Going hence

Last night our dear friend Elaine left this life. These last few years she's been in a growing darkness, a coming night where the light gets dimmer and the sounds less distinct. She was still good-humoured (until the last stay in hospital), and you could still make her laugh that belly chuckle of hers, but she's been losing, faster lately, finger by finger, her grip on this world. So, when it came, it was a mercy. An end of darkness. We know where she is and who she's seeing now in wondrous light.

But that doesn't make her going any easier. Death, even a merciful death, is still an enormity. It was the end of her suffering but also the end of a long, loving life.

She'd grown up near Mildura, a redhead like her Dad. She and Chris met at Bible College. They got married in 1965, and crossed the Nullabor in a Volkswagon. They had two children of their own, and fostered a dozen Aboriginal babies in their years as missionaries in the dusty West. Later they travelled the world together. She loved the castles and lakes of Europe, and she had an amazing ability to read maps and timetables, even in foreign languages, and find their way wherever they were. She was bright and quick, she had an extraordinary memory. She dreaded the loss of it. She'd seen her mother go down into that darkness and she did everything she could to avoid it. But it came in the end.

She had long, bony fingers and an everlasting pile of knitting. Until lately she did crosswords and sudoku in record time. She loved jewellry, china, collectable dolls and bric-a-brac. Anything with 'Grandma' written on it. Any kind of Royal memorabilia. She had more Andre Rieu than you would have thought possible. Apparently she was a wonderful cook, but that had gone by the time I met her. She would never say no to a cup of tea, nor to another cup of tea. She loved hymns and songs, especially the Sunday School songs she learned as a child. She had a lot of funny sayings, colloquialisms. She told us her husband, a talker, had been vaccinated with a gramophone needle. “You should be on the stage!” she’d tell him. “There’s one leaving town in half an hour.”

She had a quick temper, but she was quick too to laugh, and the first to help or give. She had a special love, that never dimmed, for her autistic granddaughter, who got her last words: "Hello darling." She was warm and brave and kind. Her whole heart was in her face.

I'll miss her terribly. But I wouldn't wish her back from where she's gone.

“If you loved me, you would rejoice that I am going."


Having posted the last, I've just come across these thoughts from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor imprisoned for opposing Hitler.

He wrote from prison to a friend that the Christian should live “unreservedly in life's duties, problems, successes and failures, experiences and perplexities. In so doing we throw ourselves completely into the arms of God, taking seriously, not our own sufferings, but those of God in the world - watching with Christ in Gethsemane.” And later, to the same friend: “It is only when one loves life and the world so much that without them everything would be gone, that one can believe in the resurrection and a new world.”

After his execution, in April 1945, a fellow prisoner wrote of him that he “always seemed to diffuse an atmosphere of happiness, of joy in every smallest event in life, and a deep gratitude for the mere fact that he was alive.”

All art is a revolt against man’s fate

So said Andre Malraux, French adventure and statesman, and author of the 1933 novel Man's Fate.  I read this quote in Don Watson's Obama essay in The Monthly (June), and it's stayed with me. I think it's profoundly true.

Art and revolt seem synonymous in modernism, but what about grand old art, trundling in the broad furrows of classicism, or floating in the current of conformity? Yes, even this kind of art is revolting in its way.

Whatever other fates we can think of - the fate of meaninglessness in tragic isolation, the fate of biology in the black comedy of marriage - the commonest fate is death. Art - all art - is a revolt against death.

It's a way of recording what's constantly slipping away from us. It's an attempt to fix in space and time what is fundamentally unfixable. It's an attempt to aggrandise what we know is subject at last to indignity. Art is a shot at eternity.

I wonder if our general cultural failure at memento mori accounts for our (general) lack of interest in art. Or perhaps, vice versa.  When we entrust eternity to scientists and cosmeticians, art is aimless and death becomes revolting.