On the cliffs there is a cross. It is iron, 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 with 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 too, the tragedy of the loss of years that could ‘reasonably’ have been depended on and I mused that I would not like to be subject of such pity in anyones heart and are we not all of us more than our deaths?
So my thoughts went and later I found myself drawn to reading Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations. He tells us that when we die no matter what our span of years has been that we all lose the same thing and one thing only:the present moment. Everything else is illusion, the future, the past are only so much dust, mere constructs we have tried to impose on the chaos of life.
All this was in my head then 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.
That is how 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 though not lonely for 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. I pass a field and there is a buzzard standing in the stubble, 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. Then:the buzzard, the unusual stillness, the gulls… but I dismiss them before I can even wonder what it all means. I have seen a few people die now and it all seems chaotic.
I start to feel sad for these ‘early’ deaths my pity somehow separating me from them and I throw that thought out. How are these boys that have gone different from me 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 doing our best, all of us, the living and the dead:laughing, struggling, talking, fighting, loving, hating, despairing, panicking, angry, in pain and fear and occasional joy.
To feel sorry for the dead removes them from our hearts. In an effort to relieve our sorrow we fit them into neat little stories and patterns so we can feel separate from them. 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. Even across the divide of life and death we are all of us in our present moments for that is how we remember each other, both 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, 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 all of us….