Friday, 10 August 2018
Everyone has Been so Kind.
It is the dazed end of the hottest summer anyone can remember. Not far away, a good old man is dying.
Does it make a difference that he is good? Does that make it sadder?
Does it make a difference that he is old? Does that make it easier?
Does it make it more poignant that the hills and fields where he lives are dressed in their dramatic August livery of gold and blue?
Does it make it better or worse that he had a life well lived, that he was always joking and laughing, that he was brilliantly clever, that everybody who met him loved him? The memories will be richer; the loss will be greater.
It makes no difference and it makes all the difference.
I took soup. I made soup, last night, thinking of the dying, thinking of the living, thinking of the grieving. Today, I drove it up the hill.
Before I left, I talked to my dear friend. We've all known this family for twenty years. I don't know them intimately, but they are stitched in to the community. I see them at Christmas and at the Highland games and in the village; at dinners and lunches on high days and holidays. We smile and smile and talk of ordinary things.
'I'm making soup,' I said to my friend, 'because you can't be cooking and grieving at the same time. And,' I said, 'I'm making soup because it's easy. The speaking is hard. Because what do you say?'
She looked at me in surprise.
'But you,' she said, 'surely you know what to say?'
I knew that she meant: because your father died and your mother died and it's not that long ago. I knew she meant: surely you have the language of death?
I shook my head. 'Just afterwards,' I said, 'I was brilliant. Just after someone has died you are stripped of everything. You have no defences. You've lost a layer of skin. You are all authenticity. You can say anything then.'
I looked at the sky. I looked at the trees.
'You are in the zone,' I said. 'In the death zone. Then, if you meet someone who has suffered a loss, you know exactly what to say because it's all you can say. Death and grief and pain are your only language.'
'And then,' I said, 'you grow your skin back. You put yourself back together. You put on your defences again. After maybe a year, you are back to the very British thing of feeling embarrassed because you don't know what to say.'
The dear friend looked interested and relieved. I think she was relieved to find that she was not the only one. Because what do you say?
We parted with extra fondness, because proximity to death reminds you of how much you love the ones who are still alive. And I drove up the hill.
The long, low house, with Scotland draped around it in all her glory, was silent and wide open. I walked through the front door and through the empty hall and through the hushed drawing room. I saw, with gladness and sadness, the family photographs on every surface. Everyone was smiling. Everyone was young. Everyone was vividly living.
I had a horrible feeling that the good old man had died in the night and that I was crashing in on the moment of farewell.
Suddenly, a small, beaming figure appeared at my elbow. She was perhaps eight years old, and vibrating with life.
'Hello,' she said, in delight, as if all she ever wanted was a middle-aged woman in a hat to appear with a huge silver pot of soup.
Her cousin, older, upright, gracefully composed, walked down the corridor, taking over the situation.
I remembered her. She had been a little girl when I last saw her. Now she was on the edge of teendom, half child, half young woman.
Her grandmother, she said, was on an important call. I remembered the calls. There are so many people you have to speak to on the telephone when someone is dying.
'Don't disturb her,' I said. 'I just wanted you to have the soup. Heat it up gently,' I said.
She nodded gravely. She took the huge pot. She regarded me from eyes which were so clear and direct that I almost had to look away.
She said, with the politesse and poise of an ambassadress, 'Everyone has been so kind.'
I looked at her in awe. I wondered whether I would ever achieve that kind of graceful ease. Was she born with it, or had she learnt it somewhere?
I said goodbye and walked out of the silent house.
At the back, an ancient, stumpy apple tree was bending under the weight of its fruit. The apples were heavy and dense, as if they were about to burst their green skins. I wondered, with a fall in my stomach: will anyone have time to pick those apples this year?
To the north, there was a sudden call of geese. I could not see them, but they were shouting across the valley. It's too early for the geese, I thought. They don't usually come until the autumn, when they fly above us in great gangs, heading for their winter feeding grounds.
I looked at the view and thought of the good old man looking at the view every day of his life. He had something to gladden his eyes, I thought.
As I drove home, life and death singing in me so strongly that I could almost feel the atoms of my body moving and shifting, a pair of swallows swooped low across the road. They soared and rose, flinging themselves from one golden field to another.
They are making their goodbyes too, I thought. It is nearly time for them to make their great trek to Africa.
Write it down, write it down, said the voices in my head. Don't forget this day. Don't forget the gold fields and the green apples and the swooping birds and the blue hills.
Don't forget the young girl with her astonishing grace.
'Everyone has been so kind.'