I came across the theory that it takes a year and a day to come to terms with the death of a loved one in “Anybody Out There?”* by Marian Keyes. The idea is that you’ve been through all the changing of the seasons, all the festivals and gatherings and rituals of a year’s cycle without them.
My uncle Kevin died about this time last year, so this seems like a fitting time to write about it. Actually, he died on November the 5th. As a date to go, it would have pleased him immensely for its appropriateness for a historian, and for the double-entendre of going out with a bang. He was 63. He spent his last two weeks in hospital in intensive care, and I was there (with the rest of the family, and my boyfriend, and some of my uncle’s closest friends) when they turned the machines off.
I didn’t think I could write about it when it happened, and I didn’t want to. Now I think I can, and I’ve written and deleted versions of those two weeks, but it feels like just another way to be an arsehole. Oooh, look at me trying to show off with my writing craft. Oooh, aren’t I deep? See how I take you down that bleak black path. Watch me suffer, give me sympathy, poor me, poor me, poor me. Poor Kev! It comes as no surprise to me that I can keep coming up with new ways to be an arsehole, even in the midst of other people’s pain, but it’s not really the way I want to commemorate my uncle. Maybe, someday, it will come out in fiction, heavily codified. But for now, these fuzzy, out of focus pictures say all I want to about those two weeks.
That wasn’t Kev, anyway, in that nest of machines. He was a fine-featured man, with a thin, sharp nose, a shock of thick dark hair, eyes narrowed with amusement as he told you some appallingly offensive joke. He was a trim figure in a blouson wool jacket and Levis, striding forward on long walks in blustery places, on coast paths and commons, heading for the eventual destination of a pub and a pint. Or he was playing one of his innumerable frisbee games in the park, sailing the disc along with an expert flick of the wrist. Or he was cooking Christmas dinner at mum’s place and being an incredible diva about it, asking for things we wouldn’t possibly have in the house and having to make do without, and getting everyone to run around bringing him saucepans and implements. Or he was holding forth about the guitar player on the track he was making you listen to, or playing a harmonica, or playing the piano, backwards, sitting under it, having never had a lesson in his life. He was my infuriating, kind, clever, funny, wonderful uncle.
His death left some odd little gifts behind, whether I wanted them or not. I got a shiny new perspective (now slightly dulled). For a while I had absolutely no tolerance for bullshit, because compared to losing my uncle, petty annoyances were irrelevant. I could see straight through manipulative nonsense and I didn’t have any time for it. I didn’t care what people thought.
I got a reminder that people die unpredictably, and that I should make sure I spend time with the people who matter to me. Because you never know which will be your last conversation, and you don’t want to leave important things unsaid, or laughs unlaughed, hugs unhugged.
And I got the awareness that I’m going to die, and I don’t know when. So I’d better always be asking myself, am I spending my limited time the way I really want to?
A year (and a few days) on, with the immediate impact gone, I think revisiting these lessons is important. Of course I’m sad that Kev’s gone and I miss him, and I know the rest of the family and his friends do too. There’s nothing I can do to change that. But maybe, as a clever and wise friend showed me recently, I can use the lessons to honour his memory. Kev never gave a flying fornication what anybody thought about him. He had a wide circle of friends of all ages who adored him. And he loved his life, travel and work. I only hope I can be better at following his example.
I’m going to leave you with a cartoon from the wonderful Zen Pencils. Kev, you nailed this:
*utterly brilliant novel about grief. And like all of Ms. Keyes’s novels, funny and serious at the same time.