Anniversary rekindling

Today is the second anniversary of my grandmother’s death. All the cliches apply. I find it hard to believe that it’s been so long. I find it hard to accept that she is really gone. Most of the time everything is fine, but sometimes I still get hit right in the guts, left breathless, dizzy and sick by the reality that she is gone and she will never again be. I suppose that we all do.

Something I’ve been reading, over and over, in the past few weeks is this passage from I Am A Strange Loop. It’s a beautiful secular way of articulating what survives of us after our own death.

In the wake of a human being’s death, what survives is a set of afterglows, some brighter and some dimmer, in the collective brains of all those who were dearest to them. And then those people in turn pass on, the afterglow become extremely faint. And when that outer layer in turn passes into oblivion, then the afterglow is feebler still, and after a while there is nothing left.

The slow process of extinction I’ve just described, though gloomy, is a little less gloomy than the standard view. Because bodily death is so clear, so sharp, and so dramatic, and because we tend to cling to the caged-bird view, death strikes us as instantaneous and absolute, as sharp as a guillotine blade. Our instinct is to believe that the light has once and for all gone out altogether. I suggest that this is not the case for human souls, because the essence of a human being–truly unlike the essence of a mosquito or a snake or a bird or a pig–is distributed over many a brain. It takes a couple of generations for a soul to subside, for the flickering to cease, for all the embers to burn out. Although “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may in the end be true, the transition it describes is not so sharp as we tend to think.

It seems to me, therefore, that the instinctive although seldom articulated purpose of holding a funeral or memorial service is to reunite the people most intimate with the deceased, and to collectively rekindle in them all, for one last time, the special living flame that represents the essence of that beloved person, profiting directly or indirectly from the presence of one another, feeling the shared presence of that person in the brains that remain, and this solidifying to the maximal extent possible those secondary personal gemmae that remain aflicker in all these different brains. Though the primary brain has been eclipsed, there is, in those who remain and who are gathered to remember and reactivate the spirit of the departed, a collective corona that still glows. This is what human love means. The word “love” cannot, thus, be separated from the word “I”; the more deeply rooted the symbol for someone inside you, the greater the love, the brighter the light that remains behind.

On this note, I’d like to share some things with you. Namely two posts I wrote this week two years ago in my old blog. One was barely hours before she died, and the other was a few days later. Neither has been edited, except to remove names- sorry about initials repeating.

So this is the second night in Killarney. My granny lost her swallow the other day, she can’t eat or drink anymore. We’re all here.

It’s strange.

I was really upset before I got here, after I heard. Having a really lovely day with lovelypeople and hating everything about it because I couldn’t do anything about the fact that someone I love immensely, fiercely, doesn’t get to have days anymore, never mind good ones, with Good Company and Silliness and Fun. And there’s not a thing I can do about it.

But then I got here, and the house is full of people. Me and J and my aunt M and D&M and my cousin A. And M, for an hour or two in the evenings. And constant streams of visitors.

My family are being so good to each other. I was so scared that this would make everything blow up, all the tensions that have been simmering for the past few years, but everyone is being so kind to each other. We’re letting each other be, and deal in our own ways.

And people keep cooking. The house is now full of stew and ham and pie and really good cake, and really good wine.

So that is good. There is good food, and my family are being so good to each other, and there’s a lot of us here, and that is not only comforting, but a whole lot of fun. We’re not being awkward about it. We’re making horrendous puns and talking about things and being silly and serious and it’s all very genuine.

And then there’s my granny.
She’s so tiny. You can see her bones under her skin, stretched tight. Her breathing is shallow and it’s loud, the sound fills the room. Her skin is cool, and it feels so, so thin.

I don’t know what else to say about it.

So, yes. Some of you know this already but I’m PSAing it, just for informationey purposes. I didn’t want to tell many people before now- it felt too personal, too intimate at the time. Too bare.

Last Sunday I got a phonecall from Jacqui saying that I should get to Killarney the next day, that my granny had lost the ability to swallow and that it would only be another few days.
This, by the way, is my mother’s mother, a.k.a. Mary Casey (officially O’Riordan, but she was always known by her original, not her married, name). She’s the one who’s had Alzheimer’s for the past decade or so.

So I got here on Monday evening. I was here, and my parents, and my cousin A and his parents, and my aunt M. My granny was in the front room of her house, on a water drip and on morphine, and she was so, so peaceful. We spent the next day with her. It was beautiful.

She died at 2.20am on Tuesday night. J was with her when she died. She didn’t suffer, she just.. stopped breathing. J called us all in, and we stayed with her all night. We called the rest of her kids who weren’t here- except for my aunt A, but I’ll get to that. We called my second cousin G, the undertaker, who granny had soundly briefed years ago on precisely what was to happen when she died. we made tea and we sat on the bed with her and we hugged each other and we hugged her and it was quiet and unhurried and sad and so, so peaceful.

At about half five or six, Ger took her away to his funeral home to do whatever it is that he does. Me and A went to bed, got a few hours of rest, everyone else stayed up.

Ger brought her back at 7.30 on Wednesday.

She was waked last night and the night before. Yesterday, there was a steady stream of people through the house to see her for over four solid hours. Hundreds of people, and so many of them were so moved, so many. She knew everyone, did Mary Casey.

