Going out to the cliffs last evening, I absentmindedly sat down right beside Eamonn Coady’s cross. I was thinking of Gillian Ryan. Gillian was an athlete from Tipperary who died after a fall while running in the Comeragh mountains at the weekend. Her death made international news and seems to have touched a nerve. As I sat there, I realised that it would be Eamonn’s anniversary today, April 22nd. 44 years ago the 14 year old Waterford boy died after a fall from the cliff. The subsequent, difficult retrieval saw the establishment of Tramore Sea Cliff Rescue and since then many other fantastic volunteer organisations such as SEMRA who, after 3 days searching, brought Gillian down from a gully at Coumshingaun on Tuesday in difficult conditions. Our search and rescue teams are the best of us. Here’s a post I wrote about Eamonn in 2013.
On the cliffs there is a cross. Maybe once it was painted black but now it’s the colour of raw umber. It is set into a smooth, rectangular, grey stone which is engraved with the name and age of a boy who died here over 30 years ago at the age of 14. Last week as I was sitting nearby watching for whales, the sea and the sky spreading south at my feet, my thoughts wandered to the boy again.
I imagined him to be like many 14-year-old boys as he crossed the fields on that long ago April day, full of laughter and trouble and fun and confusion and angst and possibility before that moment when he tumbled into the blue. I suppose his family will remember him as the person he was but the rest of us may be inclined to fashion the bare cross and its words into a story that makes us feel safe from the long searching finger of death, a story that is not our story because surely our story will make more sense?
When we hear someone has died young it often arouses pity in our hearts at the tragedy of the loss of years that could ‘reasonably’ have been depended on. But are we not all of us more than our deaths? Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations tells us that when we die, no matter what our span of years has been, we all lose the same thing and one thing only: the present moment. Everything else is illusion, the future, the past, they are only so much dust, mere constructs we have tried to impose on the chaos of life.
All this was in my head when I heard yesterday of the sudden death of the brother of a friend of mine (and the friend of a brother of mine) at the age of 41. I did not know him that well but there are connections between our families and the loss is deeply felt, the sudden manner of his death – slow enough for realisation perhaps but too swift for any chance of preparation- deeply saddening.
So I am feeling, saddened and sickened as I get on my bike and take off around the coast and the countryside. It is a grey day but mild for December. The south wind is raking the sea when I stop at Dunabrattin where large numbers of gulls hang and glide and turn on the currents overhead. I head inland, along country roads. There is no traffic and I feel alone in all the world but not lonely. It is not an unfriendly day. Two horses stand in a field, their dark tails fanning out in the breeze. A rook cocks its head at me from an overhead wire, a dog barks, a marmalade cat with a pale chest appears beside a red and white barn. There is a buzzard standing in the stubble of a field, ragged legs and yellow beak. It is a bird I have never seen before.
There is the human urge in me to see patterns everywhere. 41 years is 14 years backwards I think. The buzzard, the unusual stillness, the gulls…But I dismiss them before I can even wonder what it all means.
If we start to feel sad for these ‘early’ deaths, pity separates us from them. But how are these boys that have gone different from us really?They were what we are now: people living out the span of their lives, whatever that span may be. Remove time from the equation and we are all just doing our best in the here and now: laughing, struggling, talking, fighting, loving, hating, despairing, panicking, angry, in pain and fear and occasional joy.
In an effort to relieve our sorrow we fit the dead into neat little stories and patterns. They are an anomaly we think. Our departure when it comes will be different, more graceful, more timely. But the truth is we are all of us tossed around on the sea of life navigating through whatever comes. We are all in the same big, bastardy boat. We are all in our ‘present moments’ and that is how we remember each other, those who have just walked out of the room and those who will not return.
I tear through the countryside my lungs heaving in the smokey air, flavoured with the occasional piney tang of fresh-cut logs, past the stone walls that line the undulating pale road. A dolmen, a red pump, skeletal trees scratching the grey sky. A magpie – no two!thank the gods – the cats and the dogs, horse and cows and strange birds weave in and out of my vision. I am in my moment as others have been in theirs, cycling, running, gallivanting on the cliffs or sitting, as Nick sometimes did, cat in lap, in front of a fire talking of everything under the sun. Like those moments, my moment will some day end too. Maybe today I will not make it home.
I do make it home. This time. I take off my helmet and gloves and wheel my bike inside without pausing and set to go about the business of living, intent on doing as little as possible to stir the great lake of sadness inside me this day.
“No one can lose either the past or the future – how could anyone be deprived of what he does not possess? … It is only the present moment of which either stands to be deprived: and if this is all he has, he cannot lose what he does not have.”
~ Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
For Nick and Eamonn and Gillian. And all of us….