"A Grief Ago" by Peter Leyland
It’s the thing with feathers, as Max Porter puts it in his book about grief, although Emily Dickinson also used the phrase to talk about hope. Recently I was attending a book group to discuss The Master by Colm Toibin. As it happened, I had just read his article A Grief Observed where he refers to the stories of Mary Levin. In those stories he says, a newly widowed woman has to re-invent some new rules of life for herself after her husband's death. Toibin then recalls how after the death of his father there was a silence around grief and that reading Mary Lavin's stories gave him something to relate to. This rang a bell with me and as I read the rest of his article the titles of two books came into my mind which had helped me to deal with grief at two significant points in my life. The books were The Coral Island by R.M. Ballantyne and Victory by Joseph Conrad.
As many of us do, I had difficulty dealing with the griefs I encountered early on in my life: The first one occurred after the death of my father when I was 12. His death was not sudden but rather the culmination of a number of years suffering from Multiple Sclerosis, something that is a lot better understood now than then, and although improvements have been made there is still no real cure. The second grief was when my partner suddenly abandoned our marriage with little warning, and taking our daughter went to live somewhere else with someone else.
After my father's death not much was said by anyone about it either to me or to my younger brother and sister. The relatives and friends knew of course, and they were very kind. I remember getting a pair of red boxing gloves for Christmas from one of my uncles. I don’t think my school knew about the death in the way schools do today, and my brother and I were more or less left to get on with things ourselves. I had been at the school just one year and had been put into the Arts stream, rather than the Science one which my mother wanted. She thought I might discover the secret of Dad’s illness, much as a famous old boy from the school had helped discover why The Comet kept crashing. She went to see the head and tried to change my class, but to no avail. When I think of her small, probably still grieving figure, up against the might of the headmaster, Malcolm P. Smith, I expect she gave in to his better judgement.
An all-boys’ schools is a tough place to be when you are grieving, particularly when you don’t even know that you are grieving. Farmer, the friend that I had made the previous year, who smoked and dealt summarily with any local boys who taunted us because of our school uniforms, and to whom I had looked for protection, had been put into the Science class, leaving me behind. Bullying was rife at the school. I had one bitter experience when a group, who thought I had disrespected (in today’s terms) someone in their gang, surrounded me after school and pushed me backwards so that I fell over the figure crouching behind me. When I got up I received a stream of water squirted through someone’s teeth into my face. The trick was repeated a number of times. In retrospect, I suppose I should have brought out the boxing gloves.
Anyway, life as it does went on. I had an amazing mother who somehow brought us up warm-clothed and fed on a widow’s pension and an insurance scheme that my father had been paying into which matured in the event of his death. I remember a smiling man in a dark suit and glasses coming to the door and to take Dad’s weekly payments. He was our salvation, although I didn’t really know it then.
Throughout this time, however, I was a great reader. I remember loving The Coral Island by R. M. Ballantyne, given to me by an aunt and uncle, about a group of boys shipwrecked on a desert island and how they survived. One of the main characters was called Peterkin and I identified with him completely. Interestingly enough, it was the book on which William Golding later based his novel, Lord of the Flies, and whose theme, unlike The Coral Island, was akin to the events that took place at my school. Golding was himself a schoolteacher so probably had some experiences to go on for his book.
Reading was the way that I dealt with the grief that I didn’t know was grief, and this inclination to lose myself in books and learn from this absorption would get stronger and more important as I got older and entered the stages of adolescence. Reading poetry helped me to negotiate those years growing up in suburban Liverpool, and I did have one particularly memorable experience at that age. I was in Broad Green Hospital for a couple of weeks for a cartilage operation and I got into conversations with Alan, a trainee teacher who was in the next bed. He told me all about the poetry of T. S. Eliot and Dylan Thomas which I took to like the proverbial duck to water. The title of this piece is that of one of Dylan Thomas’s poems.
The second experience of grief was more painful, but thinking back I wonder whether I dealt with it in a similar way to the first one. I didn’t shout and scream but remained buttoned up, carrying on working as a schoolteacher. I did very little preparation and no marking for over a year. Time ceased to exist in any meaningful sense and I just performed robotically until the bell sent me home each day to a now empty house. Then, by a stroke of luck, I met someone called Dave to whom a similar thing had happened, although he didn’t have a child. He was a musician, and we would go to a pub together in Bedford each week where he would play, and I would read the poems, some humorous, that I had begun to write. He met Jill there and they moved in together and within a year they were married. I was their best man and was really proud to be honoured in such a way. My best man’s speech contained a number of quotations about the perils of marriage. It made people laugh.
I began to see that the humour was a cover for the feelings of loss that I was suffering. It didn’t matter, I thought, and I would soon get over it. Except that it did, and I didn’t, and when the headmaster asked, rather insensitively why I wasn’t any better, I decided to take it up with my doctor. She was a woman whose son I taught at the time and who knew something about the circumstances of what had happened. It could hardly be hidden in the small town where I lived.
Anyway, she made an appointment for me with Dr Poole at Bedford Hospital. Jon was a slightly built man who wore a dove grey suit and when I first went to see him, he beckoned me into his consulting room, sat me down, and listened to my story:
"Why," I asked, " am I still feeling so dreadful after two whole years?"
"Well, that’s par for the course," he replied.
These words I will always remember as lifting a weight from my shoulders. I began to understand from my discussions with him that grief was not just to do with death like my father’s but would occur in all cases of great loss such as I was experiencing and would take some time to heal. He also told me that abandonment was always more difficult for women which I wasn’t really ready to hear, but then I thought of my mother and I began to recognise why she found it so difficult to make a new life for herself after my father’s death. She was never able to grieve properly. Bringing up three children had taken all her time.
Like me she was a great reader and I think now that escaping into fiction helped her to survive the loss of my father. As a widow she had had to reinvent her life as in the stories mentioned by Colm Toibin. After my own loss, I had not been able to read anything except poetry for about a year, certainly no fiction. Then one day, browsing in a bookshop in Bedford town centre, I came across the novel Victory by Joseph Conrad. It may have been an echo of Ralph Rover and Peterkin from The Coral Island, but as I read the cover notes I identified with Axel Heyst, who after a failure turns his back upon the world and having chivalrously rescued a girl named Lena bears her off to a remote island. Although the relationship doesn’t end happily, it was a victory for me that I was able to complete reading a book. I began to read other works by Conrad and his seafaring tales - Youth, Typhoon, and particularly The Shadow Line, helped to alter my mood and bring me out of the depression that had probably been caused by my inability to carry out the grieving process. This was something which Dr Poole had instinctively recognised with his professional eye and the talks that I had with him set me on a course which would eventually take me forward and enable me to function properly again.
Grief is the Thing with Feathers: I found and read the book by Max Porter, but it didn’t really explain my own grief to myself. That was left to me. If I have learned anything, and as Montaigne said, a book can be a companion and help in times when you are put about in ways that you can barely understand, it is that we all have to find our own way through the trials and tribulations of our lives, although it is always useful have a Dr Jon somewhere along the way to help us.
*Some names have been changed
Grief is the Thing with Feathers (2015) by Max Porter
"A Grief Observed" by Colm Toibin, The Guardian 4 October 2014
The Coral Island (1857) by R.M. Ballantyne
Victory (1915) by Joseph Conrad
"Hope is the Thing with Feathers" by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886)
"A Grief Ago" by Dylan Thomas in Collected Poems 1934-1952 (1952)