I was saddened to see, yesterday, the obituary of a man I knew briefly several years ago. He was someone of great heart and spirit. Sensitive, full of wry humour, not perfect by any means, but a good man. ‘Philanthropist’ is a word I associate with rich men of conscience who endow libraries, children’s homes, museums and hospitals; using their wealth for the greater good. Yet philanthropy is simply love of one’s fellow man, and philanthropic acts simply the manifestation of that love. Z. was not wealthy, and he lived in an anonymous shabby building above the racket of shops, cafes and traffic, but he shared the wealth of his spirit, and did great good thereby.
(Brief confessional - feel free to skip. To my enduring regret, I behaved in a very thoughtless manner, and broke trust all those years ago, after which I broke contact. Sometimes others can forgive what we cannot forgive in ourselves, but to hide without making proper amends is cowardly, and compounds the hurt. Oh, I’m good on theory. Almost ten years in which I’ve wanted to start again, but ~. Don’t do as I do!)
OK you can come back now.
Z’s name has remained in my address book all these years as a sort of talisman of him, this good man living in this city, just as he was in my eyes a talisman of the best of humanity.
The newspaper obituary carried a photograph, taken years ago, and I sat there for I'm not sure how long with my hand resting on it, a last contact. Yesterday I understood for the first time why the bereaved kiss their dead, even though they know that the body is empty and cold. We cherish the outward sign of the inward presence we have loved for so long, and there is a half-formed but powerful desire to make it not true, to have another chance. Death makes charlatans of logic and fastidiousness: we have to touch, to confirm that our beloved really has gone, to bury the half-acknowledged, foolish, human hope that death is not what it appears, that if you wish hard enough, you can make the sleeper wake, just like in a fairy tale, and there will be more time.
I believe in ghosts; not the contactable otherworld entities, but the memories of those we have loved, which stay with us, gradually losing their poignancy, as we learn to live without tearing at the barrier between now and then, and live with what we have.
I think that when someone we love dies, part of us goes with him, at least part of the way. (I say ‘him’ for convenience, but most of the people I am thinking of right now are women.) For a while we continue to breathe and speak and mechanically perform the tedious functions required of us; like eating, and going to work, and paying attention to other people’s mouths opening and closing around us; but our spirit is absent, still agonisingly attached to the lost one. There are those who never recover; their whole being so inextricably interwoven with the other, that it is only a matter of time before the body follows. And we call it depression, pining away, dying of a broken heart.
But most of us come back eventually. It happens gradually, in small ways: we remember to eat without being told, begin to register tastes and smells, laugh at something funny, plan for next week, be content, even glad, in the company of others. In time we can hear, and even speak the beloved’s name without wanting to howl at the world in bewilderment, rage, defiance and bitterness. Eventually most of us rediscover our capacity for joy.
And just as we ‘departed’ with our beloved for a while, so he returns with us. Those we love imprint themselves on us, and we don’t realise it as long as they are physically with us, constantly overprinting; but once that part of our life together is over, and our shattered sense of reality begins to reassemble, all the overprinted images coalesce to become part of our new reality. The capacity for joy may remain a long way off; a part of us is lost, and we may ‘never be the same again’, but in exchange we keep a part of the other. The pain of the transplant subsides, and we go on with our new way of life, nudging our metaphysical passenger from time to time for his perspective, or just to remember.
So I would like to record the passing of a kind, perceptive and generous man who was deservedly respected by his colleagues and loved by everyone who had the good fortune to know him. There is no library or children’s home in his name, but – and the phrase is true for all that it is over-used – he will live in the hearts of those who knew him. That is part of his gift.
The other part is the lesson that kindness, generosity, compassion and humour come in all shapes and sizes. Look around. Recognise what’s there in front of you. Cherish and be joyful.
And if you screw up and hurt someone you care about, work to makes amends. Heartfelt apologies are only the start; you have to keep on keeping on, and live with not being quite trusted, for as long as it takes to rebuild what you broke. (If you've seen the basketball movie 'Eddie', with Whoopie Goldberg as the new coach, she has something to say about that to the basketball player who 'played away'!) Yes it does matter. Apart from anything else, you have to learn to trust yourself again, or by default define yourself to yourself as unworthy. That’s all very well for a soap opera character, but not the best basis for a well-rounded life! I will try to follow my own advice.