Appendix: Box – Bewildering

I sometimes recollect a waking dream I once had, about ten years ago,[1] in which I am waiting in the afterlife, having been there for some time, to take up my new life, the life I am having now. All the souls that have volunteered to be reborn – following the stories that Robert Frost tells in his poem ‘Trial by Existence’ and Plato tells in ‘The Story of Er’ in his Republic – are assembled on a vast grassy expanse, where first we must select the very life into which we will be born, for all the lives are already fixed in the divine plan, and all we have to do is choose the one that we want, according to some scheme as to which sort of experiences we need to have next, for all lives offer their own lessons, and our task, as we enter into one life after another, is to choose those lessons wisely so that we may grow as moral agents, and gradually come to an understanding of the human condition, and why it must have the character that it does. (And I should add that because all the lives are fixed in the divine plan it does not follow that we lack the free will that we usually think we have, for it is our own capacity for free choice and the manner in which we exercise our power of agency that fixes the divine plan in the form that it has.) And all the available lives are written out on sherds of pottery, or on little pages of papyrus or parchment, that we are free to rummage amongst. And here is my life, written out neatly, showing how I will find my dear J and how I must look after her, and how I will reap such joy in doing so. And it seemed to me that this particular life had been passed over, time and again, and that no one really wanted it, and I was worried then as to how my dear J would cope if no one came to look after her in her long illness and disability, and I could not choose a different life. After we had all chosen the life we wanted, we were all given a wooden box, large enough in fact to be a small chest, in which were saved things that will be useful, perhaps even needed, for our future lives. And we all sat on the grass, for the moment absorbed in the contents of our boxes, pulling out books or keys, or items of jewellery, or models of animals or houses that rep­resent our future realities, and we turned to each other in our delight so that we might congratulate our neighbours on their good fortune at having those things in their boxes. But in my waking dream, my box was empty, with respect to which (I do not know why) I felt embarrassed and ashamed. So when my neighbours turned to me to ask if I too had received wonderful things in my box, I replied that yes, I have quite wonderful things, when all along my box was quite empty. With a mixture of disappointment and horror, as I gazed into the interior of my wooden box, I knew then the awful reality of the hardships that would come to me in my future life, but I could not give it up, because I knew now how much my dear J would need me. So I would have to undertake the living of this life without the sort of help that oth­ers would have for their lives. And as it turned out, the help I did receive was, of course, J herself. For she gave me my instructions and directed our course. My hateful anxiety and depression, present from childhood, were under her authority, and my days ordered according to her needs and her plans. Not that I would have no impact whatever. No, of course I did. But as I have explained, J was my Captain, and I was a deckhand, and oh my goodness, I liked it like that. In my waking dream, I still have my box with me, and I look inside it from time to time, for it occurs to me that there really is something there to help me, and that in all this time I simply could not see it, and perhaps one day I will. But every time I look, the box is still empty, and I still feel the embarrassment and shame of being given an empty box. For now that J has gone, the emptiness of that box spills out over everything, rendering everything empty and useless and unwanted. The only thing I ever really wanted, that I want still, and which perhaps could not be represented by any object lodging in my box, was conversation with my dear J, that and the joy of coming home to our little house where we could be at peace with only each other, but where peace now eludes me. Like the fish that is unaware of the water through which it swims, for all those years I think I was largely unaware of that marvel­lous treasure – conversation with J – that so filled our hours together. I see it now, and as the months pass, my losing it becomes more and more painful. The closing period of this life that I have chosen is a horrible affair, and I do not want it. Oh my goodness… I hope, I hope, I so hope that my dear J is waiting for me at the gates of Paradise.[2] I have so much I want to tell her, and I so long to hear her response, and all the things that she will, I hope, want to tell me.

[1] This Appendix extracts a section from my book Another Grief Observed (Swaying Willow Press, 2015), written in response to the death of my wife, Jocelyn Almond. The title is added anew.

[2] See her poem, which I shall post in the very next blog, tomorrow.


63: Horizon – Narrowing

On distant days in distant years, before the illness and before we had to give up almost every­thing, we walked long paths through dry summer woods, and later spied distant towns from naked hilltops. And before that, on my own, in child­hood, I strode in wellingtons along shallow streams and marvelled at the hovering dragonflies. On our bicycles, I would set off with friends and take half the day to ride right across the Ordnance Survey map, and onto the next one. And when we got home again, we weren’t even exhausted. But then with illness, our horizon, in a moment it seems, drew right in close and fitted tight against the fences and little walls of our little house, here, at the centre of things. We were not unhappy with our new horizon, because we had our conversa­tions, and we had our books, and with the televi­sion especially, we could see to distant places and almost confront our confinement and join the ranks of the unimpeded for just a short while. We didn’t mind. The more confined we were, the more liberated became our thoughts, and that was exhilarating. So many, so many interesting things to wonder at. That we could not go to them, that we could not touch them, that we could not share them with others, but only with each other – well that did not matter in the slightest. We grew accustomed to it. We liked it like that. We did not hate the illness. It became a familiar presence, and that was all right.

