So today I was looking through my well-thumbed copy of Yeats' Selected Poetry and I found a poem that struck a chord. I must have seen it before on one of the many occasions I've looked through the book but today it caught my eye. The poem is called In Memory of Major Robert Gregory. It's quite a long poem but two verses in particular touched me and they became my Poem of the Month:
Now that we're almost settled in our house
I'll name the friends that cannot sup with us
Beside a fire of turf in th'ancient tower,
And having talked to some late hour
Climb up the narrow winding stair to bed:
Discoverers of forgotten truth
Or mere companions of my youth,
All, all are in my thoughts to-night being dead.
They were my close companions many a year,
A portion of my mind and life, as it were,
And now their breathless faces seem to look
Out of some old picture-book;
I am accustomed to their lack of breath,
But not that my dear friend's dear son,
Our Sidney and our perfect man,
Could share in that discourtesy of death
These lines are so wise and so experienced and expressed very well something I've written about (though not so beautifully) in my journals.
When someone you love dies, they remain sometimes alarmingly real to you for quite some time. As Yeats puts it, they are - "a portion of my mind and life." They were when they were alive and they continue to be when they die. I certainly felt for many, many months that sense of incredulity that the Golfer could no longer exist. How can all that life, the sum of that person just cease to be? It is a puzzle that the brain tries to solve. People talk often about imagining that the loved one might walk in the door at any time and, despite being an absolute atheist, I often puzzled that if he was there when I picked up the phone one Tuesday, why couldn't he be there the next? In my head he still felt like a real person, even though I'd seen him die. It's a very bizarre feeling for someone who has absolutely no belief in an afterlife.
But gradually, whether you want it to happen or not, your dead loved one fades. Slowly but inexorably, they cease to be a living voice in your head. This is what I recognized in Yeats' line - "and now their breathless faces seem to look, out of some old picture-book". In my version, my parents, in-laws and lovely little brother are all pictures on a wall now. But allowing my husband to fade and diminish to a painted picture seemed outrageous and disloyal and, in any case, unimaginable - all that strength, all that vitality - how could it fade from living, breathing three dimensions to flat two? That's the same indignation that Yeats feels for this cherished boy - "but not my dear friend's dear son...could share in that discourtesy of death." What a perfect phrase - the discourtesy of death. It so perfectly describes the cruelty and yet the inevitability of that diminishing.
And two years on, he is fading. And I guess this is the way it is supposed to happen. I'll never be without him but he has become part of who I am now, rather than a separate individual. I see a counsellor occasionally and last time I was there I expressed my feeling like this - it is as if his death and my grief was like a gaping, bloody wound on my arm. I kept it well-covered up for many months; it was too painful to expose and I couldn't even bear to look at it. But recently, I pulled back the dressing and the wound was gone; my arm had healed but had (and this sounds a bit weird but I hope it makes sense) healed into a tattoo of my husband. That's how I feel now. I feel whole again but I have somehow integrated the Golfer into me - he has become part of me. I was so pleased with this revelation that I wanted to dash out and actually have a tattoo done - I'm resisting so far...
To anyone out there suffering I send hugs and hope and a recommendation to read those poets - they knew what they were writing about.