I dreamed about my father this morning. In the dream, I’d somehow managed to establish contact with him where he is now (he died in 2001). He wasn’t happy: he was bored, he was lonely, he missed us, he missed his home. I didn’t like to explain to him that he couldn’t come back; it seemed unnecessarily hurtful. I told him that they’d built a whole new wing on the place where he was living, but he wasn’t interested.
(I realised afterwards that this last part was a reference to John 14:2.)
I don’t believe in personal survival, not least because I find it hard to believe that anything recognisable as the soul of an identifiable human being would not be dreadfully homesick. (I think it’s Little My, in one of the Moomin books, who asks how you get back down from Heaven and is outraged to hear that you don’t.) I like Robyn Hitchcock‘s lines:
I was free as a penny whistle
And silent as a glove
I wasn’t me to speak of
Just a thousand ancient feelings
That vanished into nothing – into love
Along similar lines, here’s a poem I wrote many years ago. I’m not sure where it came from – falling asleep, possibly.
DyingAfter my last visitor was gone,
I lay and let my eyes close.
The world dwindled away, and I watched
A noise of memories jostling, chattering,
Seeing images snap out of nowhere, shrinking, dilating,
Muttering… Then they too left me.
My eyes held only a deep, clear grey.
My body lay, now, calm and heavy,
My limbs, their weight, spread like scattered rocks,
Rocks tumbled on a shore, slanted from the sea’s waves,
Or rocks old on a hillside scattered, crooked
Huge. A river rose among those rocks:
A river, cold and quiet in the night,
My running slowly out to meet the sea.
Passing, then, down through dark valleys,
All through grey and gravel-bedded lands
And on to cliffs, and cataracts! falling in foam
Into the still air, smashed on rocks and splashing,
Hurrying, trembling, coming at last to the shore,
To the rim of the ocean. Under the stars
Flowing, oh coursing into the sea’s cold basin,
And my diffusion, out to horizon’s depth,
Mingled with the dark, glimmering sea,
And ah! the infinite circles of the stars!
That would do. (Poetrivia: the last line came first, in the best Hunting of the Snark style. I can also reveal that, in the phrase ‘rocks old on a hillside scattered’, ‘old’ is meant to qualify ‘hillside’. I’m sure you were wondering.)
Another way of looking at death is to say that, whatever it is, it’s not life – which is to say, it’s not any of the things that we know in life. Which leads in to these words, which I sang at my mother’s funeral. It’s mostly Shakespeare, with a couple of modern amendments (mine).
Fear no more the heat of the sun,
Nor the furious winter’s rages;
Thou thy worldly task hast done,
Home art gone, and ta’en thy wages;
Golden lads and girls all must
As chimney-sweepers come to dust.
Fear no more the lightning-flash
Nor the all-dreaded thunder-stone;
Fear no slander or censure rash;
Thou hast finished joy and moan.
The sceptre, learning, physic, must
Follow thee and come to dust.
May no misfortune take thee
Nor remembrance forsake thee.
Unquiet spirit forbear thee,
No ill thing come near thee.
Quiet consummation have
And renowned be thy grave!
A friend commented that our parents have ‘big lives’. It’s an odd phrase, but I think it captures something. My life (or your life, if you insist) is vast: my life contains everything there is, as far as I’m concerned. Other people’s lives are tiny by comparison. Only a few people have lives anywhere near as big as mine: my partner, my children, my very closest friends (perhaps) and, above all and before all, my parents. Big lives, and big absences. But if they’re not here I can’t really see that they’re anywhere – and I’d hate to think of their spirits parked endlessly in a kind of heavenly holiday development, bickering idly and wondering how we were getting on without them. Better to melt into a cosmic background thrum of love – or flow into a dark sea reflecting infinite stars.