Tag Archives: grief

Absolute Beginners

It’s been emotional.

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Fly on, little wing. Image: sjohart Artist unknown

The past week and a bit has seen my baby spend several days in hospital. The care we received – all if us, not just Junior – was impeccable, and a full recovery is imminent,  but still. If I never have to call an ambulance for my tiny child again, it will be too soon.

The picture above is one I took in Baby’s hospital room. The tiny bird reminded me of the child in the cot beneath it in better, healthier days – all wide, sparkling eyes, the mouth barely open in wonder and curiosity – and I found it hugely comforting. As kind as the nurses and doctors were, however, it was exhausting, both practically and emotionally, to maintain a bedside vigil and I was glad to be allowed home again last weekend.

I listened to ‘Lazarus’, a track from David Bowie’s latest album, on one of our trips to or from hospital. How incredible, I thought. Bowie is still a relevant, creative genius.  I loved the track. I resolved to buy the album.

And then news broke of his death.

I haven’t been so broken at a celebrity death before. Not even the loss of Terry Pratchett, who I adored, hurt as much as this. I can’t process the idea that Bowie, the chameleon, the otherworldly, the unspeakably beautiful, is dead. I prefer to think he has returned home. He will never be gone. He is part of the air now, and the night sky.

I don’t have a favourite Bowie track. I love pretty much all of them equally. (The video for ‘Let’s Dance’, however, is dearest to my heart). I wanted to share the video for ‘Absolute Beginners’, though, not only because I think it’s a fabulous song, but mostly because it was in my head a lot as I looked after my sick child.

I absolutely love you, but I’m an absolute beginner.

I am an inexperienced mother, but I hope I’m doing an OK job. ‘Absolute Beginners’ lets me know I probably am. I wish David Bowie knew how much his music and image have meant to me, and how much he has helped me just by existing and creating and showing us all how to turn our lives into art.

I loved him. I will never forget him. And my child will know all about him, in time.

Like I said. It’s been emotional.

 

All Change

It’s been a weird few days.

Not, perhaps, in terms of my actual, personal existence – I mean, I still got up every morning, and went to visit friends, and spent time with my beloved people, and I even laughed, like everything was normal.

But, never far from my thoughts, there was a sparkly-eyed man beneath a big black hat, and the ache of knowing that he’s gone.

Image: taken by SJ O'Hart. 2013 reissue (Corgi), cover art by Josh Kirby. 'Lords and Ladies' originally published 1992, Victor Gollancz.

Image: taken by SJ O’Hart.
2013 reissue (Corgi), cover art by Josh Kirby. ‘Lords and Ladies’ originally published 1992, Victor Gollancz.

I read my copy of Lords and Ladies (which is the fourteenth Discworld novel, and – when I pressed myself to make a choice – the one I decided was my favourite) over the weekend, which meant most of my laughter was at scenes like the Lancre Morris Men doing the long-forbidden Stick and Bucket Dance, or the exploits of Casanunda the dwarf, the Disc’s second-greatest lover (his motto: ‘I try harder’); I think it was an appropriate way to begin my send-off of Sir Terry Pratchett. The only thing is, I might begin this process, but I don’t think it’ll ever come to an end. I’ll be saying goodbye to him for the rest of my life.

I’ve been following the grieving process of other fans (over the past few days, I think the Discworld community has grown extremely close, despite us only knowing one another ‘in the ether’), and it has made me feel proud to be part of a fandom like this one. There has been no horrible ‘trolling’ (at least, none of which I’m aware), and – by and large – the family and associates of Terry Pratchett have been treated with kindness and respect, if some thoughtless but well-meaning attempts at consolation, by fans on social media. Money has been raised for Alzheimer’s awareness and research, and will continue to be, with any luck (here’s a link to a fundraising page, if you want to check it out), and Sir TP’s books have been selling in huge numbers – which is, of course, the best way to honour his memory. I’m glad I have an entire bookshelf full of his novels to read at my leisure, collected over the span of my lifetime so far, but if I had the money I would buy second and third copies of all of them and gift them to people who’ve never read them, or simply leave them tucked into nooks and crannies to be found by passersby as my offering to the universe. All humanity (and more – I’m not speciesist!) is to be found within their pages.

