The consolations of poetry

The consolations of poetry

This day last year, my beloved Sue died. At 15.05, when she was very close to death, I had an eerie feeling that she somehow needed our permission to depart. I said this to our young children, and they both told her, through their tears, that it was OK to go. Three minutes later, she slipped away. I guess some people will think that that was a terrible request to make of any child, and yet I am sure it was the right decision. The fact that they participated in this final moment of their mother’s life mitigates the sense that she was stolen from them. They faced up the ultimate horror that can confront a child and did not flinch. And I think that, in the end, they will be stronger for it.

One of the things I noticed first was how my perception of time had changed. In the 18 months while Sue was ill and I cared for her, I had the feeling of living in a universe where the hands of the clock whizzed round like they do in cartoons. I would look up from something I was doing, thinking that it must be getting on for 10 o’clock and then find that it was 2.30 in the morning. But the moment she died, time slowed to a crawl. I would look up from my keyboard thinking that it must be midnight and find that it was only 9 pm.

So it has been a very slow year. And a bleak one, lightened only by the kindness of friends. Grief is such a strange and complex thing. People who have not experienced it really have no idea what it is like. They have a model of it rather like the graph of a heavily-damped first-order differential equation — where the effect is greatest at the beginning and then exponentially decays. But it’s not like that at all. I remember, for example, an eerie peace and serenity in early September, brought about by relief that Sue was no longer suffering. My daughter said to me at one point in those early days: “Dad, we should advertise in the paper for a sick person to look after because we’re so good at it now”. But this serenity gave way to waves of anguish which would strike without warning — often at times when one least expected them. I had anticipated, for example, that our first Christmas without Sue would be terrible. It fact, it was unexpectedly calm and enjoyable. But New Year’s Eve turned out to be the most anguished day I have ever spent.

And so it went on. Sue’s birthday in May was agonising — filled with lacerating memories of earlier days. Similarly for the children’s birthdays — also in May. By the time the summer break arrived, all three of us were exhibiting signs of acute stress — just at the time when the simplistic first-order model would be predicting a return to stability. So we went on a long Summer break — first to a wonderful house in Provence where our hosts gave us space and tranquillity, and then to Ireland, where my sisters looked after us with the same kindness and generosity they had shown towards Sue when she was dying.

And now we’re back, and a year has passed. Sue’s gone, and yet in a way she is as real a presence in my life as she was when she lived. I still find myself talking to her sometimes — about the children, or about something that’s happened at work, or about our friends. It’s as if I haven’t — cannot perhaps — let her go. People who have lost loved ones tell me that there will come a moment when I will suddenly feel that, somehow, it is all right to let her go. This has nothing to do with forgetting, but with acceptance. And it doesn’t run to any timetable over which one has control. So I guess I just have to wait.

Like all intellectuals, I looked for sustenance, illumination or consolation in books. And found very little, save in two sources. One was C.S. Lewis’s beautiful little book, A Grief Observed, in which he meditated about the loss of his wife (also to cancer). The other was the poetry of Peter Porter, and particularly his collection The Cost of Seriousness. Peter (whom I know slightly because he and used to work on Radio Three’s Critics’ Forum) also lost a beloved wife, and expressed his anguish in some wonderful poems, particularly one entitled ‘An Exequy’ which is a conversation with her. It reads, in part:

The words and faces proper to
My misery are private–you
Would never share your heart with those
Whose only talent’s to suppose,
Nor from your final childish bed
Raise a remote confessing head —
The channels of our lives are blocked,
The hand is stopped upon the clock,
No one can say why hearts will break
And marriages are all opaque:
A map of loss, some posted cards,
The living house reduced to shards,
The abstract hell of memory,
The pointlessness of poetry–
These are the instances which tell
Of something which I know full well,
I owe a death to you–one day
The time will come for me to pay
When your slim shape from photographs
Stands at my door and gently asks
If I have any work to do
Or will I come to bed with you.