Thursday 17 December 2020

The Circle of Life - and death

This post is inspired by a poem. As far as I can tell, it's not very well-known. Have a read of it first; its relevance will become apparent if you read what follows. At the end you can click a link and see it being read by a wonderful actor, to whom I am obliquely connected. Read on....

To a poet a thousand years hence

I who am dead a thousand years,
And wrote this sweet archaic song,
Send you my words for messengers
The way I shall not pass along.

I care not if you bridge the seas,
Or ride secure the cruel sky,
Or build consummate palaces
Of metal or of masonry.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

How shall we conquer? Like a wind
That falls at eve our fancies blow,
And old Maeonides the blind
Said it three thousand years ago.

O friend unseen, unborn, unknown,
Student of our sweet English tongue,
Read out my words at night, alone:
I was a poet, I was young.

Since I can never see your face,
And never shake you by the hand,
I send my soul through time and space
To greet you. You will understand.

James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915)

Fourteen years ago today - 18th December 2006 - was the funeral of my father, who had died on the 9th at the age of 86, after a short period of ill-health. Only hindsight imposes patterns on what at the time can seem like chaotic and distressing periods of life: my father’s death came during an extraordinarily difficult month in what proved to be a prolonged and trying few years in the lives of my family and me.

And yet even at the time I had an intangible sense that all would be well in the grander scheme of things, and that we would all emerge stronger from our trials and tribulations. Fourteen years later I was caused to re-visit the day of farewell to my father in a manner which was positive and life-affirming.

I shall not dwell on the circumstances of December 2006 in this post: the full story is known to family and close friends, but suffice it to say that the death of my father was by no means the most traumatic event of that month, but that all was well in the end, and I look back on that month with gratitude rather than sadness. Had I been on social media at the time, sharing stuff as we now do, there would have been some interesting posts, to say the least.

My father’s death came at a time when my late mother was descending into the abyss of Alzheimer’s - a story I have already shared here. On the day of the funeral my brother and I arrived at her house with our respective families, dressed in black and ready to support her through a difficult day as she said farewell to her husband of 54 years. She answered the door with a cheery smile, dressed in casual clothes and said “Oh what a lovely surprise, how nice to see you all”. It soon became apparent that she had no idea why we were there, nor that he had died, despite our having been there a couple of days earlier with the minister preparing his funeral. My wife and sister-in-law took her to her room and helped her to dress appropriately (she had always been a stickler for dressing elegantly, formally and correctly) whilst gently reminding her of what had happened and what lay ahead that day.

During that minister’s visit two days earlier, despite appearing very confused as to who he was, who we were and why we were all there, she had startled us all with a moment of lucidity by announcing that she would like to read a poem of her choice at the service, reciting some of the words from memory, quoting the title and author in such a way as to enable us easily to identify it by an online search.

The poem concerned (see above) was previously unknown to me and to any other family members, and she was unable to give any clear reason for wanting to recite it (for example she said she didn’t know whether it was a favourite of our father’s or not), but she was particularly keen on a verse which she said summed up how she felt about being widowed.

But have you wine and music still,
And statues and bright-eyed love,
And foolish thoughts of good and ill,
And prayers to them who sit above?

The poem is called To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence by James Elroy Flecker (1884-1915), a relatively unknown English poet and novelist whose premature death at 30 is said by some critics to have been a major loss to literature and poetry. My own rudimentary research reveals no reason why my mother would have known or liked his work, with no obvious connection to her other than a shared birthplace. 

Come the day of his funeral, we were all nervous that mother might make a fool of herself, not least given her intermittent lack of awareness of his death, and her growing penchant at that time for speaking out of turn in an inappropriate manner. However, she stepped up to the lectern with grace and composure, and read it perfectly, with all the same expressiveness that she had shown in her pomp as a schoolteacher and choir mistress. Sadly, this proved to be a false dawn, as she rapidly descended into an unimaginably grotesque form of dementia, lasting over six more years with little quality of life, such that her death in 2013 was a merciful release for her and us.

Life moved on as it does, and I had put the funeral and that poem to the back of my mind, regarding it as a strangely enjoyable day on which my father’s life had been suitably celebrated, with our mother showing what proved to be one of the last manifestations of her true self.

