A Privileged Position
Signs of Life: A Memoir of Dying and Discovery
by Tim Brookes
Times Books

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 – planning 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 memories – 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 much energy– 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."

©Copyright Tim Brookes, 1997. All Rights Reserved. No portion of this work may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or any information storage or retrieval system now or hereafter invented, without permission in writing from the Publisher.