If you know someone, or you are someone, who has never read a Pratchett book, then now is the time. Now is the time to find one, and open the covers. Step onto the Disc, and stay with it a while, and you may never want to leave. If you want a Neil Gaiman-y introduction to the flavour and humour of Terry Pratchett, then try Good Omens; if you’re in the humour for affecting, meaningful, written-in-the-bone storytelling about family, bravery and the facing down of monsters while armed with nothing more than a frying pan, then start with the Tiffany Aching books, a series-within-a-series. If you’re interested in setting off on an adventure with Rincewind the wizard and getting to know the Discworld, then begin at the beginning, with The Colour of Magic.

Whatever you do, just start somewhere. Keep the ripples of Sir Pterry’s life going. Keep the flame of his memory lit. Keep laughing at his jokes, and keep being amazed by the worlds of knowledge packed into his stories, and keep being moved by the emotion at the heart of his characters. Maybe, that way, the horrible changed reality we’re living in, the one where he’s gone, can be forced back up the Trousers of Time, and we can go down another leg instead – one where he’s still with us, and in good health, and where he has time to write down all the tales he wants to tell us.

And if not, at least we have the stories he did manage to write, which are good enough for a lifetime’s reading and re-reading. I’m just so sad that there won’t be any more.

The End

Knowing something is going to happen, I’ve found, doesn’t seem to make it any easier to bear when it eventually does. I – along with all of Sir Terry Pratchett’s millions of fans across the world – have followed his struggle with Alzheimer’s disease over the past eight years, willing him on (for as long as he felt able), wishing him well, sending him strength and courage and hope.

But we all knew that one day, probably sooner rather than later, ‘the embuggerance’ (as he called his illness) would wear him down. Yesterday was that day.

Image: theguardian.com

Image: theguardian.com

I learned of his passing on Twitter, which seems inappropriate somehow. I don’t know why. It seems impersonal, maybe; like the knowledge was second-hand. Terry Pratchett has been a part of my life for almost thirty years. I feel like I knew him personally. I feel like he was a dearly beloved uncle, one guaranteed to make you giggle at the most inappropriate moments, bound to make salacious comments over the vegetables at Sunday dinner, and the first to get up on a stool with a flagon in his hand and regale us all with verse after verse of Nanny Ogg’s famous ballad, ‘The Hedgehog Can Never Be Buggered At All.’ His smile, and his ever-present black fedora, are as familiar to me as the faces of my own family.

I can’t explain why he was so important to me. I loved his books, certainly. I loved his characters – his strong women, Nanny Ogg and Granny Weatherwax, Tiffany Aching, Anathema Device, even Magrat Garlick, who is strong in entirely different ways to the others; his complex men, like King Verence of Lancre, Captain Carrot of the City Watch, and the incomparable Sam Vimes, and I adored the stories and the worlds  he created – but it’s more than that. It’s the fact that you can pick up any of his books, at practically any page, and read a paragraph or two, and if you haven’t either laughed, learned something new or been flattened by an amazing image or perfectly constructed sentence by the time you get to the end, then I’ll be the guy in the corner with a bladder on a stick. Terry Pratchett was not university educated, but I learned more from reading his books than I did from any university course I ever took. Every page was packed full of allusions, inferences, puns (or ‘punes’, for those in the know), and jokes which, sometimes, only made sense years later. I often had the experience of reading something in a textbook and realising, with a start, that I’d come across the idea already in a Pratchett novel – I just hadn’t known it at the time. I have been, and I’m sure I’ll continue to be, amazed on a regular basis by just how much world there is in his books – not just the fictional worlds of his immeasurable imagination, but of our world, too. His was an intellect rarely matched.