But what goes around comes around in the Circle of Life, and so fourteen years later that poem suddenly returned to my mind a couple of weeks ago in another circumstance that was desperately sad, yet became strangely uplifting. I don't believe that "everything happens for a reason", because if it does there's some pretty perverse reasoning controlling our lives. However, I do believe in being aware of possible benefits even when at first they are hard to see, such that with hindsight, even the darkest clouds can have a silver lining. For me, many events and experiences in recent years have given me good reason to believe in the existence of silver linings.

My return to thoughts of December 2006 happened because of Lis Warren, a woman of similar age to me from Middlesex who has in recent years become a good friend thanks to our shared medical condition - Type One Diabetes. Lis and I got to know each other a few years ago thanks to the growth of an online peer support community of people living with diabetes: our paths have crossed several times at events both real-world and online, and we have many mutual friends. A silver lining indeed. She and I share much more than a medical condition, and in particular we are both lovers of the arts, in particular music; she, indeed, is a musician by profession, a graduate of the Royal Academy of Music and in her working life was an advisor on music education to the Department for Education. Lis and I were two of a small group of people with diabetes and healthcare professionals who set up and ran a project called ArT1st (follow that link to the website) during the Coronavirus Pandemic, which involved gathering and showcasing artistic work in the performing and visual arts produced by members of the Type One diabetes community: patients, carers and healthcare professionals. Working with this small group, some of them already good friends of mine, others new friends, has been the silverest of linings to this locked-down year.

Tragically, as we were preparing to stage a live end-of-year online event celebrating the success of the project, Lis’s husband John died in late November after a short illness, meaning that our close-knit group felt keenly the loss of one of its members’ loved ones. We wanted to add an element to our show as a gesture to Lis, who remained determined to take part in the show, even though it turned out to be on the very day of her husband’s funeral. It was, indeed, John who had thought up the idea of calling it ArT1st with the clever play on T1. Through the good offices of NHS Specialty Advisor for Diabetes Professor Partha Kar, who had set up the project, we were able to secure the services of an A-list member of the diabetes community, actor James Norton, very much a man of the moment thanks to several starring roles in TV and cinema in recent years. James had already proved himself to be a supportive and self-effacing member of the community, and we were therefore delighted when he agreed to read a poem for us. 

But what were we to choose?

At that point To a Poet a Thousand Years Hence came back into my mind. I looked it up, to remind myself of its words, and shared my suggestion with a couple of colleagues from the group. Both colleagues readily agreed that it was perfect. Flecker’s words are both a wonderful evocation of the lasting power and value of the arts and a painful reminder that our time on this earth is short and precious. Returning to them after over a decade I was struck again by how good a choice my mother had made, whatever the forever unknown reason for that choice. I remain surprised that it is not better-known.

Flecker’s words remind us that we only tread this earth for a short time, yet what we do, what we say, what we leave behind us can indeed be eternal. Advancing years inevitably expose us to the loss of loved ones; if we are lucky, we do not experience real loss until later life, but experience it we all must. And as we age, we all start to wonder when and how our end will come, whether we will be left alone, or leave others alone, and what - if anything - lives on after our deaths.

The notion of life after death is a comforting one which sustains many and forms the basis of entire belief systems. We can never prove or refute it. However, of one thing I am more certain than ever: we absolutely do live on in what we leave to others, not in material terms, but in our deeds, our words, the personalities and values that we pass down the generations and, for a gifted few, the works of beauty that we create in art, poetry, sculpture, writings or music. A thousand years or more hence, especially now that mankind has devised such clever ways of preserving all that we produce, we will all live on. We can all now listen to music written and performed by artists long since dead, digitally preserved as fresh as the day they were recorded.

And every time I catch a look in a photo or a mirror and think “OMG, I’ve turned into my dad”, or every time I hear my own children utter words or express thoughts that I myself might have said, I realise that our earthly bodies are custodians not just of a set of genes, but more importantly of values, talents and ideas which can indeed be immortal.

“I send my soul through time and space
To greet you…You will understand”. 

Click here to watch James Norton reading this wonderful poem with the peerless expressiveness of the English gentleman that he is, dedicated to my friend Lis, her late husband John, and the diabetes community.

Note: This post was written with the knowledge and approval of Lis Warren, who has expressed her sincere and lasting gratitude for the love and support of the diabetes community during this difficult time

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