PC 60 Goodbye …… but never forgotten

Observations and thoughts …….

Just how do we say goodbye to a loved one? It’s a challenge facing us all, and often more than twice in our lives. It doesn’t matter whether they have reached the full expected span of their life with accumulated wisdom and maturity or if only an infant – it’s the same pain, the same distress, the same anguished cry of “Why?” ……… and often the follow-up guilt in the “If only ….”! Buzzing around my head is this:

“Not a drum was heard, not a funeral note, as his corpse to the rampart we hurried;
Not a soldier discharged his farewell shot, o’er the grave where our hero we buried.”

Just simple, expressive, oozing with sadness and loss. The first verse of a poem concerning the burial of Sir John Moore after the battle of Corunna in the Peninsular War (1807–1814)

We all know we should listen to our bodies, but there is a tendency to hide a suspicion about this or that, a hope, maybe a belief, it will go away; must have been an aberration!! ….. then it becomes an issue and it’s often too late.

Worried family and colleagues gather in hushed muted groups to share information and the latest prognosis, all the while hoping against hope for the best. The end comes quietly and peacefully. The grieving grieve. In the hospital basement, in a small windowless room masquerading as a chapel, the body is clothed by nurses, delicately and with sympathy; just another job that needs doing.

Every one of you will have experienced the death of a loved one, or even an unloved relative, whose life on earth deserves recognition. Unless you’re of Muslim, Jewish or Hindu faith, where custom dictates the funeral is conducted on the same day as the death, in northern Europe it’s normal for the funeral to take place some days, even a couple of weeks, after the demise. So I had to get used to the idea that Carlos Eduardo Guile da Rocha Miranda’s body would be cremated less than two days after his soul departed. Whilst I understood from a practical point of view how this custom developed in hot countries, my mind was shocked by the undue haste; and still is.

Christians used to expect to be buried ….. ‘dust to dust, ashes to ashes’ ….. the intonation rang out across the graveyard at past funerals; the coffin lowered into the cold ground. But there’s pressure on the physical space and cremations are becoming more normal.

The crematorium is surrounded by the graves of the departed – above ground for the Jews and below for the Christians. Some huge edifices have been erected ….  the artist obviously having been given free reign  …… winged angels stand guard  …..  women lie draped in distress across the cold stone  bust  …. mausoleums large and frankly ridiculous dot the landscape. Is this glorifying death …… or life? Not sure! Maybe just highlights our awkwardness about what to do and how to do it??

The open coffin, the recently departed pale and lifeless, lies in the small crowded chapel, with only a figure of Christ on the Cross on the wall to suggest religious significance. The extended family, friends and academic colleagues gather to recollect, to pay their respects, to share in a life’s contributions. A priest conducts a simple, short service; the family are invited to say a few words. Eventually the orderlies come to put the top on the casket and wheel it away. Later the ashes will be collected and a decision made about what to do with them. My mother sat on my mantelpiece for a year or two before I scattered hers where my stepfather lay! Aunt Cynthia was placed under a rose brush outside her favourite church. Tom our loved Labrador was scattered on Hove beach at low tide. We all find the right place eventually.

The memorial service is in this case a mass. After the service, the line to meet and greet, to offer heartfelt condolences, snakes across the church. There is no haste, rightly so, each person wanting to express their memory of the man.

In the UK, about 1600 people died on the same day. Some quietly, some violently, some bravely, all just a number in the statistical record but as an individual so special and so loved. Some chums have written to say of similar end-of-life situations before this Christmas and others of the lingering for years in the twilight; one wishes we had a better way of ending the suffering.

I think Carlos would have liked to have recited this little poem, looking at his beloved Cecilia whilst he did so:

“If I should die and leave you here awhile

Be not like others sore and undone, who keep long vigils

By the silent dust and weep;

For my sake, turn again to life and smile,

The man I grieve in this piece was an enormously loved, talented individual who used his intellect to further our understanding of our brains and how they function. He was a simple man of faith or maybe a man of simple, deeply held faith, and if anyone was prepared for what might follow this earthy life, he was.

Richard – 20th January 2016 – richardyates24@gmail.com

PC 59 Incarceration

Doesn’t take much for a present day experience to bring to the surface, from those deep recesses of memory, a poignant recollection, does it? And so it was on New Year’s Eve, when I visited a dear friend’s father who’s incarcerated in the grim-looking Victorian prison in Lewes. The town boasts a Norman castle and a house left to Ann of Cleaves in her divorce settlement from Henry VIII, so the prison is comparatively new, being built in 1853! Looking out from the visitors’ room, out into the free world, I jumped back to 1955, locked up in St Christopher’s School in Bath, aged 8. That school stood high above the city; you could see lights, houses, life going on ….fireworks on Guy Fawkes’ night for instance …… and felt abandoned.

