There is no order to a poem
No demands made or met
Paper and ink come without shackles
And yet, language has power,
A verse may hold you captive, spellbound,
Words browbeat you, leaving you raw and crying
Lead you to change your opinion,
Mend your ways, even fall in love.
Naturally there is a word for this,
Allowing us to pass sentence on such a construct,
Both praising and damning a few lines,
Summing up the power of written thought
In three syllables, at a stroke.
One dirty, descriptive word:
What now feels like a very long time ago, I said an unwilling goodbye to a friend of mine. Not one of those ‘I’ll see you when you come to your senses’ goodbyes, but a full-on, permanent, ‘Nevermore in this world’. The boy in question had chosen, without telling anyone, to shuffle off this mortal coil. I had just moved house, so I got given the good news several months after the event via his mother, who in the chaos of her own grief, had managed to lose my address.
For various reasons, for which I later felt extremely guilty, I was unable to visit. I had missed the funeral, and in any case, I didn’t really know his family that well, so I wasn’t comfortable intruding on their grief to assuage my own.
Mourning is a strange, and very personal process. People do it in all sorts of different ways. The letter I received from his mother on black-edged notepaper was testament to how well she was faring under tremendous pressure. It took me three hours to decipher the handwriting, let alone allow the meaning of her words to sink in. I spent those three hours in the laundry-room in the basement of the building, with a pile of rapidly diminishing dirty washing, deafened by the noise of the industrial-sized machines, slowly coming to the realization that I would never see my friend again. Life would not be the same without him.
Letting go of someone who has been an almost daily long-distance fixture in your life for several years is difficult. As we were living in different countries, we mainly spoke via the net or by post, usually in the evenings. That year he had been transferred by work to another location just before I moved house, so there had been a break in communications while we both sorted our lives out, during which we sent each other a couple of brief postcards, but nothing serious in the way of deep and meaningful communication. I had no clue he was depressed. None whatsoever. His actions came as a complete shock to me.
You read all sorts of stories about suicides in the papers, usually villifying their so-called friends who were too wrapped up in their own lives and problems to notice someone they cared about was losing the struggle with theirs, and you wonder whether they chose the path they did because you were a bad friend…?
Survivor guilt is not limited to extreme situations such as war or genocide. It occurs in daily life as part of the grieving process. You wonder about the strangest things. ‘There but for the grace of… what? Why wasn’t it me and not him?’ You puzzle over personality traits, ponder what makes someone strong, whether suicide means strength or weakness… These internal debates can last a lifetime without you discovering the answers, and if you let them, they can take over your life.
His mother gave me some strange advice at the end of her letter. She told me to forget all about her son, to ignore what had happened, and to go on with my own life, to live it to the full and to follow all my dreams.
I read her letter over and over for three weeks before I replied to it. I couldn’t find words to say what needed to be said, and nor could I reconcile what needed saying for the sake of convention with what I wanted to say.
I was angry at her for telling me to forget my friend. I couldn’t understand why she would demand that I obliterate all trace of someone who had already left the land of the living. I wondered at the time if she was ashamed of what had happened. I wondered if she was worried as a Catholic about the eternal damnation of her determinedly and avowedly atheist son. I wondered about a lot of things, and I took his photos off the wall in my study and put them in the back of my diary.
I carried him with me for five years, occasionally taking them out to look at them and remember. To remember his advice, his smile, the crazy things he did when he was drunk. To try not to forget, not to let go. I wanted some memory of him to stay with me, a souvenir for this world of a friendship long since dissolved.
And now I have put the diary in a drawer. Somehow I know that I no longer need to carry these physical remnants from the life of someone who is still very much a part of me. I have memories (albeit blurry ones these days) of him which will eventually fade, and I am content to let them do so. I know that he made his mark on the world because he made his mark on me, on my personality, and I need no greater reminder. The way that my mind continues to work is tribute enough.
Goodnight, mon chevalier,