Late the night before last, I got a chance to go into her when it was quiet and everyone had left, to sit with her for a half hour or so and to say my goodbyes. I’m so grateful for that.

Today she went to the funeral home in Tralee. We drove her around Killarney first, before heading out the Tralee road. J talking about the time when she lived in Tralee and worked as a nurse in the mental hospital in Killarney, when her sister was sick with TB in Tralee and she cycled from home to work, then back to Tralee, then back to work, then back to Tralee, all in one day. And we’re driving through that road, framed with mountains topped with snow and rivers of clouds between them, cold winter sun shining on us.
It’s a good day for her to go home.

And I love her, and I miss her. She was one hell of a lady, was my granny, was Mary Casey from the Top of the Rock in Tralee.

I still miss her, and I still love her. And along with everything else, love is a reflection of how much of her is a part of me, how much of her uniqueness lives on in my mind and my memories and all the little ways in which I would not be who I am were it not for her. And my granny? She was, and is, loved by an awful lot of people.

One more thing before I go. Over the summer I wrote a post about something very similar to what was talked about in the quote from I Am A Strange Loop above. I want to post it again here- I hope you’ll forgive me this indulgence.

I have a scar on my chest. It’s about an inch tall by two inches across. I’ve had it since I was around two years old, when I got under my granny’s feet as she was picking up a pot of potatoes in boiling water. I’ve always loved that scar, but I could never quite work out why- when I was younger it just felt like a thing that was mine and mine alone. More recently, it’s become something a bit more. Even though she is dead, that scar is a visible, tangible reminder that there are ways that she was, there are patterns of hers which exist in me, and in the many others who knew her. Her actions continue to exist. While most of them are less visible than scars on my chest, they are no less physical, tangible, and real.

I miss you.


Anniversary rekindling

On death, and life, and a quite marvellous day.

So there I am this morning, having a bit of a think about how ridiculously lovely my life is right now and generally feeling quite delightfully chipper, and my thoughts, naturally enough, turned to death and how we deal with it.

Yes, that is how my brain works. And no, it didn’t spoil my good mood.

What I was thinking about is what of us survives after we don’t, and how to frame that in a very real, physical kind of way. Bear with me with this, because I think it’s a good one. By the way- none of this is a thing I can back up with a single citation or reference. It’s just how I think about it.

I don’t believe in any kind of afterlife. I also believe that even if there is an afterlife of some sort, the fact that it’s quite doubtful means that we should life this life as if there was nothing else*. Carpe-ing the diems like there was no tomorrow, that sort of thing. However, recently I’ve been thinking about the nature of what it means to be an individual, and how much of our actual selves does survive the cessation of our consciousness.

I am my brain, but I am more than just my brain. My brain is an expression of my genes and environment, which are themselves created largely by the expressions of other brains. My brain doesn’t exist in and of itself- by its existence it, by necessity, changes and creates the world around it. That’s what brains do.

Some of these effects** are more direct than others. My arms and legs and toes and eyes and mouth are things that I experience as being part of myself. I am intellectually aware that I could have most of those amputated and survive perfectly well, with no discernable difference in the nature of my consciousness bar a growing sense of irritation, but that’s not how it feels. And nothing of them would be what it is were it not for my brain. The processes that create my brain create, by extension, my currently full stomach and my slightly tired legs from cycling, the shape and strength of my muscles.

In a similar way, the same could be said of the world around me, and around you. It’s not just that we create change in the world around us. It is that those changes are fundamental to our existences, they are as important and as intrinsic to the processes that create us as are the patterns and connections in our brains. Our actions are part of us. They are us. And our actions not only alter our environments, and our own brains. They alter the brains of those around us. The things which make us who we are- our genes, experiences, environment- create patterns in those around us as much as they create patterns in ourselves. They may not be experienced as our own consciousness, but they are, nevertheless, ourselves as much as our hands and our toes and our livers.

We are not just our brains. We are our relationships with other people- these are real, physical and concrete things which alter not only what we do, but what we are. And as anyone who has lost someone they love is far too aware, those relationships carry on after us. Have you ever imagined conversations with lost loved ones? I sure have. Have you ever realised how much of your preferences, your feelings, your most ingrained reactions are things which were created by the people around you?

I have a scar on my chest. It’s about an inch tall by two inches across. I’ve had it since I was around two years old, when I got under my granny’s feet as she was picking up a pot of potatoes in boiling water. I’ve always loved that scar, but I could never quite work out why- when I was younger it just felt like a thing that was mine and mine alone. More recently, it’s become something a bit more. Even though she is dead, that scar is a visible, tangible reminder that there are ways that she was, there are patterns of hers which exist in me, and in the many others who knew her. Her actions continue to exist. While most of them are less visible than scars on my chest***, they are no less physical, tangible, and real.

And that is kind of lovely, I’m sure you’ll agree.



*I’m the agnostic kind of atheist. I do not believe in any gods/afterlives/etc. I also don’t have any positive belief that there aren’t any. I see their existence as unlikely, and besides, largely irrelevant to how I live my life. Supernatural dudes with big sticks don’t get to bully this argumentative, uppity biznitch, I’ll tell ya that.

**affects? I have a blind spot for effects/affects. It’s quite irritating, for someone as picky about grammar and accurate communication as myself.

***without very expensive scanners of brainses. Which may not even exist yet. Medical tech is not my area!

On death, and life, and a quite marvellous day.