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Anniversary of death

Every year without knowing it I have passed the day when the last fires will wave to me and the silence will set out. So wrote American poet W.S. Merwin, in his poem For the anniversary of my death.

I thought of him today as I remembered my bestie, Lori, who died this day seven years ago after a short but traumatic illness, her miraculous recovery more a delayed departure. It was her time. Earlier this month, Merwin died, too. He was 92. Lori was 49. The whys and wherefores of death defeat me. Why some are chosen earlier than others I have no clue. I believe we get our allotted time and while I would very much like to believe the fortune teller who told me years ago that I’d live till I’m 87, I have no idea when my time will be up. But it fascinates me to think that on one particular day of the year, I might be remembered by more people than usual.

I think of Lori regularly. Not every day, but regularly. I associate her with Mexican food; she’s the one who got me started. When I was living in Alaska, she once FedEx’ed me three fat carne asada burritos from my favourite burrito joint in San Franciso. And whenever I make Mexican eggs (her version of huevos rancheros), we have quite the conversation. We had some good times and even if months or years went by without us catching up in person, it always felt like yesterday. Before she died she’d bought a ticket to come to visit me in Budapest. We’d planned the trip, mapped out the cities she wanted to visit (Prague was her No. 1), booked the trains and hotels, and then she got sick. A few weeks later she was gone.

If I don’t think about Lori for a week or so, she nudges me. Something will happen to remind me of something she said or did, a time we shared, a fight we had. Today, for instance, we took a tour of the protected areas of the Kis-Balaton conservation area (more on that later). All the while we were there, we were followed by a Marsh Harrier. Himself and CE might tell you that it was a different one pointed out to us each time, but I’m convinced it was Lori saying hi, marking her day. And while after-death communication (ADC) is most common in the following 3 to 15 days, who’s to say they can’t pop back occasionally to say hello.

I’m glad I believe that people are never really gone as long as their spirit is alive, as long as their name is spoken, as long as they’re remembered. I can’t imagine what it would be like to believe otherwise.

Thanks, my friend, for popping by.

 

 

2014 Grateful 40

Some people celebrate their birthdays in style. Some ignore them completely. Others still, like my mate GB in Malta, visits a cemetery. He’s not fussy about which one; as long as he gets to a cemetery on the day, he’s happy. He’s been doing it for years; he says it’s life-affirming.

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I can relate to that. I have a thing or three for cemeteries, for the perspective they give and the calm they offer. Last week I visited GB’s favourite – Ta’Braxia – in part because I wanted to escape the madness, and in part because my mate Lori’s second anniversary was coming up and I needed to connect.

20140328_133153_resizedI hadn’t realised that back in 1915, Malta was treating the sick and wounded from military campaigns in Gallipoli (billed as one of the Allies’ great disasters of WWI) and the little-known Salonika, when in October 1915

a combined Franco-British force of some two large brigades was landed at Salonika (today called Thessalonika) at the request of the Greek Prime Minister. The objective was to help the Serbs in their fight against Bulgarian aggression. 

From these two campaigns, over 135 000 wounded found their way to Malta. It’s little wonder then, that the island’s cemeteries are full of foreign-sounding names.

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Fast forward to WWII. While it was never invaded, Malta was bombed… and bombed… and bombed. Such was her perseverance in the face of adversity that in April 1942, the island and her people were awarded the George Cross by King George VI.

In Ta’Braxia cemetery, about 2 km outside of Valetta,  lie many of those who fought in both wars. I was struck by some of the inscriptions.

20140328_133603_resized-1 (800x600) (800x600) And another that simply said: Life’s work well done. Now come to rest. That’s something I wouldn’t mind being able to say with a measure of honesty when my time is up.

Some died of fever, others had drowned. More still were the wives and children of serving military from Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and France. While the men were remembered for their bravery, the women were remembered for their roles. One headstone in memory of Georgina read: The good and faithful wife of Mr John Sullivan, head-master of H.M. Dockyard school, Malta. She was just 25 when she died.

It was a lovely day; just the right sort of weather to visit a cemetery. And we had the place to ourselves, apart from a gardener or two. There’s a lot to be said for taking the time to stop and pay your respects, particularly to those who gave their lives so that we might live in a better world.

