Five Easy Pieces

Not many weeks ago, sitting on the decking at the bottom of our garden, Diane sent me in to fetch her a guitar and something for myself. I brought her the little Spanish guitar that she’d borrowed from me on the day we first met two decades earlier. She played some chords and waited for the old songs to come back to her, and sent me in to fetch something to play. My ukulele wasn’t good enough and I was sent in again to fetch my accordeon. For an hour or so we stumbled our way through the songs we used to play, in Edinburgh then down to Oxford, in pubs and cafes and occasionally on stages, in the flats of friends and family parties and on quiet nights together. Songs as familiar to us as we are with each other.

Some of the words had gone but Diane was ok, she could make her own. And if the chords had slipped form her mind she knew I’d find a way to fill them in. And when she ran out of the old songs she strummed patterns and made new tunes from the things she could see around her: the long tailed tits in the apple tree, a plastic bucket, me sitting with an old accordeon on my lap.

I didn’t know that would be the last time we’d play together. I’m glad. We played till our boy came home from school, then chatted with him for a while. A little later I made the tea and we ate at the table.

*****

For a week or so after she was taken into the hospice I would arrange for one of Diane’s friends to sit with her in the morning and I would take myself to the river to swim. School was still in session and I had the Thames to myself. I could find a quiet backwater each day and take time to unloose my mind and fold into the arms of the water. Later I would tell Diane where I had been and what I’d seen. A heron raising its head and stepping away as I approached, one foot at a time; a dozen jewel like damsel flies dancing over my head as I swam; a tern skimming the water; two kingfishers streaking like blue gold from bank to bank. Diane, bound fast to her bed, would smile and share my joy and maybe journey with me to swim the cool blessing of the river.

Yesterday, three days from her passing, I went to the river again and slipped into to its embrace. I oared myself through the stroking weeds and into the cool midstream. A mother duck moved amongst the willow branches followed by two three-month ducklings and I thought for a moment how Diane would smile to hear about them before I remembered and paused, and swam on. Around the turn of the river an angler pulled a perch from the river and light glittered through alder leaves. Geese. A dragonfly overhead. And how could I ever tell Diane how the feathery stars from the dandelion clocks skipped, jumped and rolled across the surface of the water before they soaked and sank?

****

A few days before the end, the staff at the hospice moved a second bed into Diane’s room so I could sleep there and be there for her if she woke in the night. She would fall asleep early, around eight, and rest peacefully till the morning. I would lie on the bed and watch TV on my iPad, scroll through messages or just stay quiet and listen to her breathing. Two figures lying side by side on a dais, one holding the other’s hand.

The day after she had been admitted a doctor asked Diane how she was so calm and positive, despite having lost her mobility and despite the certainty of her approach to death. Diane said she knew that she was surrounded by love, that she was buoyed up by it. She said, “I am sustained by love”.

In her last night Diane slept through and I lay and listened to her breath. I held our peace as something precious and was reminded of Larkin’s ‘An Arundel Tomb’ and its central image of the two alabaster figures on the tomb, side by side as years flicker by like shadows, the funny little carved stone dogs sleeping at their feet – just as our dear son was sleeping bundled in a nest of cushions at my sister’s feet not many minutes away. And, as in the poem, one hand crossed the gap between the bodies to hold the other and mentally I erased Larkin’s world weary trail and held only to his tag-line. “What will survive of us is love”.

****

We heard of a friend’s father who, knowing himself close to the end of life, came to treasure a stone sent him as a talisman from far away. The stone had been picked up on  an arctic coast and carried for the feel of it’s smoothness. And now it was passed on, from hand to hand, and carried a step or two farther along the road. 

Diane treasured that story. Towards the end of life she developed a sort of echolalia where phrases would stick and turn in her mind and her mouth. ‘Hand to hand’ she’d say in wonderment, ‘hand to hand’.

Stones came to us unbidden. From Pembrokeshire in the west, a hard smooth stone inscribed with a golden labyrinth. From Orford Ness in the east, three rounded flints with a velvet touch and galaxies imprinted from their millennia of sleep. From Brighton, awkward knobbly beach pebbles with pleasing weight, shaped well for the grip. Each was turned over, examined, held and valued in wonder. Each tried for its form in the hand. And books came, and poems, and they too were also tried for their heft and fit.

As Diane’s physical world shrank down to the room she lay in and the people who came and went from it she grew a need to have her hand held. A favourite brother in law was the acknowledged master of hand holding; enough pressure, still but not too still, warm. Earthed by a hand held, Diane could sleep peacefully. Earthed and loved and held. Hand to hand.

****

A friend gave Diane a blanket. It became the presence of that friend and its touch reassurance of love not far away. It covered Diane as she lay in the recliner in the living room at home, it comforted her when she moved to the NHS bed upstairs. It wasn’t with her when two ambulance people carried her down the stairs, strapped into a carrying chair then lifted her into the ambulance. But I packed it in a bag with a toothbrush and a change of nightie and drove quickly enough to have the blanket ready for her in her new room at the hospice before Diane even got there.

The summer was as hot and dry as any we could remember. Out of the window and across the road the grass of the golf course parched and browned in the sun making new and tawny figures in the landscape. Two fans swirled the air in Diane’s room but her blanket was still on hand. Comforting, familiar in colour, pattern, weight and touch. With the blanket nearby her dear friend could not be distant.

Diane’s blanket is home again now. It’s folded on the back of the sofa. I’m not sure how I feel about the blanket without Diane. We have a formal relationship, we nod at each other. My plan is to light a fire in the dark outside, wrap the blanket around me and my boy until it is filled with again with warmth. We’ll see if we can feel all the love that’s been left inside it, and together we’ll fill it with more.

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