Why walking was important for a final farewell, for space and time, gravitas, butterflies and strawberries
Harry died this morning, and on Tuesday I went to say goodbye. It was the peak of the heatwave, a good day for shade, but I really needed to walk there. I didn’t want to jemmy it into the other hasty chores of the day, park the boiling van on the melting tarmac and dash in and out. It deserved gravitas; I needed to be heading towards it but slowly.
I’d brought strawberries, ephemeral fruit rapidly turning into hot jam in my backpack. I was impatient for the deep thoughts to start. The plastic box creaked loudly with every step.
I stopped and wrapped the box in my towel, and carried on. Sang Yma o Hyd to myself, loudly, learning the words of the second verse from the googled lyrics on my phone. “We are still here! We are still here! In spite of everyone and everything, We Are Still Here!” Harry was a community theatre director, very much loved, a big part of people’s lives. He used to turn up with a sheaf of lines to learn, very methodically, knowing exactly how many to attempt to internalise per day. His productions were always ready a few weeks early.
Butterflies, hilltop wheatfields, dusty tracks, holiday-grade heat smells. I’m practicing for the camino, I thought. I’ll do it one day. The horizon smudged into the sea in the heat.
The top of the hill caught hold of a welcome brisk onshore wind, and on the step of the stile at the very top I had the time revelation that I usually have when walking – it’s all about time. Nothing else really counts but time. Harry didn’t have much. I had to make some. Nothing else was as important, today. The end of his time needed honouring, and it needed honouring with slowing. Paying respects with the only currency that really means anything, in the end.
“Heart and mind prepared,” was what Mum called it, the reason we couldn’t listen to Radio One in the car on the way to Quaker meeting as kids. My heart and mind felt like the tumbling butterflies.
Down into the woods on the northfacing side of the hill, a welcome bench. A gift of time. I sat and edited the film from the kids to shave off the bit where my son says cheerfully “Don’t die soon, Harry!” Felt a bit British about it. But then Harry was very British. He wasn’t into gritty authenticity – he spoke in verbose catchphrases. “Maintain constant radio contact!”, “Hell of a girl!”, and adding a mac to the beginning or an o to the end of everyone’s names. He missed shillings and pence. He cried when Thatcher died. (Actually, that one won’t ever seem cute.)
Hanno MacEngelkamp, I was. I rolled my eyes every time; he was never deterred. I’ll never be her again. That’s a tiny death in me too – the me in relation to him.
I didn’t really want to get off the bench. I was scared. But the staff would ease me in. Why didn’t I bring something for the staff? I’m not in a hurry.
Maybe I am in a hurry!
I wondered how many people have felt like this, a box of frogs, trying to be mindful, on this bench in the woods between a nursing home and a crematorium.
Out of the nursing home and down to the sea. Cooler, waves even, after days of simmering stillness. The pull to get in and immerse myself in feeling, in the mystery of the universe maybe! Went over to the lifeguarded stretch – life feels a bit too fragile right this minute to be reckless. Then barefoot for a bit on up the sharp, gravelly Abemac. Some desire in me to feel life and sensation, be indistinct from all the essences, the elements. Over the top again, past a wrapped bunch of lilies by the cliff – I peered over to see where someone had chosen for their last moments. Raw. Then all the memorial benches, one after another down the path, people I knew or know of. People missed.
On the doorstep of home. My body tired in a way that well complimented my mind-tiredness – and there was an exhilarating moment of feeling the two in tandem, in sync. My body backing up my soul. So glad I didn’t dash by on the way between the school run and work, making the occasion forgettable. I gave it space, commemorated the important visit with all the things at my disposal – my body, my mind, my time. I brought the strawberries home; he clearly wasn’t going to eat them. I mirrored a journey in experience with a journey in space.
Then wild rain and thunder, sudden, that amazing street-smell, people in bikinis running and squealing, people still in the sea with raindrops on their happy faces. Brief, cathartic, feeling Harry’s presence just beyond the headland, in the woods, in the stately coachhouse, his yellowed thin arm bones, the exact size of his skeleton. I wonder if the thundering was his departure, galloping off like a god, striding like Gwyddno Garanhir, Long-Shanks, into the nextness. A rupture between this world and the next. Diminished in life, but all-encompassing in death. A return chariot ticket to the universe.
Time. The evening. Thinking about the morphine and the work Harry is doing, the labouring, the leaving. Thinking about life flashing before his eyes, and how I think I read that it maybe really does… and maybe the length of time is relative? My life is as long to me as the butterfly’s life is to her. Perhaps our original lives are thousands of years, like the gods, and this life I am living now even is the flashing stage of my own finished life, which in turn will end with its own flashing, an immortality of memory, a fractal eternity. It’s in this article that a moment’s pilgrimage might be just as valid as a year’s.
Maybe it’s time for bed.
Then, it’s not only about time, it is also about space. Harry’s body is still just alive, but even just alive is completely alive compared to not at all alive, which he will be tomorrow. Feeling the exact distance between he and I, knowing with my body where his is, whether his is, thanks to having paced the distance with my feet, the swing of my own shanks. Aware of him in the world still, over there. He wasn’t a thunderstorm god departing, just a man still here. Will I feel him gone?
Harry is no longer in the world. He is still over the other side of the hill – Mum is sitting with him and his daughter and awaiting the doctor; she’d slept by his bed and held his hand for his last breaths. The small amount of life he had, raising his arm to me as I left, agreeing to a kiss on his warm yellow cheek and round smooth forehead, seems after all like an enormous measure of life in comparison to none at all.
Harry at that moment will always be at that place for me – an annotation to my map and a compass point on my horizon. Next time I walk the path I’ll nod to northwest, where I knew him last.
Perhaps he will stay there and be in the hill, not galloping into the thunderheaded sky, no departure but a humble slip under the turf and into the atoms of the ancient rocks and rosebay and wheatears and butterflies.