sanna, a seacoast hamlet in the west highlands. It is one of the most beautiful places on earth, but it was a hard place to make a living from farming. After many hardships, their life got a bit easier in 1970 when they began to receive an old-age pension from the British government. They died a few months apart, in March and August, 1973.]
"Don't grieve for me," Father had said when he was carried from the house on a stretcher, after his first coronary and before his last one. "I'll be with your mother."
My younger brother had been greatly struck by this anecdote almost in spite of himself. "Do you think there's an after-life?" he asked me now.
I gave the question the serious consideration it deserved. "Who knows?" I said eventually.
"I don't believe it," my brother continued. "Never have done. It's a fairy-story. Yet I like to picture them meeting again. Up there, you know. They've earned that if anybody ever earned it. I like to think of flower-strewn meadows, all that stuff. Father a young man once more, running across the grass. Mother waiting for him. What do you think they would say? How would they greet one another?"
I thought of Mother, her exclamation "My!" when anything impressed her and how much had impressed her despite her unimpressive surroundings. I could not at first get words past the sob in my throat. "O that's easy," I replied when at last I could contort my voice into something resembling normality. "He wouldn't say anything at all. She'd just say, "My! Ian! You weren't long!"
Considering how common illness is, how tremendous the spiritual change that it brings, how astonishing, when the lights of health go down, the undiscovered countries that are then disclosed, what wastes and deserts of the soul …it becomes strange indeed that illness has not taken its place with love, battle, and jealousy among the prime themes of literature… literature does its best to maintain that its concern is with the mind; that the body is a sheet of plain glass through which the soul looks straight and clear.
What though the radiance which was once so bright
be now for ever taken from my sight, though nothing can bring back the hour of splendor in the grass, of glory in the flower; we will grieve not, rather find strength in what remains behind.
--William Wordsworth (1770-1850) in "Intimations of Immortality Through Recollections of Early Childhood." The whole poem is here.
Te iam portus habet; nos adhuc iactat abyssus.
Te lux vera tenet; nos tenebrae retinent.
Te cum virginibus comitans, quocumque it, agnum,
lilia cum violis colligis atque rosis;
nos cum coancillis nostris tumulo ecce tuopte
flores spargentes, ducimus excubias.
The world's an inn;
and I her guest. I eat; I drink; I take my rest. My hostess, nature, does deny me nothing, wherewith she can supply me; where, having stayed a while, I pay her lavish bills, and go my way.
Nothing prepared me for her loss, even knowing she would die — she had been ill for more than two years. A mother, after all, is your entry into the world. Waking up without her is like waking up in a world without sky: unimaginable.
....Throughout this time, I experienced an acute nostalgia, a longing for a lost time that was so intense I thought it might split me in two, like a tree hit by lightning. I was flooded by memories — a submersion that threatened to overwhelm me, water coming up around my branches, rising higher. I yearned for the sound of her voice saying my name....
I was surprised by how physical grief’s toll was....Medication might have helped, of course, and there were times when I thought: ‘Just give me something to take the pain away.’
I kept coming back to a simple fact: my pain was caused by the absence of my mother. Did I want to deny this? Did I want to take something to make it go away? No. Grief is common. We know it exists all around us. But experiencing it made me suddenly aware of how difficult it is to confront head-on. When we do, it’s usually in the form of self-help: we want to heal our grief. We’ve subscribed to the belief (or pretence) that it happens in five easy stages: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance.
Though we’ve become open about everything from incest to sex addiction, grief remains taboo. In our culture of display, the sadness of death is largely silent....
Mainly, I thought: ‘My mother is dead, and I want her back.’ A mother is a story with no beginning; that is what defines her. What are you to do when the story ends?
...After a loss, you have to learn to believe a loved one is dead. It doesn’t come naturally....
But I still believed she was coming back. Deep down, I felt she would, through some effort of mind, reconstitute herself and appear to me, even as a ghostly form. Grief is not linear, it turns out; it comes in waves, which ebb and subside at unexpected moments.People kept saying: ‘It gets better after a year.’ And it did in one sense: I could go for days without thinking too much about the fact someone I still loved as dearly was dead. But to expect grief to ‘heal’ is to imagine it is possible to stop loving, to reconcile yourself to the fact the loved one is gone. Living with grief, I came to think, is like being a tree confronted with an obstacle. You have to grow around it; your path is shaped by it.
I still think about my mother every day, but on most days the grief is lighter, less oppressive. With my mother’s death the person who brought me into the world left it, a door closing behind her, a line of knowledge binding her body to mine in the old ways. Who else contained me, felt me kick, nursed me? She crosses my mind like an exotic bird flying past the edge of your eye: startling, luminous, lovely, gone.