Thoughts from an aeroplane #1: London to Cape Town

Tuesday 21/06/2011

I am sitting in Heathrow airport, as the evening of the longest day of the year draws in, the sky a hazy and sun-splashed blue. Today has not been a good day, and I feel somewhat torn between looking back over it to try and analyse why, and simply looking forwards to the challenges of tomorrow.


Tomorrow will be the 22nd June, 2011. It is my mother’s birthday, and the day on which she would have turned from her perfectly synchronised 55 (born in 1955), to 56. Fifty six. The age she will never, ever, reach. I sit here thinking of her, stuck always at 55 in our memories, and feel a twist of sadness (perhaps tinged with fear; or maybe I merely think it should be) when I think of how I am going to feel when I turn 55 – assuming I am lucky enough to live that long. Ah, tears – my warm companions, which have become such friends these last weeks. There they are. They often seem to be hiding just around the corner, waiting for an invitation to join me. I have, as Anna said in Inverness, now ‘mastered the art of public weeping’. I feel not the slightest shade of embarrassment – I let the tears come pouring down when they need to. Mostly I simply don’t care or even notice where I am, but occasionally it amuses me (after the initial shock of powerful emotion has swept through me, leaving me calmer) to wonder what those around me imagine I am weeping at. Most probably a broken love affair, something for which I have always managed to keep my pain predominantly private.

This journey feels like it will be one of the most important of my life. There is, as my friend Cate put it, something ‘epic’ about bringing my mother’s ashes back home to rest.  It feels like a relief to be able to focus entirely on her again at last. There are no distractions now – no police to speak to, no hospital bedsit to sit vigil by, no young children to give attention or nourishment to; not even a husband to lean on for support.

I carefully constructed the playlists of music that accompanies me. Vivaldi’s ‘Four Seasons’ evokes the peace of Sunday mornings in our Hilton house, the sun shining on fresh dew, the whole world at peace prior to the disruption of my parent’s divorce. Greg Brown’s ‘Spring Wind’, which we played at Tessa’s cremation, and will play again at her memorial: it never fails to reduce me to a weeping heap, for varying reasons which play out through different stages of the song: one will now always be the association of saying goodbye to my mother; another is the sweetness in the midst of the pain of the incredible warmth and love between those of us together in Scotland during that time, and the last is the pure heart-twisting, gut-wrenching extent of her partner Dirk’s loss. This is linked to the fear of what losing my own beloved husband Clive could mean – that terrible emptiness where all his solidity, intricacy and unwavering love and support provide the mainstay of my life.

Is it possible to reflect on death without turning to reflection on life? I have not found it to be. The morning after we found out about Tessa’s death, Clive, the boys and I were driving at full speed from a B&B not far from St Andrews toward Inverness, hoping desperately to arrive before Dirk was brought in by ambulance from Broadfield Hospital, near Skye. The thought of him spending that first night alone had haunted me, and I was determined that no matter what it took I would be waiting for him in Raigmore Hospital. I talked to Clive a great deal through that trip, both of us finding tears slipping down our cheeks at irregular but frequent intervals. As I talked, I suddenly found myself captured by the utter pointless of life. What did any of it matter, if it could just STOP. Just like that. With no warning, no reason. What the hell did ANYTHING actually mean? I can remember seeing my mother in moments of intense emotional pain; moments of indecision, of anger, of frustration. Why should she have had to suffer through all of that, just to not be here anymore?

There is a thunderstorm outside; the turbulence not great, but the occasional flashes of lightening invigorating. The sky this evening, as we flew away from the setting sun, was beautiful. I wish I had paint and a canvas in front of me to attempt to recreate it immediately, before the memory of it fades and loses its intensity. The white clouds below turned into a smooth snow-scape, the sky above deepening into an intense blue I can only describe (as clichéd as it is) as velvety, melting imperceptibly into white again above. It was completely abstract and heartbreakingly beautiful, and I want it to cover my living room wall some day.

