A Privileged Position
Signs of Life: A Memoir of Dying and Discovery
by Tim Brookes
One morning, over breakfast, I talked to Sally about grief. She was afraid
that some grief is simply more than the mind can bear. "It goes open
loop," she said. "It cannot cope." Perhaps this is why she
is so resolutely determined to cope, to be on top of things, to tell others,
in some cases, what they can and can't say around Mum, what they should
and shouldn't do, for fear that if all is let loose it may be more than
the mind can bear.
This is a very familiar notion, very English in some respects; I've felt
this way myself at times, though nowadays I tend to find that letting emotions
out reveals them to be less overpowering, shorter-lasting than I was afraid
they would be. I told her how I had read "Then Suddenly, It Was Jennifer's
Last Day," a parent's memoir of a child with leukemia, with tears running
down my face. I guess I'm no longer afraid of having tears running down
my face, of being unable to see, let alone read, let alone write. Only grief,
I suppose, teaches us that grief passes.
On Monday, I caught the bus over to Bath and found Mum in her chair outside
the back door in the sun. "It is nice to see you come round
the corner, so tall and fit and strong," she said. She never used to
talk like this. I had always assumed, in fact, that I didn't really interest
her, and that Alan, who arouses the protective instinct in all of us, was
her favorite son. "You should have seen me this morning," I grinned.
"It took me a quarter of an hour to get my back straightened out."
After a few minutes' chat, I summoned up my courage, told her about my
book-in-progress, and asked her how she was managing with this new phase
of her life. To my surprise, she had thought about it a great deal and seemed
delighted to have someone to talk about it. It takes courage to talk to
the dying about death, but if we don't, we condemn them to gnaw on it themselves,
as if it were a hard, bitter nut.
It's remarkable how the brain adapts, she said. Far from being frustrated
by her new physical limitations, she found that she had adapted into an
entirely new realm of activity that was almost entirely mental. She had
always used her brain, of course, but for practical purposes
things, thinking them through. In the last few weeks she had started "just
taking an idea and following it, through other ideas, and thoughts, and
not to any particular purpose, not 'This means I've got
to do this...' I wouldn't have expected this at all. I've always had too
that's why we kept moving so often. I've always liked working
with my hands. I would never have guessed that I would find such pleasure
in simply drifting within my mind. When you went off yesterday afternoon,
I sat up in the garden for two hours, and it could have been two minutes."
From then on, I thought of this delightful state as "wandering in the
garden of the mind."