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.

59: Panic – Recurring

Panic, panic, panic, like the torrential rains we have had these past few days, beats down on every thought, drenching every thought, negating every thought, and my heart pounds and pounds and pounds its terror, and I hear it speak in a quiet voice, Oh, dear God, must there yet be more of this?

And I have no words of comfort other than the truth, ‘There will be no more conversations, now that she has gone, now that my dear wife has gone. For she was the one who spoke to us, she was the one who always knew what to do.’

But can she not come now, from the afterlife, if only infrequently, if only once?

‘I thought she would, because she could not doubt the fact of life after death. There is just too much evidence, and she read the books of re­searchers who jolly well knew their craft, and in the face of such evidence, there could be only one rational position. So if anyone were to come back with words of comfort, it would be her, yet she does not come, and that is half of your panic. The other half is stirred by the realisation that there will be no more conversation, for the rest of our time in this dismal, cruel reality, there will be no more conversation.’

Can we not find other people to talk to?

‘Maybe. But how do we find them? How could we ever develop that intimacy that we shared for all those years? No one knows we are here, you and I, slowly losing our reason for lack of conversation that like the centreboard of a boat would hold us to a sensible course.’

Could we not continue on our old course?

‘No. Have you forgotten? She died, and for all those years, because of her lifelong illness and disability, we looked after her, and her thoughts were as free and vigorous and engaging and enlightening as they could be, for her sickness lodged only in her body. So that is why we were always so busy, you and I, preparing meals, wash­ing and cleaning and taking her out to the hospi­tal, and once in a while, so infrequently towards the end, we would have a day out at St Albans, and before that we used to visit that second-hand bookshop that had taken over the premises of a closed-down solicitors, with all those little offices, ideal for categorising all the books into major sub­ject areas – in this office, history, in this office next door, literature, and further down the long, long corridor, other little rooms for gardening, adven­ture and travel, crime, and children’s books, right at the very end. But do you remember, the owner had to close the shop when the council put up the business rates to a level he could not sustain? That was when we bought one of his tables, which we brought home in the back of our car, which to this day has been in the back room, its two shelves, and the top of course, stacked with books, so maybe the table does not know anything untoward has happened, and in its own feeble way, for it is made of wood, it thinks it is still in the bookshop, and that when I go to take books from it, and bring them back, it thinks I am a customer.’

Is there nothing, then, that will end this pounding and this panic and this despair?

‘I do not think so. We must hope that it will not last for long. We are not young any more, you realise? Not like we used to be. For that is how we felt, we felt so very young, right up until the day she died, even though others, especially those who are as yet young, would think us already old. This is how our days are now, and they are not so bad, not so bad when tabulated against all the other days that sometimes others must suffer, for the suffering here is so very great.’

I do know that, I do. And I am so very sad for it.

‘As am I, as am I, my dear heart – for that is how she would refer to me, sometimes, and that is how I may now address you, just for a little long­er, to keep the phrase alive in this little house (for it is not “our little house” any more).’