Virginia Barton

A sombre reminder of mortality

img-409122052-0001 (2)Catholic Herald, 11 September 1992

 

THE screams of the swifts are but an echo and the housemartins prepare for a flit, leaving the usual litter of shell, twig and dropping on our back door-step.

The dawn chorus is now no more than a rustle of puss-cat, on the alert for some tardy visitor reluctant to leave the green and pleasant for the dust and drought. Summer has passed.

Time hurries on, faster and faster, like Alice and the Red Queen. When this sort of melancholy begins to drip off my pen I know that I am showing my age.

Some people actually relish the sombre tone of autumn, the hush, the gradual winding down, the changing of the clocks. They look forward to those claggy morning mists, and to the sad sad spiral of bonfire smoke – the scent of which is almost unbearably nostalgic.

These same people don’t seem to mind the extra clothing, the poor light, the heavier diet. Cosy old winter they say.

Fit only for hibernation, I reply. Inevitably winter reminds us of our mortality, how could it be otherwise with man withdrawn and nature in full retreat?

 

Dust to dust

It’s as well to be reminded that we are dust. Not, perhaps, as often as a plasterer I once employed. As he repaired the kitchen ceiling he repeated over and over the three words “born to die”. Occasionally he would throw in a “Madam”. At the other end of the spectrum I heard an American journalist report semi-seriously that in California now ”death is optional”. Wow.

Only saints and martyrs yearn to be reunited with the creator as soon as possible. The rest of us are only too thankful to postpone the event. We, too, long for heaven, but not just yet.

 

Hospital signComplete recovery

“You can drive your car again if you like,” said Eugene, the doctor at the eye hospital. Remarkable when almost a year ago I couldn’t even see the faces of the ambulancemen.

Now, I must write personally for a sentence or two if only to thank the Herald readers who wrote to me when I fell ill a year ago. Considering the care and attention lavished on me, it would have been churlish not to recover.

We expect such a lot of the NHS, miracles no less. By and large they deliver the goods. For every gripe and grizzle there must be a hundred satisfied patients. I am grovellingly grateful to the stunning team of doctors and nurses who cured me. Illness brings out the best and the worst in people. I tried to be a good patient but was merely noisy.

I was told that people were promising to pray for me. It’s so easy to say (who hasn’t) but I knew it was true because I could feel it. It was like being lifted aloft on a shield like some old Viking hero. That’s how it felt to be supported by those prayers.

At a time when l found it difficult to communicate with God in more than a gasp or a whisper, those prayers were vastly comforting. How could one fail to recover after such a powerful cocktail of medical expertise, petitions, and family love?

 

Useful tidbits

Quite honestly I never thought I’d make it to the back page again – where, it seems, the chaps had it all their own way.

Restricted to the narrow compass of my own head, a Charterhouse Chronicle (had I been able to compose one) must have been of limited interest, even to myself. Nonetheless various tit-bits came my way which would have been good fodder for this column, viz the sale of broom-cupboards as small flats in London, the launch of The Oldie magazine, the reading of the Bible on Radio 4, the charms of the Lithuanian volleyball team.

Such gossip leads its way to the convalescent’s bedside. The BBC World Service is still a nightly companion and I find myself remarkably well-informed on white-water canoeing, various unmentionable diseases, and ethnic poetry.

 

They’ve got it taped

Poetry and other lines literary lie draped behind cobwebs in Bookery Nook. Incidentally, if you possess a copy of Crockford’s File by William Oddie do hang on to it. It is almost impossible to find.

When I couldn’t read, I listened to tapes, lots of them, from the Maundy Thursday liturgy at Solesmes, and a celebration at Taize, to Dick Francis and Ant Trollope.

Tapes are brilliant in hospital if you can stand that nobly thing in your ear and get someone to operate the machinery. After tapes came the luxury of being read to (Assakov’s Russian pastoral Years of Childhood) which recalled one of my earliest memories: my mother reading to us from Vanity Fair with all the appropriate voices.

Now I can read by myself, a blessing so tremendous, the loss of it makes one tremble.

It has been wall-to-wall Dickens. Howling over the death of the first Mrs. Dombey was key to my recovery.

What strange creatures we are. Life is awfully precious, and interesting, and fun, and challenging. No wonder we’re so reluctant to leave it. Like those summer birds.

 

 

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