Time stopped when my son died. Now its passing shapes my grief

Courtesy of The Guardian | By Warwick McFadyen | Published 10.09.2021 | Posted 10.30.2021

When it comes to loss, people speak of time as the great healer. But it is also frightening for it puts a distance between the living and the dead

Just a few months before the Earth shifted on its axis when a virus departed China to travel the world and wreak more than 4.5 million deaths upon it, an axis of love broke within me. A world within the world broke its moorings, never to return.

Before October 2019, time’s straight arrow was just that. It had no other dimension to it. Now the arrow is both real and illusion. And, unbeknown to me, a new language was forming to try to define the meaning of it all. This was time giving shape to loss. It began two years ago, when time stopped.

Two hourglasses now sit within me. In one the grains of sand continue to flow, seconds, to hours, to days. In the other, the sand is frozen, its grains suspended from the moment my son took his last breath. Hamish was 21.

Now there are shadows within the shadows. There is breath within the breath. There are words within the words.

While I might have had intimations of these things, from a philosophical aspect, the past two years have taught me this in the way of moonlight seeping into my bones.

I’ve written at intervals in these past two years of the grief and the memory. The words were the emanation from a deep well. I can no more stop the flow than stop the hours. It has felt, in its non-rational way, a means of keeping my son alive – if there were words rather than ash the pain would be less. Something to hold on to, the heart demanded it, never mind the head.

In those first weeks, the words were drawn from a wound raw and a pulse relentless in lament. People speak of time as the great healer – as a comfort and solace, but it is also frightening for it puts a distance between the living and the dead. It can be no other way, of course. Life goes on.

And yet. And yet. In the moving forward, there has been a shift in the gears of grief. There is an elemental change in the definition of grief. At once, I hate it, but know it is undeniable. My son’s life is receding.

The here and now of him is like a small boat sailing from me on an ocean too wide and deep to hold it back. Sometimes, in the ever-widening parting of the years I think I can hear him say, let go Dad, I’m gone. And this is the hardest part. For he is right, and memory is no substitute really for the here and now. Yet it being all there is, standing before the great maw of forever, one holds it dear. One holds it close, and thanks time for having had the love at all. How lucky is that among the vastness of the universe?

Rilke wrote in Requiem for a Friend: “We need, in love, to practise only this: / letting each other go / For holding on comes easily; / we do not need to learn it.”

The words are easier to write than act upon. Rilke never had a son.

In the latter months words have become more distillation. The prose has become poems. The road travelled to a finished poem is a strange journey, for words are more discarded than used. A poem is naked. The links in the chain of words seem more intense and more closely entwined in the distilling of feeling to keep the circle from breaking. It’s ironic I should describe the virtues of the poem in a prose piece, but there you are.

This is one of the poems:

The Wake

The surface breaks and in the parting
lines of ripples slip away.
They crest then fade into the fold
that swirls and sleeps under the spray.

This is the lapping of each moment
from rock of cradle to silent grave,
this is the voice that no longer travels
but for what it left and what it gave.

This is the widening wake, carrying
the echo and call of a life now past
to my shore-bound days. The water
runs through my hands. I hold it fast.

Two years ago, time stopped. And yet as Shakespeare wrote “Like as the waves make towards the pebbled shore / So do our minutes hasten to their end’’. True enough. Death is a certainty. And yet, time continues, and we go with its currents. I like to think that swimming in this ocean, waiting for the next wave, he is next to me, shouting, Go for it, Dad.

Warwick McFadyen is a Melbourne-based writer and editor

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