I wept for him yesterday, and I’m sure I’ll weep for him in the future. I can’t read the final few Tweets on his official timeline (@terryandrob) without blinking back tears, because they are so perfect. They are heartbreaking, but they couldn’t be more suitable. I’m staggered with admiration for Sir Pterry’s daughter Rhianna, who wrote the Tweets, and who pushed through her own terrible grief to share the news of her father’s passing with all of us who did not know him, but who loved him all the same. I know I am part of a huge fandom, almost a family, and that is a huge comfort. I know I’m not the only person who wept for Terry Pratchett yesterday, and I know that he will be remembered for many years to come. In his own words:

No-one is actually dead until the ripples they cause in the world die away. (Reaper Man)

By that Pratchettian logic, Sir Pterry will be with us until the end of time, and for that, and for his words and stories, I am truly glad.

Wiga, Wintrum Geong

One year ago today, the man about whom this blog post was originally written was lost to the world. All that is in my heart today – and believe me, I’ve tried all morning to blog about something, about *anything* else – are my memories of him and my sorrow at his loss, and my disbelief that it’s been a year already. A year.

My friend’s name was Neal. Today, I will remember him.

SJ O'Hart

Round about ten years ago now, I started studying for my Ph.D. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort, and it represented everything I had ever wanted to achieve. I loved my subject, I adored reading about it, I loved to write about it, and I was thirsty to learn.

I wasn’t too hot on getting up in public and speaking about it, but I figured that stuff would come later. It did, and I happily lectured and taught for many years.

But, back at the beginning, one of the things I took as a module that first year was Latin.

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

I wanted to be able to read and understand the beautiful manuscripts I had the privilege of studying, and I wanted to be ‘fluent’ (if one can use that word about a language that isn’t really spoken, at least as a vernacular, any more); a lot…

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Wiga, Wintrum Geong

Round about ten years ago now, I started studying for my Ph.D. It was the culmination of a lifetime’s effort, and it represented everything I had ever wanted to achieve. I loved my subject, I adored reading about it, I loved to write about it, and I was thirsty to learn.

I wasn’t too hot on getting up in public and speaking about it, but I figured that stuff would come later. It did, and I happily lectured and taught for many years.

But, back at the beginning, one of the things I took as a module that first year was Latin.

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

Image: rylandscollections.wordpress.com

I wanted to be able to read and understand the beautiful manuscripts I had the privilege of studying, and I wanted to be ‘fluent’ (if one can use that word about a language that isn’t really spoken, at least as a vernacular, any more); a lot of older scholarly texts in my subject, medieval studies, quoted passages of Latin without any translation as their authors would have expected anyone who read them to be able to understand them without difficulty. I also wanted to master a command of this beautiful and important language, just because it was an intellectual challenge.

One day, as I sat with my ‘Wheelock’s Latin’ trying to catch up on the previous lesson’s homework, a new student strode into the classroom. Tall, and handsome, dark-haired and blue-eyed, there was an air of friendliness and humour about him. He looked around the room, smiling broadly, and eventually settled on a vacant chair not far from me. He nodded a greeting as he took out his own book, and among his notes I saw some photocopies of an Old English text that I was also doing research into.

‘Are you doing Old English?’ I asked, excited to meet another person like me.

‘Yeah,’ he replied, still smiling – for this boy always smiled. ‘I love it.’

And so, a friendship was born. Our mutual incomprehension of Latin and our fear of the instructor and her impossible class tests gave us something to laugh about over coffee; our shared love of Old English meant we’d often sound out one another’s grammatical knowledge over lunch, engaging with the multiple meanings of certain words and the effects this had on the texts we loved. We’d work through translations together, discussing the beauty of the language and the blood-stirring stories. Sometimes, we’d just hang out and talk about the same old nonsense anyone talks about when they’re in good company.

He was fascinated by my Ph.D. thesis, then in its barest infancy, barely wobbling on its badly-researched legs. I shared ideas with him and drew strength from his enthusiasm. In return, I engaged with his research, which was on the Old English word ‘mod’ and its uses in different texts over time. This word has many meanings: Courage. Heart. Mind. Soul. Spirit.

He embodied them all.

