You know, it's almost time. Time for me to be selfish, time for me to put aside the promises to, and expectations of, others. For almost a year I have been doing what physically present people needed of me both in my immediate surroundings and at a distance. For almost a year, checking in with my non-physical people (guides, ancestors, "angels" whatever that means, Patron Gods) both in private meditations and in group meditations, when I have no question to ask, I invariably ask how I am tracking, what I am meant to be doing. And the answer always comes back in exactly the same words: "You are already doing everything asked of you. You are already doing everything required of you."
And people in both groups will have heard me say that these words always, especially in the last six to eight months, filled my heart with the deepest sadness. One of the meditation-Kylies, when I said that, said I "shouldn't" feel sad about being on the right path (whatever it is that the word "should" means to her); and when we talked privately some time ago, one of my brothers said that perhaps I felt sad about already being on track to do the things asked of me and required of me, because it was my lot in life to be the strong one, to be the one capable of doing all the necessary but bitterly sad things. He said this quietly and with a warmth: he was talking from soul, not from mind.
But perhaps I have completed all I need to do of these right-but-sad things. Or perhaps I haven't completed all I need to, but perhaps I have completed all I am willing to complete. After all, as Slessor says:-
I saw Time flowing like a hundred yachts
That fly behind the daylight, foxed with air;
Or piercing, like the quince-bright, bitter slats
Of sun gone thrusting under Harbour's hair.
So Time, the wave, enfolds me in its bed,
Or Time, the bony knife, it runs me through.
That fly behind the daylight, foxed with air;
Or piercing, like the quince-bright, bitter slats
Of sun gone thrusting under Harbour's hair.
So Time, the wave, enfolds me in its bed,
Or Time, the bony knife, it runs me through.
Perhaps I am not as strong a vessel, after all, as the Otherworld requires me to be. Perhaps I seem to be, just as long as I have my support-systems intact around me, but as soon as that Bony Knife runs me through, cuts away at the structures I enjoy having around me (perhaps more than need to have around me - I seem to actually need very little), perhaps I quail at the enormity of the task. I know that I am proud of every grey hair I have, every wrinkle I have. I have earnt every single one of 'em. Time tracks through me, and I track through the world. People come and go. People I love very much, respect very much, like a lot or a little, or don't like at all, come and go. They are tracking through the world, too, drowning in the quince-bright, bitter slats of that harbour-heavy weight of time, or as warmly wrapped and enfolded in its bed as I might be in my literal bed, wrapped in warmer layers than the weather would seem to need for my emotional comfort.
It really doesn't matter whether I like someone or not. It really doesn't matter whether they like me or not. What matters is that we live to our purpose, that we learn what we need to learn, we do whatever we have time to do before breathing stops being a viable alternative.
But sooner or later the bony knife runs us through, sooner or later the blade cuts and the bone is revealed. On such a day, a good result might be to wake up later, still breathing. Or perhaps that isn't the best option for some of us: perhaps some of us are really only successful when we no longer have to wake up still breathing.
If we are talking physical bodies, in the last few months I have "lost" more than a usual number of people, people for whom continued breath no longer seemed to be a viable alternative. Two of them were guys about the same age. They had never met, but they had both heard me prattle on about the other one, and they both passed on their regards when they knew I was going to see the other one. I had known one of them since 1978, I had known the other since around 2007. I "lost" Mr 1978 first, and when I came back from Adelaide, Mr 2007 spent a moment concerned about me. Only a moment: he watched me carefully, and saw what I saw, that the ending had been right and fair, and that my managing to be with Mr 1978 at the time was also right and fair. We both realised that the death, after a horrible illness, was a relief firstly to Mr 1978 then to me as the only friend he was asking for at the end. He had donated his body to a teaching-hospital for the education of up-and-coming doctors, and he owned next-to-nothing. All his relatives were overseas. I left Adelaide with the thin, salty taste of his skin on my lips and the smell of his rather foetid last breaths in my nostrils. I left having respected his right to atheism, not having done ritual for him.
