The Murmuration of Grief
It brought with it a confused migration. Somnambulant sailings that seemed bereft of rhyme or reason. A murmuration of one with no discernible course or branch to land upon.
In the immediate weeks following his leaving, I came to realise that with loss comes a sense of feeling lost too. A subtraction on a subtraction, that leaves you deeper below the line. With his departure, it seemed that certainty and direction and trust in life’s solidity had stowed themselves in his closed hands and left with him. That with hegira comes husk; be it the hollowed homes of the exiled or the lives of those left behind by the departed.
As I stumble on photographs taken during that time, it becomes painfully obvious that l oss dulls the eyes of the bereaved. That the spark of living is displaced by the pallid ash of grey. Just as flame silvers the eyes of a landed fish, signalling its passage from life to death, one domain to another, perhaps the same can be said of grieving. That the death of those we love or a way of life we lived is marked by the wintering of the eyes. That loss, cataracts our once clear eyes, leaving us displaced and directionless. It is this loss of colour and a deviation of our internal compasses that direct us to a type of hinterland; a migration from a life with, to a life without. Like the night-migratory songbirds, we are left with a ‘puzzled love of the light’.
Grieving needs a geographic location, a somewhere to go, and with his ashes un-scattered, standing sentinel beneath my mother’s bedside table, I found myself drawn towards the hospital where he passed away. It became a clandestine migration. A dark and daily flight, carried on the thermals of grief, searching for warmer climes in the coldest of destinations. I would sit in the concourse cafe, as I had done back then, hoping against hope that I would not be seen; to be recognised and asked why I was there. I found solace in the burnt toast and thick tea made by the volunteers and sat with my back to the murmuration of the maimed that streamed behind me. I would fold in the wings of my arms, pulling them in close to my sides as if a narrowing of myself would make me harder to identify and protect me from the cutting winds of shame and embarrassment. A grown man, doing this. This game of pretend.
With time, I began drifting further into the building, constructing justifications and alibis for landing there. I quietly left tins of biscuits on waiting room tables, left donations and supplies for the staff who had cared for him so tenderly. But, there would come a final visit.
As I placed the gifts on the empty waiting room seats, a sighting by the staff nurse led to an invitation beyond the boundary of the locked doors and into the ward. A mumbled explanation spilled from my throat and in rapid succession the acorns began to fall from the sky. A tilt shift rendered the gathered nurses a blur, bringing the field beyond them into sharp relief. The grounded accidentals; jesses hitching machines to hawkish faces; the egg-shell fragility of cheek and shoulder. But it was that predatory sound that cut to the core; that sent me barreling back to those bedside vigils. The metronomic song of those machines we disconnected from him and disconnected him from us. A song that reverberated within the cage of my heart and ribs. A song that proved too much and with a sudden turn I was lifted into the dead air and away.
I knew I'd never return there and the pilgrimage moved to the various places he’d fled to; the altitudinal migration to the mountains of Eryri or the partial shift to his shed at the top of the garden. Places where the turbulence of life and consciousness sent him; a magnetic pull that came from somewhere far beyond him. As the prophetic John Muir put it, "Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wilderness is a necessity”. These were the places he’d been most alive. The peaks of Cnicht and Y Garn were his vantage points, where he could observe the world beneath him and the baroclinity of his own life. A clarity that only comes with distance. Was this why I was here or was it something simpler? As a child, when we walked and his boot had left its imprint in the soft earth, I’d place my own foot within it. It was a way to connect without the awkwardness of touch but also a means of measuring the difference between us. Was this the true purpose of this retracing?
The downdrafts brought him back from the discord of the wilderness to the structure of his shed; his confessional and refuge beneath the peeling paint of the eaves. But now, as I stood on its threshold, heels on the uneven gravel outside and toes on the offcut of carpet within, there were parallels even here between his life and death. Much like the machines that had kept him alive in his last days, here in his shed, a humming dehumidifier kept alive his old life. It stood faithfully in the middle of the floor, drawing in the creeping march of mildew and moisture, preserving hue from greying decay.
In the high boughs of the wooden beams were his hiking boots, united by the umbilical cord of their conjoined laces and placed here away from mice that might make them their home. I had not wanted to touch anything in here since he’d gone, as if the displacement of a pencil or cup would alter an order or that a fingerprint would devalue its precious worth. There were velvet ropes around things here, establishing boundaries between visitor and artefacts; the shed a museum of living history; of a way of life now gone but preserved for the Time Being. But I was drawn to the boots. They were veiled in a thin dust that dimmed their colour and showed that weeks rather than months had passed since they were last worn. A settled dust that grief does not permit us. I traced my finger along the fault lines of the boot’s stitching, creating wakes of dust behind it. Harboured in a furrow of the sole beneath one of them sat a stone; meagre and unremarkable. It quickly dawned on me that it must be a stowaway from the last walk he ever did; a final journey preserved in the simplest of forms. The boot, Cher Ami, and the stone, its message, carried faithfully across the battlefield. In that moment, there came a deep and irrational need to protect the stone from coming free. Its potential removal would bring the fall of a kingdom; the captive ravens departing the Tower of London. I raised the dark wing of my coat, hid the boot under it and left.
Like an unsent love letter hidden in the depths a schoolboy’s pocket, I buried the boot in my faithful rucksack. Hidden away in self-protection and shame, only seeing the light of day when the coast was clear. Amulet or false god, the boot came with me out in the wilderness. A blind search for map or compass and my hand would land upon the boot, my fingers tracing the dry riverbeds of the sole to check for the stone. It remained there, ‘kennelled and faithful’ and the heavy breathing of scrambles to summits seemed to purge the blackbird of grief from my mouth. The mountains and stone, my Saint Gall.
But there were times when the heft of the boot and its pilgrim felt too much to bear. That my desideratum for circular routes through the mountains coupled with the weight of my father’s shadow were spiralling me towards the First Circle. I would sit amongst the gorse and convince myself that his boot and the stone needed to find their own place of rest in the mountains. Perhaps the boot needed to be pitched in a lake he loved so that the undertow decided when that stone came free and not me. But it never did.
But grief is the stone in our shoe. It replaces the sure-footedness of blissful existence. It destabilises, discomforts and prevents us planting a foot with the same assuredness we did before our loss. But there comes a point where our migration from the winters of loss back to the springs of some semblance of living means a choice of two flight paths; to live with the stone in our shoe and tolerate its persistent, nagging pain or to cast it away. By its very nature, holding on means a tethering to the secure and the accepted. But, uncoupling the shackles of loss, returns air to wings and colour to the eyes once more.
All the praise you've been getting in the STSC is so well deserved. A truly philosophical meditation on loss, thank you for bringing us on the journey. Plus i learned a few new words, which is thrilling! Also, i'm now as much a fan of your photography as your writing.
Wonderful Huw, thanks for sharing