At the end of our academic year together, my friend left my university to begin working on his own Ph.D. at Durham, and I bid him farewell with a heavy heart. I missed his good-natured banter, his scholarly excellence, his determination to get to the bottom of any linguistic or grammar-related issue, and his sheer enthusiasm for life. I looked forward to watching his career progress, and I hoped – one day – to meet him again. His smile never dimmed and his good humour never failed, and he was the sort of person who carries sunshine in his pocket – everyone was glad to see him, and he always made the day brighter.

Last Friday, I discovered through a message posted by my friend’s aunt that he had lost his life, suddenly and tragically. He was still living in Durham, far from his family in Connecticut. He had been ill, but his death came out of the blue.

The news stunned me. I sat at my computer, weeping, scrolling through the many messages left by his friends and loved ones on his Facebook wall, all of them saying the same things that were in my heart: ‘Too young,’ ‘What a wonderful man,’ ‘One of the greats,’ ‘Will be missed so much,’ ‘Brought joy wherever he went.’ It didn’t lessen my own shock and grief to see how deeply he was loved, but it did make me feel a little less alone.

I thought of his long-ago MA research, and the word ‘mod’, and how it had been the perfect thing for him to write about. He was heart, and soul, and courage. He embodied fullness of spirit. He was one of the best people I have ever known, and I will always regret that I allowed so many years to pass without seeing him in person.

The title of my blog post today means ‘A hero, young in years.’ It is written in the language my friend loved – Old English – and taken from one of the poems we discussed over those long-ago coffees, ‘The Battle of Maldon.’ I can’t believe the world has lost someone as bright, loving and intelligent as my friend, and I will miss him all the days of my life. All I can do now is hope he will live on in the memories of those who loved him, and keep the flame of his ‘mod’ alive in my own heart.

In Ireland, we have a saying when someone dies. Ní bheidh a leithéid arís ann. It means ‘Never will his like be seen again.’

In my friend’s case, it’s absolutely true.

A burial fit for a king. Image: alexpogeler.wordpress.com

A burial fit for a king.
Image: alexpogeler.wordpress.com

Book Review Saturday – ‘Red Ink’

One of the main reasons behind my purchase of ‘Red Ink’ was the fact that it is published by Hot Key Books. I’ve only recently become aware of this publisher, but I already know how high their standards are; all the books I’ve picked up from Hot Key have been very good indeed, and this one is no different. They’re well-written, and edgy, and fresh, and slightly off-beat, in all the best possible ways.

Image: forbookssake.net

Image: forbookssake.net

‘Red Ink’ tells the story of a fifteen-year-old girl coming to terms with awful loss, and trying to rebuild her life, and herself. It takes us from London to Crete and back again, describing the differing landscapes with such precise and poetic language that we can feel the streets under our feet, see the sparkling blue sea, hear the passing traffic, smell the warm dust in the air. The writing in this book is a living thing. It is the voice of our narrator; for the duration of the novel, we are her. It absorbed me completely.

Our narrator has to live under the heavy burden of a name she despises, and this is the point at which we’re first introduced to her. We learn her name is Melon Fouraki, and we learn that her mother is dead. At the beginning of the novel, Melon is living with her late mother’s partner, Paul, who – wonderfully – is portrayed throughout as a good, kind, compassionate and caring man, who wishes to look after Melon and keep her safe. He loves her, and he loved her mother, and his grief is as real and as raw as Melon’s, though we experience it at a remove. Throughout the novel, people raise eyebrows over Melon and Paul’s relationship, projecting sordid and distasteful things onto it; this serves to make their bond seem even more precious, and it was one of the things about the novel I enjoyed the most. Of course, Paul’s guardianship over Melon causes her irritation at first, and she rails against his efforts to show her the parental love which, in many ways, she has always lacked, but one thing she always has for him is respect. He is a great character, and I loved what Mayhew did with him.

