As I Was DrivingTuesday, 18 April 2006
I realise that it’s taboo for most people to talk about matters relating to death, let alone a forty-something Englishman, but I must have nonconformity in my blood. While I think of it, I could never understand, in a nation which shuns objective discussion of death, why the bookshops have whole sections dedicated to grisly true crime stories. For those readers who fear any emotional turbulence or are not at a good place in life to read such things, please feel free to leave the page but I wish you well nonetheless.
The same emotions well up inside me each time I drive past one of those most poignant of road signs, a collection of flowers marking the spot where a life ended. Often there are bunches old and new, the former reminding us of the inevitability of death, the latter perhaps giving hope that the memories have some strength to endure.
It may be a strange thing for a man to speak of strong emotion. Set free these last few years from a condition which one American writer described as “approval addiction”, I am confident enough now to express what I feel. In this case, an almost overwhelming sadness for the loss of someone I never knew. The logical side of my nature rushes to ask why I mourn a stranger but my mind is morbidly moving on. You see, I often assume the worst and my mind drags my emotions along like an unwilling accomplice. I assume that the floral farewell is for a very young life which has been prematurely snuffed out.
It’s been said often enough that no parent should ever have to bury their child and as a father of four young children, I struggle to cope with considering the possibility that I might lose one so young and dearly loved. There seems something inherently wrong in a life ending so early. Each human life is a story unfolding but those that appear to end in the early chapters leave so many questions unanswered.
In July last year, the night before our family arrived in a small seaside town in Devon, a young man was murdered. An apparently trivial disagreement, fuelled with more than a dash of alcohol, led to a tragedy. Throughout the week of our stay, flowers, cards, messages and even photos were left in the small lane where the incident occurred. Once again, simple messages to a stranger had a profound affect on me. “I will always love you.” “I miss you.” “You will never be forgotten, thank you for the good times.” Such powerful feelings that my eyes are starting to water as I write. A message from the victim’s Mum was almost too much to bear. I need to move on.
Over a decade ago, a close colleague of mine was killed in a tragic road accident. We worked in the record industry, well known for its culture of ‘survival of the fittest’. I was privileged to be asked to read some words at the funeral at the huge old church opposite our workplace but more than the emotion of that day I will always remember the short period of time after her death when her colleagues treated each other like human beings. It was as though death put differences of opinion and competition into perspective. Sadly it didn’t last long but it was a whisper of another world, a better world.
I understood what he meant as I stood beside the bed containing the physical shell of what had moments before been my DadTwo years ago, I arrived at St Christopher’s Hospice moments after my Dad had died. I remembered a friend of mine who had lost his Dad saying something which at the time seemed blindingly obvious. “I used to phone him up and we’d talk. Now I can’t call because he’s not there.” I understood what he meant as I stood beside the bed containing the physical shell of what had moments before been my Dad. Nothing can ever prepare you. It’s like a punch to the head that you see coming and watch arrive but it still manages to sneak in, surprise you and knock you down.
No doubt the perpetrators of the senseless crime in Devon will one day attend the funeral of one of their friends or relatives and, regardless of the cause of death, will shed tears or feel loss. They might begin to understand the grief of their victim’s relatives. In a strange way it gives me hope when the same people who can express such anger and carry out such violence can also feel love. Whilst love is still in the equation, I can hope for a better world rather than despair at the one I see around me.
As a man, I look to other men who have shown me a better way and who can breathe life into this hope. Jesus, Gandhi, Luther King & Mandela each experienced hatred and violence far beyond anything I have ever faced and yet remained a part of the answer rather than adding to the problem.
I’ve never stopped at one of the “roadside shrines”. Perhaps I fear encroaching on someone else’s sacred place or maybe I’m just not sure if I could handle the pain. But when I pass, I decide to be thankful for the friends and family who are still with me, to show love not hate to those whose stories are woven, however fleetingly, into mine and to appreciate and revel in each second of life itself.