It was a manic week entailing lots of people-time. I’m physically and emotionally wrecked. I miss Lori terribly and wonder how much she can see from where she is. I’m grateful though for whatever it was that planted this appreciation for cemeteries in me and for that need I feel to spend time with the dead. Some might think it morbid, but like my mate GB, I find it life-affirming.

 

 

 

2013 Grateful 40

I’ve had a series of peculiar things happen lately. In Munich airport last week, I picked up my phone to send an SMS to check on dinner plans that night in Budapest. Before I could type a letter, it beeped with an incoming SMS asking me that very same question. A couple of days later, I again picked up my phone to text a reminder to send contact details I needed. Again, it beeped before I could put finger to button and the message? The phone number I needed.

Fair enough. These things happen. I’ve been known to addle a few minds by answering unspoken questions.  This time though, I was on the receiving end. And both involved the same person. Perhaps I’m being oversensitive or am overexposed. Had it ended there, I’d have thought no more of it except perhaps to suggest he add some basic form of telepathy to an already accomplished list of accomplishments.

teaI went to make a cup of tea during the week and found the tea caddy empty. No Barry’s! All I’d left was a drawer of funny-flavoured teas and I wasn’t quite that desperate. As I was dealing in childlike fashion with my disappointment, the doorbell rang. And there stood the postman, parcel in hand. In it? Some Barry’s Tea from the lovely Messes Stein and Nugent. Timing or what?

In Prague on Thursday, wandering the streets, I wondered fleetingly where O’Ché’s pub might be. I’d heard MH & Co talking about it and was vaguely curious to see it. Not curious enough to look up the address beforehand, mind you, but curious enough, nonetheless.  I turned a corner and there it was, as if manifested by magic.

The lovely LN on her last trip to Budapest had mentioned a ceramic phenomenon called the Prague Ladies. I couldn’t remember where she’d found them or which end of what bridge they were on. On Friday evening,  as I reached the top of the steps to Charles Bridge, I went for my phone to text and ask. Just before I pressed the send button, I looked up into a shop window and there they were…

It seems as if things just keep on happening as I need them to happen. You’ll know, of course, that I am in Prague this weekend for a reason. I scattered Lori’s ashes from the Bridge on Friday and cried myself silly. Then, I got back to the flat we’d rented and logged on to find a host of messages from friends sending me good thoughts (thank you all). In amongst them was an e-mail that said: ‘I feel that Lori wants you to know this …..’ addressed to me as ‘Hey Girl’ – just as she would have done herself.

I wish so much you wouldn’t cry the way you did today
While thinking of the many things we didn’t get to say.
I know how much you love me, as much as I love you,
And each time that you think of me, I know you’ll miss me too.

At the end of what has been a week of high highs and low lows, I’ve decided to stop questioning why these things are happening. Call it synchronicity or whatever… labels don’t mean as much as they used to.  I prefer to think of it as a guiding hand from heaven. And that thought alone will surely confirm the madness for some 🙂

Note: For a reminder of what the Grateful series is about, check out Grateful 52

In memory

Many years ago, I went to see a psychic of sorts near Oxford. She had worked with the local police on a few cases and had quite the reputation. I can’t for the life of me remember anything she told me, apart from an answer to an off-the-cuff question I asked as I was leaving. Would I ever be published? Her answer: Yes, your poetry will be well received. Poems? Mine?

I quite fancied that idea for a while, as back in my twenties I had a bit of reputation for being able to jot down a ditty about someone, on the spot, usually in the pub or at a party, and then recite it to great acclaim. Needless to say the acclaim was more in proportion to the number of pints that had been consumed than to my skill as a poet.

Lori 001 (800x552)Then, about three years ago, in Budapest, I had the good fortune to meet the talented Neil McCarthy. And I knew for certain that whatever latent talent I might have with words didn’t come close to how he can master his. I was mesmerised. A few months ago, I asked Neil to pen a poem in memory of my mate Lori, who died a year ago today, aged 49. I miss her terribly. And while I know that she’s at work on my behalf and probably ratcheting up the fun factor upstairs, the pain of her passing is showing no sign of dissipating. I talked to Neil about her at length. He read some blogs I had written while she was ill. And then he patiently set to work, drafting a memorial. I returned each one with comments. I didn’t know quite what I wanted it to say but knew that if he could capture the essence of what I am feeling, I’d recognise it. We went back and forth until earlier this week when I received the final version. I think it’s beautiful.