I never mentioned it to Mr 2007 and I never knew whether he noticed or not, but a week or two later Mr 1978 seemed to join my tribe of non-physical helpers. I started quoting things I barely remembered him saying, I started talking about the volunteer-run workplace where we met all those years ago and people who had been close to him but completely unimportant to me, I started to think like an electrical linesman rather than a ground-hugging wombat-woman. Mr 2007 was amused.
"Skulker, take heart," I thought my own heart said.
"The flood, the blade go by - Time flows, not you!"
Vilely, continuously, stupidly,
Time takes me, drills me, drives through bone and vein,
So water bends the seaweeds in the sea,
The tide goes over, but the weeds remain.
In the process of thinking about a recently collected group of "my people" today (those people including Mr 1978, Mr 2007, Miss J, Mr S and Little Miss P, some of whom are recently dead, some of whom are alive), I came to think of love. People have different ideas of love. I was doing a workshop just this morning, working with a motley group of mostly women, and a surprising number of them had expressed as a part of their goal statement that they "wanted love".
I cannot imagine being without love. I love and I am loved, not always by the same people, and that is exactly how it should be. The stand-out woman in the workshop whose only goal was love and who could not think of another goal no matter how hard she tried, Miss R, didn't realise that in the time of today's workshop alone, she revealed that she was, in fact, intensely loved. She mentioned children and grandchildren, she mentioned devoted animals, she mentioned long-term friends, she mentioned friendly neighbours. That is exactly love.
Real love, true love, is something we share with many people. If we are the seaweed, love is the tide that washes over, through and around us again and again, just as time does. Real, deep-down, honest love does not demand. Real love, true love, is about appreciating the uniqueness of the other being, and just wanting them to be as happy as possible, with or without us. If they are happier without us or with other people, love accepts that joyfully.
Pair-bonding is not always about love. If someone says "I love you" with the expectation that the person will reply "I love you too" and feels disappointment if they don't, then that is not love, that is ownership, that is a transaction where the first person expects the second person to "pay" for the statement of love they received with a statement of equivalent or greater value, ie "I love you too".
Likewise, if you look for someone to love (or think you have found someone to love), but one or the other person expects that their lover will give up time with others, or give up favoured activities, or do work on their decking, or whatever, in order to demonstrate or prove their love for the first person, then that is again a trade, a mark of ownership. And there is absolutely nothing wrong with that, if both people are entirely happy with that.
But a real love is this: I can tell you I love you, and I do not expect you to say you love me back. I do not even expect you to love me back silently. If you grow to dislike me and keep away with me, I am entirely okay with that, because I don't own you and therefore don't need you to do anything for me or prove anything to me. Even in the face of your potential dislike I can still love you, keeping my physical presence away from you so as not to cause you discomfort. What you think of me is your own business and weighted, usually, in your own perceptions of my behaviour whether or not you have taken the time to check the origins and reasons of that behaviour.
What I think of you is my own business: and I can safely say that if I have passed more than a certain time calling you friend and hugging you or just smiling warmly at you and enjoying your company, I already love you. And that love, being love and not ownership, will not change. I may come to know you better and see aspects of your character I don't enjoy, but the love will always still be there, as you have the right to be a complex and difficult person if you need to be, and I respect your right to be who you are and to change as you need to change. All my life, I have never tried to own people I love, although I have on occasion tried to own people I lusted after.
There are another five weeks of that workshop to go before I finish working with those people. It will be interesting to see how that particular lady's idea of what love is may (or may not) have changed by the end.
And as I said, it seems to be time for me to put aside changing relationships.
Time, you must cry farewell, take up the track,
And leave this lovely moment at your back!