I told a friend I was making this visit, the first since the judge had sentenced the chap just over twelve months ago. Over a year incarcerated and my first visit: some friend? But that’s life. I have written most months, carefully adding his prison number to each page, but never visited. “What’s he in for?” ……. and when I told her, I could sense her recoil in horror …. probably about the offence but also that I was going to visit him. “So why are you going?” And then you get into that debate about guilty until proven innocent, or is it the other way around? How one person’s recollection of events can be chalk and cheese compared to the reality, but the reality is simply perception huh? When I learned from the father’s daughter of the events, of the cries of ‘foul’, of the cries of ‘this just isn’t possible’, I added my own cries and we both struggle to process the information and come to a conclusion.

Guilty? Well, the jury found him so. I am unsure ….. and only have the daughter’s version of the events …. and that’s the side that shouts “not guilty” but when all’s said and done the chap’s in prison and will not be out for another couple of years. So if there is a shred of doubt surely we should show humanity?

In the United Kingdom the number of people locked up has doubled over the last twenty years. Currently some 85,000 men and women are inside. Most prisons were built in the Victorian times, overcrowding is rife and less time is spent trying to reform the inmates. (As I write this in Brazil, I am conscious that British prisons are five star hotels by comparison to the more shocking state of some foreign ones.) The vociferous majority cry: “The bastard’s guilty so he should be punished.” But who knows which particular experience in his life lead him down the path towards incarceration. Was he willfully abandoned, orphaned, adopted, fatherless, abused? Were his parents alcoholics or drug-dependent? You could probably research the background of those in prison and find a higher proportion here. Our new Minister of Justice Michael Gove is trying to rethink how to balance crime committed with society’s expectations. It’s not working at the moment and reoffending is high.

The only time I’ve been up close to a prison was in 1975 when my Royal Artillery regiment, in Northern Ireland for four months, was responsible for inter alia the guarding of the perimeter of HMP The Maze. We had no say in the internal running of this place, built to lock up terrorists of both persuasions in the struggle for change in that part of the UK, and could only ensure no one was going to escape.

So here I was, on a gusty winter’s afternoon, gathered around the visitors’ entrance with others who had come to visit loved ones. I looked rather dispassionately on this group, mainly white, cheap, tartly clothes and all smoking: peroxide blondes: and felt slightly apart …. but we had the same aim, to bring some warmth into the heart of someone who, for whatever reason, was incarcerated. You can imagine the lengths the warders go to ensure no drugs enter the place, but first we had to get in! “Very sorry, Sir, but you’re not on the list of approved visitors.” We pleaded, we charmed and then it only took a telephone call to Trevor, I guess the duty office, to make it happen; we learned that often there’s a mix up or poor admin and ‘Cheryl’, who’s come all the way from Brighton on the bus, leaving her three children in the care of Nan, isn’t allowed in. Some staff can be really unhelpful!

One’s pockets are emptied into a locker, less for some loose change for a coffee, and eventually this sorry mournful group move through security checks, an open courtyard, up three flights of stairs and into a large hall with table & chair arrangements, past a sign telling us what we couldn’t do – the writing so small all I caught was something about not exposing one’s ….. ? Our man looks up, happy to see his daughter and actually to see me – anything to relieve the boredom that must hang heavily in a place like this, like a damp blanket around your shoulders.

We get some coffee and chat ….. about this and about that, about books and the open university course, and about being a nominated listener for those inmates at risk of self-harm or suicide.  For some there will be a huge difficulty about being locked up, incarcerated, your life no longer your own. I was reminded of those first 6 weeks at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst when your life was certainly not your own! One of the statistics about modern Britain that saddens me is the number of adults who could be classified as functionally illiterate – over 10%, some 7 million people! It is believed that 75% of the prison population falls into this category. So here’s the challenge for a government. A prisoner’s sentence can be reduced if they can improve their literacy skills. I was told that generally inmates are disruptive in educational classes. “Don’t want to be here” “must kick against the system” but if there was some better incentive? These people are captive, and for the younger ones surely a golden opportunity? The cost would be an investment in the nation. Oh! If life were this simple!

I drove away with very mixed emotions but so pleased I had gone. I must go back, and not leave it for a year before I do so!

A sober scribble for the New Year!

Richard – 11th January 2016 – richardyates24@gmail.com