Saturday, 19 January 2008

An article on Grief

C J Edwards - 10th January 1991

It had been a mistake putting that mirror up in the office. Originally he'd put it there to check his hair when he came in in the morning. In the old days he couldn't have cared less about his hair. If it was a bit out of place people could take it or leave it, as they could take him or leave him. No doubt he'd check it some time during the morning when he went to the gents and until then 'people' could lump it. But this was not the old days. He needed the confidence boost that checking his hair in the mirror gave him each morning as he entered his office.
The problem was that there were occasions, and today had been one on them, when he caught a glimpse of himself in it as he crossed the office from his desk. As he did so there'd be a split second when he failed to recognize himself, when he thought 'who is that chap?' The realisation that it was him with grey in his beard and lines upon his face was always a bit stark, a real downer. OK, so he was now in his early forties but that was no excuse for the tired look in the depths of his eyes or for the extra few pounds of pressure he had to apply to errant face muscles to pull his mouth into a smile.

"You're never fully dressed without a smile" the Disc Jockey had been ramming home to the audience over the radio that morning. Well, hell, he thought -as he listened to the semi-moronic drivel that interspersed the news items -I guess I'm naked most days! It was easy to ascribe most of his fatigue and world-weariness to pain. And so he did on those occasions when the world caught him without his mask. After all, he was in pain from the moment he woke up (or more frequently was woken up by Junior) to when he finally subsided into unconsciousness late at night. Pain from a molar (one of his six surviving teeth) as the upper denture pressed on it; pain from gall stones which occasionally took an agonising stroll; pain from the migraine that made him bang his head against the wall; pain from a broken toe or absent kneecap. There was always something to supplement the over-riding pain from the unidentified neck problem which had made pain-killers his best friends for many years now. No, not pain-killers, he'd long since resolved not to call them that after concluding pain-relievers was more appropriate. "Not to be taken more frequently than every four hours and only eight a day." How he watched the clock. Damn, only two and a half hours since the last lot. Another hour and a half to go. Life was measured in four hour spans and if Junior kept him up at night there was the added problem of choosing whether to overdose that day or have one hell of an evening without them.

Pain could also take the fall for his irritability. "You must have the patience of Saint," said his secretary on hearing of another crashingly disturbed night thanks to his the two year old with an allergy to sleep. Tell that to my wife and son, he thought. They caught the brunt of the morning after's ranting and raving about being unable to tie his sons shoelaces. Numb fingers, a curious by-product of whatever the unidentified neck problem might be.

But if physical pain was an accomplice, an accessory before and after the fact, it wasn't the culprit. Deep down he knew the real pain was nothing muscular or nerve-related. It was what the Victorians would have quaintly described as a broken heart. He'd spent thirty-odd years wondering if he had the capacity to love as others loved, or seemed to. One failed marriage had left him a Saturday parent to two girls under eight and a Sunday son to parents in their seventies. When he found his Grandmother dead his lack of emotion only re-inforced his view that he was, to use a P G Wodehouse phrase, a 'cold sort of fish'.

He got used to the single life and its blessed freedoms whilst feeling guilty if he went for a leisurely drive on his own that he hadn't got the girls chattering in the back of the car or his parents (who liked nothing better than an hour in the country) sitting with him at the water's edge. Typical Libra - always wanting to please too many people too often and always failing to reach this impossible target.

Then, just to shatter the illusion of stability, he fell in love. A son was born. Money was a problem (maintenance being a one way street to a bottomless pit), the flat was a bit small for three... but as a whole God was in his Heaven and all was right with the World. At five weeks his son had an operation, a minor thing to the medical profession but a heart-stopping day or two to adoring parents. At eleven weeks and six days the doctors pronounced him fully recovered - "You've a fine healthy boy there" they told his wife at 11 am. By 2 pm he was on a life-support machine and by 8 pm he was another cot death statistic for the Liverpool Area Health Authority. 'In 1987 this butterfly outlived 1,530 apparently healthy babies' says the cot death poster on the wall. His son was one and gone.

The first year after David had died he kept a diary. A journal of a journey through grief, in grief, around grief, under grief but never over grief. A sort of A to Z of how to suffer.

