Tag Archives: sorrow

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

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

Storm in the Heart

The wind is high, and cold rain is being driven against the glass. The streets are awash with water. It is angry weather, pained weather. Sorrowful weather. It is also powerful weather, renewing the earth.

Today, I will be accompanying someone I love very much as she says her final farewell to someone she loves very much. In that sense, today’s blustery storm is entirely appropriate weather.

Love, once shared, can never die. Nothing severs it; nothing ends it. It is not tied to the physical presence of a loved one, but it is a presence of its own, a presence which envelops and protects, and a presence which endures. Remembering someone after they have died is a remembrance of love, both the love they offered you in life and the love you had, and have, for them; in that moment of shared love, they are with you.

In that love, they will never leave you.

And love does not come to an end.

Image: comesitbythehearth.blogspot.com

Image: comesitbythehearth.blogspot.com

 

 

Tipping Point

Do you think there’s an actual point at which you just can’t take any more bad news?

Image: scq.ubc.ca

Image: scq.ubc.ca

I’m a bit of a news junkie. I like to know what’s happening in the world. Most mornings, the first thing I do is turn on the radio to get the early news bulletin so that I can get some idea of the shape of the day. Lately, though, all that’s been happening is one horror after another, culminating this week in one of the saddest news stories I’ve ever heard in my country, a story which will stay at the forefront of my mind for a long time to come. I’m just not sure I can take any more news which breaks me open like a sledgehammer to the chest, and I wonder if I should just stop taking it all in, for a while at least.

I know, before anyone suggests it, that I have a cheek to write a blog post like this when none of these dreadful news stories are about me directly and they have no personal impact on my life – and believe me, I’m aware of how lucky I am – but as a human being who is engaged with the world and who has empathy for her fellows, it does affect me. I have wept painful tears this week at the needless loss of life, the horrors perpetrated on children by their parents, the dreadful sorrow of those left behind after an accident, the waste of humanity that occurs whenever power structures begin to rumble into place and governments rise or fall; I’ve wept because it’s always the powerless, the average person, the individual like me, who is crushed beneath the wheels of change or between the teeth of revolution.

It makes me afraid that one day I won’t be the lucky one any more, and that one day it will come for me, too. It makes me afraid to live in a world where these things can happen. It makes me wonder what I can do, if there’s anything at all, to help.

I am a person with a limited set of skills. I can’t change the world through politics or diplomacy, or with money or influence; all I can do is put words together into sentences, and hope they’re good enough to read. But if everyone did what they could – in fact, if everyone was permitted to do whatever they could, however humble – to add their thread to the picture, then I think we’d be in a much better position. However, because there are so many in the world who are not allowed to add their voice to the collective melody, it’s even more important that all of us who can do something actually do it. I am a privileged person – free, healthy, and protected – and I owe it to those who possess none of these gifts to do whatever is in my power to make the world better for those who will come after us.

I may never be a successful writer, but I hope I’m a successful human being. That, after all, is the most important thing any of us can do.

I hope everything in your corner of the world today is good, and peaceful, and happy, and I also hope that tomorrow, I’ll be in a more positive frame of mind.

Image: welcometoourreality.blogspot.com

Image: welcometoourreality.blogspot.com

 

 

A Quick Thought for Sunday

I’ve just returned home from a funeral service held in memory of a man who was well known in our hometown.  I didn’t know the man well, but my mother is friends with his daughter.  I know some of his grandchildren, too, as we attended school together and we’ve all been vaguely aware of one another’s lives since we grew up and moved away from home.  The ceremony was a very emotional experience, even though I wasn’t a personal friend of the man who had passed away.  I tend to get quite upset at funerals generally, but I found this one particularly touching because one of the deceased man’s granddaughters sang, beautifully, during the ceremony and she moved me to tears.  It wasn’t just her skill as a singer that moved me, or even the choice of hymn, but it was her ability to pour her grief and love into her voice without once losing control.  I found tears rolling down my own face just listening to her, and my admiration for her was immense.  It was a wonderful tribute to a dearly loved grandfather, and it made me think about the important things in life, and what we leave behind us when we go.

The reading at the Mass was about the riches of the world that pass away, and the silks and fine fabrics of the earth which will, with time, return to dust – in a way, it was appropriate.  I’ve never aspired to be rich, or to accumulate ‘things’, but I do want to accumulate love.  The greatest treasure I could ever own would be the thought that, when it was my time to be mourned, that those who loved me would miss me and be thankful for my life.  I would hope too that they would then move on and live their lives, remembering me fondly every once in a while, and that – in time – all memory of me would pass into the wind, at one with everything else.

‘Remember me when I am gone away,

Gone far away into the silent land;

When you can no more hold me by the hand…

Yet if you should forget me for a while,

And afterwards remember, do not grieve…

Better by far you should forget and smile

Than that you should remember and be sad.’

from Remember, Christina Rossetti