Melon herself is a wonder. Funny, abrasive, full-colour, so real you can nearly hear her voice narrating her story to you, I absolutely loved her. She’s one of the most convincing characters I’ve ever met, and this is largely because Mayhew tackles the concept of grief so well. Melon obviously loved her eccentric, slightly batty mother, and she is devastated by her sudden and tragic death, but at the book’s outset she is consumed with anger, and doesn’t even realise it. Her mother’s death is ‘no big deal’; she doesn’t have any feelings on the matter, besides the fact that she feels like there’s a brick lodged in her ribcage. As the story goes on, the reality of her loss begins to hit home and we walk by her side as she processes the stages of her grief. Every step of it is utterly believable. She finds herself feeling normal at times, then feeling guilty for feeling normal, as if it’s a betrayal of her mother’s memory to spend the occasional day unbowed by grief; she makes jokes to cover her own awkwardness and that of other people in discussing loss, and death, and sorrow. It’s one of the most touching, and true, expositions of grieving that I’ve ever read.

Alongside Melon’s present-day journey, we also have ‘The Story’ – the story that Melon’s mother has told her all her life, her ‘origin myth’. It is the story of her father, and how Melon was conceived in Crete, and the heartbreaking romance of her parents’ separation. Everything about Melon’s life, from her strange name to her father’s absence, are explained away in beautiful terms by ‘The Story’, which Melon has heard so often that she can recite it by heart. It is, in real terms, the only thing her mother left her. It is her legacy. In an attempt to find out more about herself and her family and to see the real landscape behind the story, Melon traces her mother’s life back to where it began – in Crete. The results of this search go to the foundation of Melon’s own life. She learns the truth behind ‘The Story’, and it begins to be retold.

There is a lot to like in this book. Besides the characterisation, I enjoyed the structure, which flips back and forth in time. Some chapters describe Melon’s life before her mother’s death, some after, which builds up a gradual picture of their relationship. The language is pitch-perfect, the settings are fantastic, the depictions of family life are excellent. It is full of love and loss and truth, and it tells a strong story. There was one aspect of the book that I didn’t like so much, but I’m not going to give it away here, of course; one aspect of the conclusion of Melon’s story felt unnecessary to me, and a little too ‘pat’. If you’ve read it, you probably know what I mean, and if you haven’t, I hope you’ll read it in an attempt to find out.

Even if it's only to have images like this created in your mind! Image: finestgreece.gr

Read this book. Even if it’s only to have images like this created in your mind!
Image: finestgreece.gr

Happy weekend, and happy reading. I’d love to know what’s currently on your Bookish Radar. Feel free to share in the comments!

Wednesday Write-In #36

This week’s words were:

on the ledge  ::  fingerprint  ::  subtitle  ::  just a cigar  ::  birthday

Meet on the Ledge

She wakes to singing, gentle and under his breath. Barely there at all, it’s more of a vibration in his chest than anything. He’s warm beside her.

‘Morning,’ she whispers, curling herself into the hollow under his arm. They’re lying on the couch in the living room, and the curtains are askew. The light falls across her face like the blade of a sword.

‘Morning, you,’ he says, between verses. He sings her awake, making her feel like a snake being charmed out of a basket. Wineglasses cluster around overflowing ashtrays like workers around water coolers. The air in the room is heavy with remembered crowds. Laughter lingers in every corner.

‘It was a great party, wasn’t it?’ he says, when the song comes to an end. ‘Very, I don’t know – decadent, maybe. Bohemian.’ She feels him smiling.

‘They don’t throw ‘em like that any more, that’s for sure,’ she agrees. There’s a thickness in her voice, and a strange taste in her mouth. She rolls her tongue around, feeling all her teeth, trying to get her bearings. Everything feels upended. She tastes wrong, she feels wrong. Her head spins. ‘Where is everyone?’

‘Well, the birthday girl is in bed – I’m not sure who with,’ he says, archly. Her eyes fall on the birthday card they all clubbed together to make for her – it has a picture of Sigmund Freud on the front. Captioned ‘Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar…’, she grins as she remembers the messages they put inside. ‘I think there are a few marooned souls on the floor, too. Little islands of drunken solitude.’

‘You’re such a poetic fool,’ she teases, laying her hand flat on the skin of his chest. She stretches out her fingers. They feel like rivers, flowing down her arm and out under her nails, covering him from head to toe, dripping onto the carpet. She begins to feel light-headed. As if he can sense her beginning to float away, he lays his hand on top of hers. He circles her knuckles gently. Beneath her ear, his heart thuds, steady as the oceans.