In the last few months three people who are or were important to me have died, and another few have sustained serious injuries and/or developed a major illness. When I went to Adelaide to spend some time with Mr 1978, I deeply regretted that he had no relatives or, apparently, other friends in Australia that he was interested in seeing at the end of his life: we had had a long and enjoyable friendship, but in the last decade I was more important to him than he was to me, which is why he asked for me instead of reaching out to New Zealand and Scotland for his few remaining blood-relatives, which is why he asked for me instead of the people he had spent his time with more recently.
And once the logistics were sorted of getting over there, I was happy to spend his last conscious hours with him, reminiscing about all the things we'd done and all the fun we'd had, because I still felt a love of him and was keenly aware that he felt more love of me than I felt of him, but a pure love, a love untainted by ownership or expectation, untainted by wanting public acknowledgement or by wanting the other person to change their behaviour to demonstrate love. Even in the deeply painful end-stages of cancer he was a gentle soul who had asked for me in the hope that I might choose to spend time with him, but with no expectation that I had to spend time with him if I didn't want to. Now, that is love. We had never been a couple, and we never would have been. But that is a greater love than any sexually-based couple ever had.
Sadly, when Mr 2007 died more recently of a completely different illness, it came to two successive midnight haemorrhages: each time I got up and got him to hospital, when a sounder sleeper probably wouldn't even have heard the feeble sounds of his distress. After receiving extreme treatment for the first, he came home to spend one night and the following day in bed, too exhausted to be able to raise a glass of juice to his lips or go to the bathroom without help. All of that day, being too weak to actually do anything, he talked instead. He had always been a fairly open talker: far more inclined to open and continue conversations than I am, he nevertheless allowed me to keep my treasured reputation as an extrovert, whilst he continued to pretend to be an introvert.
This single day at home was different. He'd previously told me enough stories to match the volume of Shakespeare's Complete Works if not the style: this one day he was focussed, whilst utterly convinced he'd still regain some body-condition and get a donor organ and a new lease on life, he was focussed on the "what-ifs" centred around if it didn't happen. He hadn't made a will, he wanted to make a will because one of his family was likely in his opinion to do the wrong thing by his other family members. I promised to rustle up the forms and a couple of witnesses the next day. (I have access to any number of lawyers just in the general course of my life).
He asked me to fish out a couple of his most prized possessions, telling me that "if anything happened to him" I was to float them on an outgoing tide in a nearby saltwater lake. He told me that if he didn't get a chance to help his friend Mr G in his upcoming legal hearing, I was to face them and tell them exactly what he had said about Mr G. And so on and so forth. He talked long and earnestly, but with vitality in his feeble, spidery hands and bone-blanked face. I gave him a foot-massage, something I'm really very good at, and for that time he was silenced and I saw the last signs of true relaxation that I'd ever see in him. Sadly, as soon as I finished and packed up my oils and towels, he pulled back on exactly the same dirty socks he had been wearing before.
I had hoped he'd last some weeks or months. In the event, I never got forms for a will the next day. I had an early night, but got woken not by him calling - he was too weak - but by the sounds of him leaning against my bedroom door as he was too feeble to get back to his room. Another haemorrhage. I don't know what time it was, but this time instead of driving him I followed his youngest daughter's advice of ambulancing him, and followed in his car. I can't talk-and-drive - I just can't handle an unfamiliar car at speed in the dark and simultaneously manage a mobile phone. As soon as I got into the hospital with him and fended off staff questions about recent health-stuff, he said not to call the family until he stabilised. Bugger waiting, I thought, and tried to call the same daughter as soon as I was out of his sight. There wasn't enough signal, so I texted her about getting the whole family there as soon as possible - I knew she lived in a different town, but I also knew they had very local relatives who could be there quickly.
He just wouldn't let go of my hand (which bothered me - he usually tried, over the last couple of years, to maintain a veneer of independence), but every time he did, I'd text again. I wanted them or some of them there - he needed to see them desperately, and I was pretty sure they would want to see him also. The next hours were heartbreaking. The staff wouldn't wait until family members arrived - they sedated him and intubated him (lungs, and oesophagus-with-traction). I sent a couple more texts. I sat by a bed talking to him, telling him the girls would get here any time soon. I asked questions, and he answered with tiny little flickering squeezes of my hand. Eventually I sang quietly to him, the two songs we used to sing eccentrically to the rhythm-section of our dodgy washing-machine, and that he used to dance to around the overgrown backyard in his pointy style as we both sang to the spin cycle.
