Staying Alive

The other day, while out walking with a friend, we took a detour on our way home and found ourselves in an old cemetery.

It was, as she put it, the sort of place Tom Riddle might show up to challenge you to a wand duel. The ground, bulging with overgrown roots, was uneven and covered over with long blades of grass that soaked us to the ankles. Most of the engravings on the oldest headstones were illegible; the inscriptions had been gently buffed to smoothness by the passing of time. Speckled with lichen and pushed by either weather or slowly shifting soil, the stones leaned drunkenly at different angles. We wandered between them, calling out unusual names to each other or pointing out particularly old dates. Some went back to the 1800’s.

We found a few sad ones; children, siblings, husbands who died in their thirties with wives who died in their seventies. We found a few interesting ones; a headstone marked the passing of a man named Lemon Booth who had died in 1910 (I pictured him as a kindly eccentric with a penchant for wearing yellow). We also found a slab of what we assume is a family crypt dug into the foundations of what used to be a church.

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Some people strongly dislike graveyards. They find them creepy, or depressing, or taboo in a way that makes their skin crawl. The thought of dead people underfoot gives them the heebiejeebies. Some people feel it’s almost sacrilegious to walk through a cemetery full of people you have no connection to, propelled by nothing but curiosity. Some think that cemeteries should only be for the broken-hearted. Some think that it should only ever be a private place for grieving and goodbyes.

I actually quite like them.

Not – obviously – during burials, when my heart feels like it’s being finely grated into ribbons of despair and deposited straight into the ground with the coffin… but after. Later. I find comfort in the fact that so it has been and so it will always be; humans losing loved ones and creating rituals to say goodbye, with something tangible to mark the passing of generally unremarkable people. That’s you, and me, and most people. We, the Wikipedia-entry-less.¬† We, the people who live important lives but on a private scale. We, the remarkable unremarkable. We live full, busy lives of friendships, and stories, and memories. We have favourite activities, and things we are most proud of, and quirks that are unique to us. We laugh and cry and develop habits and grieve and love and then, at some point, we die and leave it all behind.

Honestly, I hate the idea as much as the next person. Saying goodbye to loved ones has always been so hard, and although my grief stems from not wanting them to ever leave my life, a small part of it also comes from the sadness that comes with the thought of leaving my life. I grieve for myself, but I also grieve on their behalf, for their having to say goodbye to everything. I love this world, the colours in it, the smell of petrichor, the taste of freshly baked bread, the feeling of a badly-needed hug, the sound of a loved one laughing. I love this world, even with the really rubbish bits. Even with the tragedies. Even with the dangers. Even with the Trumps.

I like my unremarkable life. I like being alive.

They say you die twice. Once when you stop breathing and a second time, a bit later on, when somebody says your name for the last time. I always think of this as I read the names on headstones, shaping the consonants beneath my breath, taking a moment to wonder about the person behind the name, and the life that person left behind.

It comforts me to think that over a hundred years from now, someone might find the marker of my unremarkable life and say my name aloud, wondering about me…

Keeping me alive a little longer.

 

 

Memento Mori

 

When I was small(er than I am now), I went on a good many roadtrips with my father. Not to sound too twee about it, but these car journeys often led down long and curving country roads flanked by hedgerows and higgledy-piggledy stone walls and endless green fields. There were no streetlights or footpaths. Houses whizzed by at a predictable, rhythmic pace. Field, field, house. Field, field, house. Field, field, house. We sped through the countryside listening to Kris Kristofferson or the soundtrack from The Big Chill.

I loved it. I still do. Once I leave the last streetlight behind I always feel a little bit more free until I reach the next town. I find it calming to be out on country roads, away from bumper-to-bumper traffic and pedestrians.

But do you know what usually doesn’t fare too well on streetlight-free, pedestrian-lacking country roads?

Wildlife.

Every so often on these childhood roadtrips we would pass an indeterminate shape on the side of the road, and if I so much as caught a glimpse of it out of the corner of my eye I would react as if I had been suddenly and unexpectedly shot.

