I’VE lost many friends through death. Haven’t we all? Sometimes I think my number is high because most of them were way more than a decade older than me. I’ve learned to say goodbye; to adjust to absences, and to get philosophical about the arbitrariness of life.
Departures have been regular and consistent in my space. I have often written about the large brood of cousins I grew up with, living in the same compound and sharing childhood activities without restriction. Although I was unconscious of its bearing then, those were significant bonds. They were a part of the fabric of daily life, taken for granted with the complacent assumption that they would always be there.
There were five family units, resulting in a range of age groups and personalities, and it led to an interesting spectrum of interactions. One day, just like that, one unit of the clan vanished. There was no forewarning, no explanation. They went away, and it was only long afterwards we would learn that these seven had been taken by their mother to live with her. No one thought it fit to explain where they had gone, or even why. It was big people business, and we were left to form our own conclusions. I would not see them again, except briefly in adulthood at four of their funerals. It was the same when another was also reclaimed by his mother, who lived in another country. He too was taken without us knowing; suddenly he was gone, never to be seen again until a notice of his death maybe 30 years later.
I still do not understand why none of the adults thought to offer some kind of explanation; but I suppose it was the way of the times, children were not to be told anything. Those events influenced my way of seeing. People come and go, it is an aspect of life; but these abrupt disconnections fed into a wariness about attachments, and then later, cultivated a grim acceptance that death was here for us all, and was simply an inevitable part of being alive. This transience has shaped the way I react, creating a nebulous kind of stoicism that can appear as indifference. It’s not that I am unmoved by death and loss, it’s probably more that I internalise it in a private way and try to comfort the grief-stricken.
I feel better to celebrate the life that was, than to mourn a departure.
There have been two exceptions—and I am not sure that it is accurate to call it that—to my general outlook. Many times I ask Gail Massy for her opinion on personal dilemmas, though she departed this life many years ago. It comforts me to imagine her quirky counsel. It is my stubborn way of keeping her in my space. One of the reasons I am writing about this is that I thought of Keith Smith a couple of nights ago, just as I finished writing a chapter on Frank Worrell. Suddenly, I wondered what he would make of the biography. All those years ago, we shared so many conversations, so regularly, that when he died I could not shed the instinct to call him when things popped up.
In fact, in the wake of his death, when torrents of tributes poured out of bereaved hearts, I would often reach for the phone to call him to tell him, you see? Keith, in all his brilliance, lived under the shadow of what he believed to be an unforgivable state. He felt he was unworthy, and unimportant, and there was little that brought him more than fleeting comfort about his value to the society, whose approval he craved.
I thought of Keith and wondered if he had been able to see those posthumous tributes whether it would have made a difference. We reserve our best words for last, after the breath has left the body, and they are more of import to those left standing and in need of solace.
In public and in private spaces, I have always felt strongly about saluting those I admire while they can hear what I think. It is important to me, and this brings me to the other reason for approaching this subject.
Traditionally, people have gathered at birthdays and anniversaries to celebrate these milestones. They are occasions full of tributes and grand gestures. Sometimes it can be a bit much for me, but that has more to do with my awkwardness in social settings than any objection to the purpose. One of the innovations wrought by technology since the restrictions imposed by the pandemic is the emergence of apps to enable people to write out their tributes and upload them with photos in what becomes a keepsake album for all to see (including the recipient!). It requires more thought and effort than an off-the-cuff speech at an event, and this can render more substance to its content; but it offers more permanence as a meaningful appraisal of how one is regarded by one’s friends and relatives.
It is a modern expression of a tradition of paying tribute—one not so morbid as the concept of the living wake—but a way of telling someone that their life has mattered. It’s worth a lot to hear it in celebration rather than in grief.
—The author is an editor, writer and cricket historian.