I went away so that the staff could work on him, promising to come back, and got a text from the daughter saying she'd just woken up and what was wrong, I replied telling her to look at the first of the texts, it was all there, and could she get the local family members here quickly please. I never saw him again.
Time leaves the lovely moment at his back,
Eager to quench and ripen, kiss or kill;
To-morrow begs him, breathless for his lack,
Or beauty dead entreats him to be still.
The family absolutely were hurting, and apparently honestly didn't believe that I'd texted her as soon as I could. I still have the messages in the sent items folder on my phone, but you know what? It really doesn't matter. They lashed out in their pain, and I know about pain, having experienced bits of it over the last more-than-half-century. I didn't want "his stuff" such as it was. I really did want to honour his last wishes. His family were more than welcome to everything that wasn't to go into the lake. I'm not sure how I felt about broken windows and coffee-tables, and screams and bruises, and losing things I'd owned for twenty or more years because they were obviously his belongings (even a yellow crystal ball bought at Moree with my brother - Mr 2007 loathed the colour yellow!) ... but these people were in deep pain. If they wanted to scream, I wasn't going to scream back. If they wanted to hit me, I certainly was never going to hit back.
Because I loved two of them - the mother and the daughter that I knew best, the one I'd been texting, and I deeply respected his love of the other two daughters, the ones I didn't know so well. Due to those events, they have obviously formed the opinion that I was bad, and they seem to have convinced mutual friends of ours of that, too, so at least at the moment none of them seem to like me at all any more, which just brings me back to the subject of love. I've known all or most of them as long or longer than I'd known Mr 2007, and no matter what happened, I still loved them. I absolutely recognised their emotional agony at a father and ex-partner dying, made worse by their genuine belief that I hadn't tried hard enough to get them there.
I recognise that the mother has had different periods of time where she's felt less than comfortable around me over the years, but we've always come back to a friendship from that. And I'm completely comfortable with the kids. But at the moment I'm the one who kept them away from a dying man, and kept some of his things (according to his wishes, but they weren't there at the time).
I don't have to ever see them again, and hopefully that will help them heal. But the fact that I am capable of loving them regardless of how they don't love me, is not going to change. They are free to feel as much dislike, rage, even hatred as they like - an open, honest love that isn't ownership and doesn't ask for return is not going to be bothered by that, at all.
..... whose agony implores
Birth to be flesh, or funeral, to be ghost.
Out of all reckoning, out of dark and light,
Over the edges of dead Nows and Heres,
Blindly and softly, as a mistress might,
He keeps appointments with a million years.
And this is exactly what he will do from now on, along with everyone who passes out of the physical world into the non-physical world. For the first couple of weeks I found myself doing what I did in the last months of his life: following "him" around bathrooms and kitchens turning off dribbling taps everywhere (he had been much too weak to manage conventional plumbing for a while), listening to his deep voice rumbling through the walls as he talked to the cats (who are glued even more to my side every moment I am in the house), turning off the kitchen radio which used to belong to my daughter but which only he turned on.
He has been slowly pulling away as I adjusted to solitude again, but when Miss J was injured suddenly the other day, he was suddenly and urgently in my ear, urging me to text her, to ring her. I'd introduced them ages ago, and he was quite ridiculously fond of her. A few hours after he badgered me, I found out about her accident and what hospital she was in, and once I knew that, he faded into the background again. He seems to have joined my background tribe of non-physical people, something Mr 1978 didn't do in his capacity as an atheist, just pulling up for work when others of my tribe are less suited, and fading away the rest of the time.
I and the moment laugh, and let him go,
Leaning against his golden undertow.
