The trouble with death is you have to live with it. Unlike some poets or supernaturalists I don’t believe it’s like a shadowy presence that haunts the living. It’s more like a scar. A part of you that has irrevocably changed, been reversed by a natural process that you have no control over. When the wound that caused it is open, weeping and painful, people tend to it regularly, doing everything they can to help it heal, stop the bleeding, keep it clean and free from infection that might fatally linger. But once healed, the wound slowly starts to fade and before long only those closest to you ever notice it or even remember it’s there. Sometimes you’ll be in the bath and see that little patch of tenderised skin, pallid and delicate where living flesh and blood used to be. You’ll run a finger over it to check it’s still as proud as it used to be, and, disappointed, realise that it’s losing its prominence as the years go by.
I am lucky though. One scar, a mere flesh wound some may say. There are those whose hearts have been broken and crushed so many times, if you could peel away the chest you would see a heart like the flesh of a burn victim, seared and tightening around the vital organ, threatening to strangle it completely. My 90-year-old friend, let’s call him Alfred, has lost mother, father, siblings and two wives. Not a soul in the world is left to him but one brother in Australia who has just lost his wife, and another that’s gone AWOL for no reason whatsoever. He lives, but each memorial that comes around the scar gets a little thicker, its clutch on his heart a little stronger, and his memories of being alive, really truly living, fade like the rhythm of the blood, now barely pumping around his wizened frame.
It’s four years and four months since I lost my mum but that’s not the memorial date I’m thinking of today. August 28th was mum and dad’s anniversary, and we always made a big thing of it in our house. It was a family present day, all of us getting in the spirit, giving one another gifts and, when my brother and I got older, throwing mum and dad the occasional surprise party.
Since she died we have kept the tradition, although I barely know why any more. It seemed another excuse to supplement the memorial of her death, one day not being long enough to commemorate such a full life, as if two could really make much more of a difference. Or maybe we just wanted to remember being a family, having good times, Greek plate smashing at mum’s favourite restaurant or the fun of trying to guess what she was wrapping for us behind the closed door of her bedroom.
But despite the good memories for me there was always a tinge of sadness in those days. Extreme excitement or pleasure always gets me in the throat like the lump before tears, being, as I fatefully am, never able to switch off my brain to the awareness of the passing of time, the fleeting nature of the very happiness I should have been enjoying. There were years, in the recession of the 90s, when I wished we could ignore the day, forget that there was anything to celebrate because I didn’t want my dad to spend money we didn’t have trying to live up to the idea of a ‘proper’ celebration. There were times when it seemed ridiculous to celebrate a marriage that seemed so up and down, at times strained, as all marriages are. I was young of course, I didn’t realise the rollercoaster that comes with loving someone, and indeed being frustrated with them, as with your own flesh. Another thing mum and I will never get to relate on, now I am married and understand her yet cannot sympathise, because she is gone.
Towards the end, these wedding anniversaries got more elaborate, or maybe more desperate, as if we could distract her from dying by creating a day so special it would drown out the cancer and all the pain that went with it. We took her to Claridge’s and ate til we felt sick, drank champagne and wished it made us feel happy. I suddenly felt that maybe my naïve sense of sadness in those early years was somehow prophetic, that I had known all along there would come a time when all celebrating seems pathetic, a pregnant pause before we can all get on with the process of grieving.
So now, it seems futile to celebrate an occasion that belongs to half of a partnership already rent in two. After all, marriage is about partnership, propping each other up, halving the load. It seems bizarre, macabre even, to celebrate something that has been mortally wounded, like a paraplegic celebrating the day his legs were blasted to smithereens by an enemy shell. Far from indulging in some special treat to mark the occasion, I feel like pulling apart my ribcage and showing the stripes on my heart, proudly commentating on the progression of the wound: “Look! That’s the bit that happened every time mum pumped the bile from her cancerous stomach into a bowl for me to empty in the bathroom sink!” People will remark, appreciatively, and ask if it’s still painful, safe in the knowledge that I will politely reply, “Oh it’s amazing what they can do these days, I barely notice it now. Human instinct to survive, you know.”
Of course, if marriage is forever and you believe, as I do, that death is merely an interruption, there’s even less reason to mark another year in the gap between the living and the dead. We each have our own waiting to do. Hers in rest, ours in the agitating turmoil of life.