The second year he'd stopped writing. Things were black but not so wet and sticky black as they had been. The urgency had gone from the search for either an answer or relief. By contrast his wife was drowning more in the second year where previously her head had been kept above the water by some raw instinct for survival. Another son, the sleepless Junior, was born before the first's anniversary. A joy to both his parents but the innocence of parenthood had dissipated long before his arrival. Every sneeze became a life-threatening illness in her eyes while he semi-symipathetically mocked her about it - then lay awake as she tossed and turned in enviable if unsatisfactory sleep. Should he be, or appear, so blase. Perhaps that sneeze, that cry, that cough was different to its predecessor, A baby monitor became best friend and constant bleeping companion.

Then into year three - another milestone along the track where every yard forced forward against the wind is countered by a foot back. The mountain summit, death, still seeming a long way off. Occasional writings satisfied his need to cry from the heart. A need hidden from all but a very few precious friends (and they bereft themselves) since day one when the generally expected and hoped for stiff upper lip of masculinity was applied with instant glue. Befriending newly-bereaved parents had become an ironic or perhaps logical outlet for the need to make something positive from life's experiences.

Into year four, and now he was nearly into year five. Such a long time, such a short time. And his general air and bearing lied to others about the normality of this happily married man with fine son, daughters to be proud of (every other week-end), big house, two cars, good job and a study full of books.

But the mirror doesn't lie

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Dates galore

I have a site which lists some of the more interesting things to have happened on a particular day of the year -

Identifying dates on which things happened is difficult. Many events are quoted differently in different sources.

The first complication is that different countries ran different calendars for many years – the Julian and the Gregorian. By 1752 when Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar there were eleven days difference between the two. A source which quotes something as happening in on 20th October 1700 may or may not have corrected the date to our current calendar. Different countries adopted the Gregorian calendar at different times. Spain, France and parts of Italy adopted it as long ago as 1582 when the Papal Bull was first issued. Denmark, Norway and Germany waited until 1700 to adopt it. Alaska made the change in 1862 but it was not until 1918 that Russia adopted the Gregorian Calendar and Greece waited until 1923.

A further complication was the fact that the civil or legal New Year was celebrated on 25th March so, for example, Pepys’ diary entry for 1st January 1660 follows his entry for 31st December 1660.... To reduce misunderstandings on the date, it was not uncommon in parish registers for a new year heading after 24 March, for example 1661, to have another heading at the end of the following December indicating "1661/62". This was to explain to the reader that the year was 1661 Old Style and 1662 New Style.

But adding "Old Style" (OS) and "New Style" (NS) to dates did not end the confusion. In some cases the terms were used to indicate whether a date had been adjusted from the Julian to the Gregorian and in others simply to show that the start of the year had been adjusted.

In the late eighteenth century some people continued to celebrate their birthdays on the date they were born whilst others adjusted it and celebrated it eleven days later.

Since the introduction of the Gregorian calendar, the difference between Gregorian and Julian calendar dates has increased by three days every four centuries. After 1753, the British tax year continued to operate on the Julian calendar and began on 5 April, which was the “Old style” new tax year of 25th March. A 12th skipped Julian leap day in 1800 changed its start to 6 April. But just to confuse matters even further it was not changed when a 13th Julian leap day was skipped in 1900, so the tax year in the UK still begins on 6 April.

Another confusion from a couple of centuries ago was the length of time news took to travel across the world. If someone died in New Zealand the news would take many weeks to get by ship to England and then weeks more to cross the Atlantic on the clippers. The date on which the event happened would be pretty irrelevant six or ten weeks later. (an amusing example of the slowness of communication was the Battle of New Orleans of January 8th 1815. Andrew Jackson led his US troops to victory in the Battle of New Orleans between the US and Great Britain in the War of 1812 but the war had actually ended in 1814 No one in New Orleans knew!

Ah well, even if dates from years gone by are sometimes questionable, at least nowadays there is no such confusion. Modern communications are so fast that anything which happens anywhere in the world may be known about within minutes anywhere else.

At least, I thought there could be no confusion until Sir Edmund Hilary died. He died in the early morning of Friday, 11 January, in Auckland Hospital, New Zealand. Obituaries were coming in thick and fast in Britain on 10th January because we are thirteen hours behind New Zealand. So we had a situation where a man’s obituaries were being published a day before he died! In years to come anyone looking to check what date he died would find most sites showing 11th January and yet checking original sources would show it on the 10th January early evening news programmes in the US.