Accidental presence

It’s been months since Darlene died, and yet when I come across her words, such as those lingering on old Facebook posts, I’m surprised every time by how palpable the love is in them — more potent now by far than when they first appeared.

I’ve never experienced this before. I’ve heard others talk excitedly about it — of how departed loved ones are yet somehow still present, even more than they were before (for some people). I’ve assented to the idea, intellectually, but I’ve never felt it. Not really. It’s not like I haven’t lost people, because I have. My grandma, for example, who I watched die of pneumonia. I sat and waited with the rest of the family as she gradually ran out of life, her lungs limping towards the finish line, like punctured old bellows, each wheeze marking new depths of inefficiency until finally they weren’t working at all. She’d given up the ghost but the oxygen machine hadn’t. It kept going, unaware that the spirit had departed, pumping air into her chest like some demented nurse giving CPR. Days later, when the family were each given one thing to remember grandma by (she was from the poor north of England so didn’t have money or property or investments — just stuff), I was given her Scrabble board. We’d spent hours playing together. I would have expected that if I was going to sense her post-mortem presence it would have been associated with her banged up old Scrabble box and the nicotine-soaked shoe bag in which she’d kept the letter tiles. Alas, nothing. Not ever. It wasn’t like I didn’t miss her. I did. I do. But she never visited me again.

A few years ago I interviewed a former RAF pilot, Harry Carter, who flew bombers during World War II. He was in his 90s at the time — I’ve written about him before and republished sections of my original story on this blog. Harry told me about the bombing run that had changed his life forever. Flying back from a night raid over Europe in his ‘Boston’ bomber, the Douglas A-20 Havoc, he’d crash-landed somewhere in France and was buried alive, metres underground. He panicked at first, certain he was about to suffocate to death. But then an incredible peace came over him and in a moment of composure he managed to dig his way out. The fact he survived iat all s amazing enough — but it’s what happened then that defined his life. He went on a lifelong search to find the meaning of that moment — to understand the power of it, the presence of it, the transcendent nature of it. He had no way of explaining it until he came across Eckhart Tolle’s book The Power of Now and this passage in particular:

In life-threatening emergency situations, the shift in consciousness from time to presence sometimes happens naturally. The personality that has a past and a future momentarily recedes and is replaced by an intense conscious presence, very still but very alert at the same time. Whatever response is needed then arises out of that state of consciousness. The reason why some people love to engage in dangerous activities, such as mountain climbing, car racing, and so on, although they may not be aware of it, is that it forces them into the Now — that intensely alive state that is free of time, free of problems, free of thinking, free of the burden of the personality.

Harry went on to tell me that he discovered, having read this, that his life had been full of such Now moments, and that even then, nearing the end of his days, he felt closer to his parents than he ever felt when they were alive. I had no reason not to believe him. I even engaged with him theologically, suggesting the doctrine of the trinity offered a Christian counterpart to Tolle’s ideas. But even as I said it I realised that I hadn’t experienced anything like what he was talking about. I understand the power of presence, the experience of time slowing to a halt in the experience of love encounter with living people — but not with people who are already dead.

Until now.

I come across Darlene’s words accidentally. By which I mean I don’t go trawling for memories or feelings or reminders. It’s not like she’s absent from my thoughts, but it’s also not like she’s pressing on them continually, like she might with Kev or Taylor (I don’t know though — I haven’t asked). But when I come across her words — mostly on Facebook, mostly on random posts on which she left a comment — she is most definitely right there. Not just as words either, but as the woman who wrote them, thought them, gifted them. It’s very difficult to explain — other than to say she’s as alive today as she ever was. Which is too trite. I’m almost tempted to bin this whole thing because it doesn’t do justice at all to what I’m trying to say. Or what I feel when I read those words.

I suspect it’s because Darlene wrote those comments with love — there’s no doubt about that. And it’s the love that clings to the words that I’m feeling — it’s the love that still gives them life and relevance and power. It’s not love like clotted blood — old love, or the memory of it, love that sometimes gets confused with guilt or regret. It’s love like freshly cut grass or a piece of jazz. That’s it. That’s the feeling. It’s like listening to A Love Supreme and hearing over and over again the crazy genius and wild aliveness of Coltrane as he throws his entire life force into the playing. When you hear it, you hear more than his spirit — you get a sense of his bodily presence, everything that he was, fully there in the music even decades after he stood in Rudy Van Gelder’s studio and recorded it.

I came across these words of Darlene today, on the Facebook link of a blog post I wrote a few months ago — a post about not being able to write, about spending way too much time on the couch thinking about writing, letting myself be overwhelmed by mood:

I am glad that you keep writing ‘just this stuff’.
It’s personal all right.
A peak through the blinds into a room with a couch, the smell of coffee and maybe stale wine, and the mind of a friend who is compelled to explore love and faith with his life and words.
Thanks for including us on your couch.

They mean even more now than they did then. Perhaps that’s what death and loss does — immortalises words that are otherwise frozen in the past, forever one half of a conversation that can never be expanded. Perhaps it’s just the absence that gives them profundity, lends them a depth of meaning they didn’t necessarily have at the time.

It doesn’t feel like absence though. It feels like presence. And the presence feels new. It’s not a memory. It’s not like tasting something and being transported to my grandma’s kitchen (because grandma only ever cooked chips, egg and beans). It’s not like seeing an old Action Man in a retro toy shop. It’s not about the past at all. It’s about the Now. It’s about the Here. It’s about a voice that whispers along as I read the words for the first time in months, as if she’s snuck in through the manhole in the garage. Perhaps that’s why the cover is forever moving and scaring the shit out of the girls — it’s not the draft that runs through the house at all, it’s Darlene, dropping in to double-voice old words of encouragement and give them new force, new relevance.

Whatever it is — perhaps nothing more than the sentimentality that is oozing out of this blog — she blows away the fog of mood and time and speaks fresh words of love and promise, hope, determination. More clearly than before. More fully than ever. Like a remastered jazz classic.

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