I’ve been thinking quite a lot about death lately. It’s just over two years since I lost my father. I speak on the telephone to my darling old godfather, who is ninety years old and gravely ill. I am at the age when I struggle with the concept of mortality. I thought I’d got my mid-life crisis over; dealt with that moment, as Martin Amis says, when death is more than just a rumour. I actually planned it, ran full tilt into it when I was thirty-nine (why wait for forty?), dusted off my hands, and decided I’d got that one out of the way. Oh, how the sound of hollow laughter echoes round these hills.
So when something like Oklahoma happens - so savage, so violent, so ruthlessly, finally fatal - it feels personal and close, rather than an event in a far-away country of whose people I know nothing.
The internet is funny at times like this. Strangers put up messages of condolence, marking the passing of people they never met. It is lovely, in some ways. In some ways, I find some of it difficult – that kind of thing can be trite and too easy, a paltry sentimental interlude, in between the cute puppy pictures and the stop animal exports campaigns. Yet, today, people are doing it rather beautifully, with restraint and human feeling.
I saw one picture of a cowboy out on the range, in silhouette, posted by a ranch in Colorado, which just said: Our hearts are with Oklahoma.
I saw one devastating photograph, of a wet expanse of blasted concrete, where a house and a stable and a horse barn had been. It was someone’s life’s work, the words said, and everything had gone in ten minutes; wiped out, as if it had never existed. One hundred horses – eventers, Quarter Horses, rehabilitated ex-racehorses – had perished. Hug your own mounts close tonight, said the writer.
In the end, it can’t really matter, in the wild, untamed scheme of things, where your heart is. For the people mourning, the grief will still be sharp as a serpent’s tooth. And yet, I think perhaps it does matter. I think it means something. I think it reminds us that we are all human, we are all fragile, we all want to love well, and be loved in return. Our hearts are tender things, easily broken.
I rarely use the Universal We, but I sometimes think it is more universal than some people think. We are a human family, after all, on this unpredictable blue planet.
John Donne knew this and said it best, all those hundreds of years ago:
‘No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main; any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.’
Today, my heart too is with Oklahoma.
And I shall be hugging this person close: