At the Going Down of the Sun…

ANZAC

There was once a man who loved to sail…

It’s Anzac Day here in Australia today — the day we commemorate the continued service and sacrifice of our armed forces, the day we remember those who gave their lives to make this country the safe haven it is today.

For me, Anzac Day is a solemn occasion. It brings to mind of the sharp scent of rosemary, the sound of harbourbound fighter planes overhead, and the comforting feel and weight of the two brass buttons from my grandfather’s naval dress uniform that I took into every exam at the end of high school and throughout university.

I have no memories of my grandfather speaking to me of his war service: not of surviving the bombing of Darwin, not of the time he spent at sea during the war in the Pacific, not of being one of the first Australians to set foot on Japanese soil after the signing of the surrender in Toyko Bay. And yet, the photograph I have of him on top of my piano is one that was taken at sea during that awful time, and it is of a slim young man leaning casually against the ship’s rail, immaculately dressed (as always) and smiling — and reminding me of my younger brother more than I’d like to admit.

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…he was my Grandfather…

Somehow, the sight of that photograph often prompts me to imagine what he and his mates went through — a bunch of blokes thrown together as the crew of a small ship on a vast ocean, facing a determined enemy. In all honesty, however, I know I can’t really imagine what it was like. Not the exhaustion. Or the feeling of being constantly threatened. Or the battles at sea. Or the kamikazes. And even though I will always be proud of his service, my overwhelmingly emotion is one of relief that he came home.

That he had a family.

That I got to know him and love him.

And as I write this, I am acutely aware that in a matter of days it will be the 25th anniversary of my grandfather’s death.

Anniversaries are strange things. At first they often feel so raw we wonder whether we will make it through them, and worry that the sorrow and anguish will never go away. Because loss literally makes our hearts ache — and I suspect Queen Elizabeth II was absolutely right when she once told her young grandsons, “Grief is the price we pay for love.”

But even as time goes on, anniversaries can fill us with a welter of conflicting emotions, and can sometimes surprise us with the  intensity of our residual grief. Only two years ago, I used this space to write about my grandfather when those feelings crept up on me once again. And, perhaps because I am at heart a reader and writer, then as now I tend to draw comfort from the words of fictional characters whenever grief rears its shaggy head. In the Harry Potter series, for example, Albus Dumbledore offers these comforting words:

Ddore dead do not

…and he’s never really left me….

To have been loved deeply, even though the person who loved us is gone, will give us some protection forever.

Elsewhere, Dumbledore also reminds us that the ones who love us never truly leave us, and that even when they have the continue to influence us in our everyday lives — in the thoughts we think, the decisions we make, even in the turns of phrase we use.

I try to pass those funny little things that my grandparents said on to my own children.  My Welsh grandmother, for example, used to say “Golly Gosh!”, which my kids, for reasons known only to them, find utterly delightful. My globetrotting gypsy grandmother was famous for asking, “Where’s Beulah?” every time she hosted a dinner party — referring to an imaginary kitchen maid who supposedly shot through every time guests arrived, leaving Grandma with all the work. And my grandfather? Well, any success, no matter how big or small, was always celebrated by him as being a “true triumph”.

I am grateful I can refer my children to the words of their ancestors as well as those of Albus Dumbledore when they are in need of comfort, though there is one other thing I told them when they were small that they have latched onto: that when someone we love dies, we see them again every night because they are up with the twinkling stars. They reminded me of this only recently when, after we finished reading The Hobbit together, we sat down as a family and watched all three Hobbit movies. Not surprisingly, both my girls have become particularly fond of Tauriel, the Sylvan Elf who does not appear in the book, but who has a minor role in the movies.

starlight

…and he never ever will.

When Thorin Oakenshield and his company of dwarves have been imprisoned by Thranduil, The Elvenking of Mirkwood, Tauriel has a discussion with Kili, one of the younger dwarves about Mereth Nuin Giliath, the Feast of Starlight.

“All light is sacred to the Eldar, but the Wood Elves love best the light of the stars,” Tauriel tells Kili, who says he always thought starlight was cold, remote and far away.

But Tauriel, it seems, has a similar view of the stars to mine:

It is memory, precious and pure…I have walked there sometimes, beyond the forest and out into the night. I have seen the world fall away and the white light of forever fill the air.

At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, we will remember them.

At the going down of the sun, the twinkling stars shine.

Scenes from Suburbia

I stand in the supermarket, staring at the shelves in front of me, searching for a single pen. Beneath the bright lights are rows of gaudy plastic packages — pencils, pens, permanent markers — but none of them are what I seek.  How is it, I wonder, that an entire brand of felt-tipped pens, the pens of choice in my childhood, could have disappeared, replaced by the apparently ubiquitously popular Sharpie? How is it that my decisions, as a consumer, are being dictated by a duopoly of chain stores that stock only what is trendy or what is cheap?

Fuelled by a combination of nostalgia and disgust, I stalk out of the store to a newsagency around the corner that carries the brand I am looking for. I survey the shelves once again, shelves in desperate need of re-stocking, and select a pen. It costs $4.80 — nearly double the price of a ten-pack of pens at the supermarket — but I buy it anyway.

It’s not even the colour I want.

*****

I sit in a cafe, lured in by the breakfast special (a toastie, a coffee), somewhat dejected by my newsagency experience until I take out my new pen and begin to write. The smooth slip of the felt tip across the paper is soothing, satisfying, and I stop only when a woman sits down beside me and I have to heave my shopping out of her way. “Don’t worry,” she says, “I’m sitting by myself at a table for four.” We smile, complicitly, staring out into the cafe, silently sipping our coffee, savouring moments of stolen time.

A woman at another table is speaking — clearly, distinctly — to an older man sitting opposite her.  Not her father — an uncle, perhaps, or an old family friend.  She tells him that her mother has remarried, has moved away, has moved on. She does not know the people of whom her mother now speaks; new in-laws, new neighbours. She glances around frantically, speaks more loudly, but her words do not reach her companion. He is burdened by his own flailing, failing romance: his lover wants a ring, but not marriage. He says he will buy the ring anyway.

Outside the cafe, a grandfather rides up and down the escalators with his granddaughter. The child squeals and kicks joyfully as he tips her stroller back so she can see the blue sky above, secure in the knowledge that he will never let her fall. Inside, the woman falls suddenly silent as she recognises the table before her is a chasm.

And then a small bird, a starling, alights on the back of the chair in the space between us, bringing with it nature’s blessing in the midst of this consumerist temple of concrete, steel and glass.

*****

I drive home in my husband’s car.  My car is with the mechanic, being serviced. This car, an old blue station wagon strewn with tubes of sunscreen, CDs and smears of surfboard wax, feels so different from mine. The steering wheel is broader, yet the grip is thinner than what I am used to. The accelerator feels twitchy beneath my foot.  Unfamiliar plasticky rattles fill my ears.

Stopped at a traffic light, I turn towards the back seat, trying to see what could be making so much noise, and catch a glimpse of a fine, golden hair — my younger daughter’s — snagged on the upholstery, and feel the comforting rush of the familiar in that single strand.

Always hope

Rise

Iman B&W

Iman…supermodel, entrepreneur, wife, mother, photographed here in 1977 by Francesco Scavullo.

About eighteen months ago I started following someone on Facebook — a celebrity, no less. I am not usually one to click the Follow button simply because someone is famous, but there was something about what this person was posting — consistently — that often made me stop and consider. Or smile. Or laugh out loud.

That person was Iman Abdulmajid.

Of course, in the light of her (monumentally) famous husband’s death a month ago, the quotes and thoughts that Iman posted over the past year or so no longer surprise me: she knew, even though the world did not, that her husband of more than two decades was dying of cancer.

Looking back, the posts now have an added poignancy that I don’t think the passage of time will take away. In the week before her husband’s death, for example, she shared quotes like, “Life isn’t about avoiding the bruises. It’s about collecting the scars to prove we showed up for it”, and a thought from the poet Rumi: “Do not worry that your life is turning upside down. How do you know that the side you are used to is better than the one to come?”

But during the past year, in between sharing incredibly beautiful fashion photographs and promotional material for her husband’s Blackstar album, there were also thoughts that made me chuckle, such as “Sometimes you have to burn a few bridges to keep the crazies from following you”.

Overwhelmingly, however, there were messages of hope, of faith, of gratitude, and of determination to overcome. And the majority of the thoughts she shared she tagged with a single word: Rise.

Iman & DB

Iman and the inimitable Mr Jones in 2003, from a Tommy Hilfiger campaign styled by Edward Enninful.

It’s a powerful concept.

Rise, every day. Rise, above adversity. Rise, to the challenge — whatever it is.

Rise.

And, just as her husband appears to have made very conscious decisions about his approach to death, Iman seems to be approaching the transition to life after his passing with the same hope, faith, gratitude and determination to overcome that she has displayed over the past year.  Today, she posted a quote from Rune Lazuli: “Each tear is a poet, a healer, a teacher.”

Despite her grief, which must be as raw as it is real, there is true graciousness in the way Iman has responded to her husband’s passing. There is also humility, intelligence, and — like her husband — a considerable amount of style.

There is, I suspect, a lot I could still learn from Iman Abdulmajid — not least of which is to rise.