Today, as I scatter some of Lori’s ashes from the Charles Bridge – she always wanted to go to Prague – I’ll read it to her. And I’ll remind myself, for the millionth time since her death 12 months ago, that life is too short to wonder what if. We owe it to ourselves, and to those who have gone before us, to make the most of today, to live life to its fullest, and to make sure that nothing that matters is left unsaid. I love you, girl.

A breath of wind through the long grass

                                    i.m. Lori Stephens

1.

Rest assured that the storm will never settle long enough for a smooth crossing,
that the tide has tied tightly its opus of memory to the stern of the boat; nor will
an enduring thought or concern from the shore settle into any intelligible order,
disruptive as a breath of wind through the long grass harrying the sands beneath.
Hindsight is a delicate bequest when surveyed from a careful enough distance,
smiles stifled by grief once again coming to the forefront; a break in the weather
or a high pressure moving in from the sea – perhaps the face of the forecaster in
the hall mirror announcing with buoyancy that we are all but over the worst of it.

2.

There is no space wide enough for consolation to take root, no exemplary words
to sate the hollowness, no charts to leisurely unfold and map the geography of  loss. Faraway cities run blue dye through the retina and birds move in, circling, drifting, diverting attention as the world below races on, stumbling every now and again. San Francisco comes thundering back, slows once it’s found itself perfectly still in the focus of your attention, as if a cinematographer has rolled back a velvet curtain in your thoughts and adjusted the resolution of that view from Columbus Avenue, the traffic out on the Bay in no rush whatsoever to get anywhere in particular.

3.

You make your offerings to the gods with trembling hands, not quite sure whether or not they will be received; or if through your hesitation and reluctance to let go they will be blown clean from your grasp, as a breath of wind through the long grass passes ever so gently, touches the back of your neck, carries her words onwards.  To stand and take this moment in is to feel the world shrink; to walk the cobbled streets of Prague, shake your head in wonder at the distance you have brought her; to pause on Charles Bridge and wait for a break in the clouds to encourage you with the swans asleep on the gentle lap of the Vltava like a white flag on the water.

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A grave decoration

As Easter beckons and as my mate Lori’s first anniversary draws near, I find myself thinking more and more about death – not that I have any intention of popping my clogs any time soon. I feel in some odd way that life is just beginning. Convinced as I am that I’ll live till the ripe old age of 87, I’ve time yet to fit in the odd piece of reflection.

In Hawaii earlier this year, I went to visit a cemetery. I’ve written before of this odd fascination I have with graves and tombstones and all things cemeterial (is there such a word?). While I thought it difficult enough to marry snowmen and sunshine, I found it a tad surreal to see the graves sporting Christmas trees, too.

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As with most of the cemeteries I’ve visited, the graves showed varying degrees of care and neglect. Some of the occupants seemed to have been the last in line, or perhaps the last in a line of those who cared enough to keep vigil. Oddly enough, although I rarely visit a town or city without paying my respects at the local graveyard, I have no great attachment to the graves of those deceased members in my own family. Perhaps it’s because the graves in Ireland are so sterile, so lacking personality, so … dead. Or then again, perhaps it’s because my close friends who have died have all eschewed a lasting marker and opted instead to be cremated.

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I think (99.9% certain) that I’m going to opt for the burning, too. I’ve gotten used to having a little bit of Lori sitting on my kitchen table and find myself talking to her quite regularly. I know she’s been working her magic for me and I’ve seen first hand the results of her interventions on my behalf. And, of course, there’s the beauty that ashes are so portable. Physical graves are all well and good for those who stay put and are available to tend their dead, but I’ve seen too many  testify to the transience of time and memory.  The Jewish cemetery in Budapest is a case in point.

Hawaiians are a happy people despite being nearly eradicated by disease when Captain Cook discovered the islands. This celebration of life shows even in their death. Perhaps the most poignant of all the graves I saw that day was a simple white cross around which a wild tomato vine was bearing fruit. This juxtaposition of life and death was a beautiful reminder than even in death, the dead live on.

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