I've come back from this death faster than from many others. I know I did what I could to make his last seven or eight months as painless and stress-free as possible. In the last few months, I slept lightly, so that if he needed help at night, I would hear and wake up. I tried to honour his last wishes, although I was utterly unable to have his body donated for the use and education of medical students, or have those few special items floated into the lake. I have had others die on me over the years, and when I was in my twenties and probably my early thirties as well, I was less-than-graceful when dealing with the deaths of those I loved.
I'm finding now that even just in this year, not only am I behaving very well towards the ill and dying around me, but with each one I push it that little bit further, and am that little bit more helpful to them. It's not about being kinder or more loving, although I'm sure they appreciate that - it's about being helpful. Helping them lift drinks to the mouth when bony wrists are too weak. Helping them toilet or shower when they are too weak to do it alone. Waking up quickly and uncomplainingly when someone makes the quiet sounds of distress in the night.
And like love, helpfulness is something you do because it feels right at the time, and because it gives you pleasure to be able to make someone else's suffering just that little bit easier. It's not a burden or something you do in the hope that someone does it for you later - that is the trade or barter model of so-called love, described above. You do it just because. I could never be a nurse, or any kind of personal carer. I just don't have what it takes to look after strangers, but people whom I love, people who make the world a better place by their wit, humour, smile and conversation, I can find infinite depths of warmth for them and can deal with all the misfortunes their bodies may have fallen on.
Only a suicide chooses the time and manner of our going, and I don't think I am a suicide. The rest of us deal with whatever we have to deal with whilst we still have a physical body, and deal with a whole raftload of other issues when we no longer have a physical body, including being able to multi-place to watch over all of those who might need us as they adjust to a world without us. Grief sits lightly on me, these days - I accept the naturalness of death, and the continuity of existence beyond it, so there is really very little to grieve for except, perhaps, (selfishly) a hole in your own physical life. But life is so short - we can put up with a hole here and there.
"Fool, would you leave this country?" cried my heart,
But I was taken by the suck of sea.
The gulls go down, the body dies and rots,
And Time flows past them like a hundred yachts.
I remember being a pre-schooler when my Kid Brother was a baby, and my Baby Brother wasn't even born yet. I remember thinking of a memory of being a man wearing an uncomfortable, hot, prickly suit, carrying a briefcase in my right (wrong) hand, and walking along a hot city pavement. That's all I remembered at the time. I was still young enough to think my mother could be a mother, so I went to her with the obvious question: What is it like to be dead? I doubt I had even heard the word dead before, but in the face of this memory, I asked. And she told me it was like being asleep, only without the dreams. From that moment, I knew I could never talk to her. About being dead and alive, an adult and a child, male and female, alone and surrounded.
It's the deaths I remember, mostly, but fragments of some of the lives, too, like walking down the road in a suit. Like walking through a deciduous forest in Autumn, looking for just the right fallen log. Like riding a motorbike, something I've never done in this body, and cornering to the left.
The idea that when you die everything will end is just patently false - doesn't everyone know that? Doesn't everyone remember at least fragments? Weep for the sudden rupture in life that a death causes, yes. But then say goodbye and hello again, whether they are an elder, a tragic young death, a stranger, a friend, a family member. You can hear their voice through the walls or find taps you are perfectly capable of turning off properly dripping. The cats will follow them crossing the room with their eyes, and will mew in conversation and reach up their heads to be scratched.
You are never alone, least of all when you are alone. This is when members of your tribe are all around you - not all at once, but whoever is available and appropriate for the moment. Feel them. Listen to their quiet thoughts inside your head behind your louder thoughts. Allow yourself to feel their fingers stroking your head as you drift towards sleep.
And remember or write down the dates, and on each anniversary light a candle and send its soft, warm light to that person, to remind them that you will still know them next time, and that you remember now.
(Lines of poetry were taken from Kenneth Slessor's triple sonnet "Out of Time".)