“DAD! DAD! STOP! STOP THE CAR!”

“What?”

“STOP THE CAR! DAD! PULL OVER! YOU HAVE TO STOP!”

My father would dutifully pull the car over into the ditch, I would jump out, and – one of us walking (my father), one of us running (me) – we would trace our way back to the vague shape. I would crouch in front of whatever unfortunate creature had strayed too close to the road and search for signs of life in the glossy black eyes. Over the years we found badgers, pine martens, foxes, hares, crows, rabbits, ferrets, blackbirds, and hedgehogs; the scurrying creatures and the scavenging opportunists of the Irish countryside.

If the animal showed any sign of life at all, it was carefully picked up and placed in a cardboard box. I couldn’t bear to leave a living creature suffering on the side of the road. Instead it would come with us and suffer in the boot of the car until we reached our destination, where we would try – with absolutely no medical training – to fix it and put it up in a cardboard box lined with a blanket.

You might think this strange… and you would probably be right. Some of you might think my father deserves generous dollops of admiration for his endless patience and indulgence when it came to pulling the car over each and every time we spotted anything that looked like it might be something.

…It was his fault though…

Before I was ever old enough to call for emergency stops like a deranged infant paramedic, he would frequently pull over with no prompting to show me recently deceased roadkill. Together, we would hunker down next to a dead red fox, eyes rounded by terror, and my father would point things out to me; he would alert me to the white-tipped tail, the dark paws. I have hunkered down next to badgers frozen mid-snarl by death. I have hunkered next to wide-beaked crows, silenced in the middle of indignant squawks. If the animal didn’t look diseased I would touch it. My small chubby fingers would gingerly pet the silky feathers of a pheasant, or warily touch the tips of hedgehog quills. Even in death the animals looked beautiful.*

To this day I’m not squeamish at all (although there are a couple of things that make me uncomfortable**), and at night I scroll through news stories on my phone, reading about awful stories of unfortunate people in unlucky circumstances. I sometimes read them aloud to Scrubs, who inevitably balks and says, “Why do you read such horrible things before you go to sleep?”

Why indeed?

The other day my father dropped over for a cup of coffee. We were sitting around the table catching up when he leaned back in his chair and waved his biscuit in Scrubs’ general direction.

“Did you hear about that car accident earlier?”

Scrubs nodded. “Yeah. Awful.”

“FOUR dead. Three in one car.”

Scrubs nodded grimly. My father continued.

“And what about that young girl that commited suicide?”

“What young girl?”

“An eleven year old. Didn’t like the way she looked. Killed herself. Isn’t that horrendous?”

There was a brief pause as my father munched on his biscuit in contemplative silence. I stared off into the middle distance. Scrubs shifted in his seat.

“Has there been any more news about that journalist Kim Wall?” I asked.

“Who?”

“You know, the woman who got dismembered in the submarine?”

“Ohhhh,” my father nodded with understanding. “He said he didn’t kill her. Bit unlikely that he didn’t kill her but did hack her to pieces and sink the body parts.”

“The last thing I heard about it was that they found her arm,” I said as I reached for a biscuit of my own.

Scrubs looked from my father to me and back again.

“Obviously runs in the family,” he said.

A phrase cut short to exclude the implied ‘…you pack of weirdos.’

Since noticing this morbid curiosity that has evidently been passed carefully from father to daughter, I have tried to keep a lid on it. I try to stick to more wholesome parts of the internet when I’m looking for bedtime reading. I fight the urge to instantly share the last horrifying story I read about the latest lamentable occurence.

But I still get an urge to pull over every time I see roadkill, just to check whether it’s really dead or if it needs my inept assistance (or a call to the local animal rehab service).

I probably always will.

 

*Obviously if the animal had been dead for some time or looked obviously diseased or mangled or dirty I wasn’t allowed to go near it or touch it. My father was trying to teach me, not contaminate me.

**EYEBALLS. Damaged eyeballs give me the heebie-jeebies. Also maggots are revolting. It’s the way they move!