But now, alone, nothing seems familiar any more. These old things here, and my new thoughts, seem like unwelcome strangers who come to disrupt the even flow of things, to destroy the steady rhythm that over the decades had set in, which bit by bit had settled to a familiar beat that so quietly, so quietly counted off the peaceful years and rolled out the fabric upon which we laid our conversations, and which the passing time rolled up again, and kept in safe-keeping, for a while, in our memories.

There is now nothing to keep me confined to this narrow horizon, except my terror of the world and the horror is threatens to induce. For alone, I feel so strangely unsafe, as unsafe as my dear wife felt because of the way her illness afflicted her, leaving her feeble and physically incapable of mov­ing without help, for whom the limit was lifting a pen or raising a spoon. But amidst the dismay of that disability there I stood, ready and eager to do all that must be done to carry on. So we carried on, and the world fed our craving for interesting things, for meaning and purpose. But now that has come crashing down, and now I keep breathing, and keep on breathing some more, and I look out beyond my fences and hope that something will come for me. I know not what it may be. And not knowing, I cannot set off to find it, and I cannot ask for help, for there is nothing to ask for, for there is no sense in asking for what I need, when I do not know what it is.

47: Shoes – Flapping

I have travelled in a wide circuit, taking al­most the whole of my life to do it. For, in a manner of speaking, I am back in that awful school, alone, friendless, buffeted by forces I cannot see, cannot understand, cannot prevail against in even the smallest measure. Then, I was wrenched from my old, familiar life in which I knew a certain contentment, and now the same thing happens again, for my wife has died, and all conversation has end­ed, and all purpose is shattered. Forsaken then, by friends who did not mean to forsake me, but simp­ly got left behind, so I am forsaken now it seems by my wife who brings no word to me. (She would know what to do.) So it seems I am forsaken by friends I never had, for sickness and disability take up a lot of time, you know, and there was not enough left over for friends or gatherings, none beyond those occasional visits to my grand­parents as they grew closer and closer to extreme old age and the inevitable sundering from our so­cial practice. So we stayed at home, and had conversations about everything. She was very keen on the afterlife, and believed, as much as a rational person could, that on death we travel to a new world and a new life, for the evidence, of various sorts, was abundant. She read books and watched out for television documentaries. And if anyone was going to come back with words of comfort or reassurance, it would be her. I had assumed with­out question that something would happen, that I would hear her voice, or see her sitting in her chair, or perhaps something stranger yet would occur, as others have attested, that she would talk to me through the telephone, or manipulate the speakers of my computer and make a gift to me, a gift I need so much, of some simple communica­tion … everything is all rightI am all right … but no…

I dream of her every night. There she is (mud­dled up with my nightmares), just as she was in life, talking, and telling me how to fix things. Though, the other night, her disability had van­ished away, and in no time at all, she had cleared away the clutter I have made on the landing… So every morning, I awake to a fresh realisation of what has happened. And as I did then, all those years ago, tortured in that terrible school, I panic under the weight of what I shall call being forsak­en … for no one comes, no one aids me, and all hope is gone. My broken heart is pounding, pounding, pounding, and has stopped working properly, for my feet suddenly started to swell, and I cannot get my shoes on properly, and that does make it so very difficult getting up and down the stairs, with my shoes half-on, hanging off the front of my fat feet…

It seems that some edict has been spoken somewhere very distant, no more for him. And on my wide circuit, all I can do, as I did then, is carry on in despair, wishing to be rescued from my des­olate shore. She came, all those years ago, not to rescue me from that awful school, for merely the passing of time took me away from that place, but she did come, and she took me to a whole new world. Its miseries descended soon enough, and sickness came full steam, and all hopes of careers were swept aside by its inexorable progress. But we managed, and we did go into the garden on sunny days … not as often as I would have liked, for the sheer physical effort involved placed our garden at a distance from us, and I fear no expla­nation – not one that takes up less than two pages – will properly explain that.

As I did then, when suffering the torments of that awful school, I retreat to my books, and I enter the worlds that their authors lived in or in­vented, but this amounts to mere distraction and must not be regarded as a solution, you under­stand. It is a way of passing the time until my grandfather comes in his white and blue boat, or my wife comes with smiles, and I hope I will know relief of such intensity it will be as if I have never tasted relief before.

Either that, or my ending here will be a final ending, and all misery will also end, and I will not know the truth of it, that the afterlife has all along been a fantasy. There, that is an account of why I feel so terribly forlorn today.