Ah, now on my ipod I hear the opening bars to Tracy Chapman’s ‘Sing for You’. A pause, as the sobs wrack me again, and now I view my computer screen through a soft haze of tears. In December 2008, not long after my grandmother Paula Loynes died, I went to a Tracy Chapman concert in the Hammersmith Apollo with Clive and my friend Bridget Young. It was a simple concert, just Tracy and her guitar, and it was the final gig in the UK leg of her European tour. She had been suffering from a sore throat, but continued with her performances despite the discomfort, and sounded as richly smooth as ever. When she played this song, I was finally able to weep for the loss of my grandmother. I wept and wept and wept, feeling the generational line that led from my children, to me, to my mother, and to her mother. The memories of my mother singing to me are some of my most precious childhood memories, and I am grateful to have had the chance to learn the lyrics and tunes to most of the songs she used to sing to me, many of which I have sung to my own babies. I have sung them to lovers, to children, to sick friends and many, many a-time to myself. They are an intrinsic comfort mechanism, a well of intense emotion and a holder of memory. I do not know what songs Paula used to sing to her children, but I remember Tessa speaking with great love of her mother’s somewhat tuneless singing.

The Beatles sang, in ‘Across the Universe’, that ‘Words are flowing out like endless rain into a paper cup…’ Thus they seem to stream from me now, endless and unstoppable, flowing flowing flowing as I feel helpless to hold them in. I don’t know why I feel no need to keep these thoughts and emotions to myself. I am not ‘speaking’ to anyone in particular; not reflecting or directing, merely streaming my though processes directly into writing. I am not even editing. I know for many close to Tessa their grief is extremely private, and I can’t tell why mine is different.

Wednesday 22/06/2011

The intricate patterns of the red desert sand in the early morning sun captivate me. The hand of man not visible, the curves and swirls of the dunes ripple with fascinating beauty. Ahead I see the dark rock of the mountains rising upwards, contrastingly solid and hard. What a disparity between this and my last view of land yesterday evening – the neat green fields of England, with linear roads, square reservoirs, and closely scattered villages. The seemingly empty loneliness of the desert inspires varying reactions within me, in addition to purely aesthetic appreciation: a hunger for wilderness, a desire to escape from the strictures of man-dominated landscapes, but also trepidation at the thought of being a little dot, all alone in the thirsty desert, so very many miles from habitation. This is not a new tug of opposite desires. During my first few years in London, I had a frequent and powerful need to escape to places that felt more ‘wild’ – with more space to breathe. Somehow, with time, I have come to love London more, and have less pressing and less frequent need to escape.

I sit here listening to Mozart’s ‘Melody of the Wind’, which reminds me of calm, sunny mornings, sipping tea and enjoying the feel of sun on my skin outside my Grandmother Paula’s house in Pietermaritzburg. I can happily close my eyes and feel a sense of calm joy settle over me, from the combined effect of the music itself and the memories I have attached to it. But as much as I love music, there is always the counterbalancing desire to be standing on top of a mountain – or even a hill – listening to the wind itself rather than its musical translation. But while I have come to acknowledge that I need to nourish my ‘wild’ self more fully, I do not feel I need to create a hierarchy of desires. They can all coexist along a spectrum, and I simply need to find space to listen, reflect, and adjust the balance within myself when necessary.

As we approach Cape Town, I see the mountains rising magnificently above the thick, marbled layer of clouds below. Range upon range, shadowed in soft shades of blue, grey and white, they first bring a cheerful and excited smile to my face. But seconds later I am weeping, thinking of Tessa never walking or climbing those mountains again, or swimming in the sea I glimpse below. Here she is, with me, but ashes only – no eyes to see, feet to walk; no self to admire. We can return her ashes to the mountains and oceans she loved, but I suppose all I can now do is admire, explore and enjoy them myself, carrying her memory with me. Somehow, with time, that will have to become enough, though it seems so little now compared to the vitality of her living self.


3 thoughts on “Thoughts from an aeroplane #1: London to Cape Town

  1. We hold our grief close to our hearts clinging tightly sometimes it is hard to breath. But breath we must as it is the way of all things we are alive and somehow we do go on.

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