‘You know, skin can take a fingerprint,’ he says. ‘So, if I become a crime scene, they’ll dust me. They’ll try to pin it on you.’ His voice takes on a noirish tinge. ‘You gotta make a run for it, sister. You gotta never let ‘em catch you!’

‘Idiot,’ she smiles. ‘I’m too clever for that. Don’t you think this is all part of my master plan?’

‘I never doubted you for a second,’ he says, chuckling. She feels his other hand start to play with her hair. She wonders if she stinks of sweat, or smoke, or worse.

‘What were you singing?’ she asks, covering her sudden shyness. She wants to ask him a different question, but she’s not brave enough to form the words.

‘Just now? It was Meet on the Ledge. Fairport Convention. Do you know it?’ She desperately wants to lie, to pretend she’s on his level, but instead she shakes her head.

‘Shame,’ he says. ‘It’s a great tune.’ The melody beneath her ear starts up again. She listens, and her mind fills up with images of high places, blown lives, waste. Lost friends. She finds it depressing.

‘A bit sad, isn’t it?’ she says. He’s silent for several minutes, but his heartbeat fills her mind.

‘No way,’ he replies eventually. ‘They knew how to write a song, back in the day.’ He hums a bit more, like he’s fast-forwarding a tape. Eventually, he gets to the part he wants. ‘“If you really mean it, it all comes round again,”’ he sings, so softly that only she can hear. ‘This isn’t the end, you know what I mean? It’s all a cycle. We’re meaningless.’ He pauses, takes a deep breath. ‘What’s the point of any of it?’ he says, his voice soft and far away. She can’t say why, but something about his words makes her feel uncomfortable. She swallows a sudden mouthful of hurt.

‘Sometimes I wish you came with subtitles,’ she jokes after a few minutes, looking up at him. His eyes are bright green in the morning light. They search her face for a long time, as if looking for a foothold. Then he blinks, and looks away.

Much later, she’ll remember this moment, and wonder what she missed. Every time this date that was once just a birthday, and which became so much more, rolls around, she’ll listen to the song. She still won’t understand, and she’ll wonder if her fingerprints are still on his skin. Between the notes of the song she’ll tell herself she can hear his heartbeat, and she’ll cry a little less with every passing year.

One of Those Days

Today is a day like any other, but it’s also extraordinary. It’s December 12th, 2012, the last date anyone now alive will ever see which can be written as a repeating number – i.e. 12/12/12. It’s a rare and special thing, but also a fleeting and ephemeral treasure.

The other day, I came upon a fridge magnet among my possessions. It was purchased in Dubrovnik, years ago, when I was there on holiday with some friends. At the time I bought it, I intended it to be a present for my grandmother, but I never gave it to her – when I came home, she became ill, and we lost her not long after. I suppose, in the confusion surrounding her death, I put the tiny present away and forgot all about it. When I found the fridge magnet again, it brought back all sorts of regret and sorrow that I thought I’d dealt with, and it made me miss my grandmother with a hollowing ache. I loved her (and still love her) very dearly; her photo sits on my hall table, so whenever I leave my home or return to it, she’s there, smiling at me. I think of her every day with gentle remembrance. But I crumpled over that fridge magnet, full of remorse and loss. I realised that I hadn’t really treasured my grandmother enough while she lived – she was always just there, living in the house next door, pottering around in her back garden, laughing at the drop of a hat – and it was only when she left us that I understood how dear she was to me.

old hand being held by young hands

The fridge magnet was cheap; just a souvenir, like any other. No doubt it will fall off the fridge one day and smash to pieces on the floor, or the magnet will come away from the back, and the tiny plastic reproduction of Dubrovnik’s medieval wall will skitter away under a cupboard, never to be seen again. It (like the date, like today, like a life) is ephemeral – a temporary treasure. I’m going to use it, though, and look at it every day until I lose it, as I know I will. Knowing that something is temporary should give you an even greater need to appreciate it, but as happens too often in life, things (and people) are taken for granted, and we only miss them once they’re lost.

Make the most of this unique day. And treasure everything.