When you know you’ve got a best friend. That look.
I have, for many years, had a great admiration for the Nobel Prize-winning physicist, Richard Feynman. A hero of mine, if you like (and even if you don’t). Thinking I couldn’t care for him more, reading this text of a letter he wrote to his dead, first, wife in October 1946, 488 days after she died of tuberculosis, disproved me.
I adore you, sweetheart.
I know how much you like to hear that — but I don’t only write it because you like it — I write it because it makes me warm all over inside to write it to you.
It is such a terribly long time since I last wrote to you — almost two years but I know you’ll excuse me because you understand how I am, stubborn and realistic; and I thought there was no sense to writing.
But now I know my darling wife that it is right to do what I have delayed in doing, and that I have done so much in the past. I want to tell you I love you. I want to love you. I always will love you.
I find it hard to understand in my mind what it means to love you after you are dead — but I still want to comfort and take care of you — and I want you to love me and care for me. I want to have problems to discuss with you — I want to do little projects with you. I never thought until just now that we can do that. What should we do. We started to learn to make clothes together — or learn Chinese — or getting a movie projector. Can’t I do something now? No. I am alone without you and you were the “idea-woman” and general instigator of all our wild adventures.
When you were sick you worried because you could not give me something that you wanted to and thought I needed. You needn’t have worried. Just as I told you then there was no real need because I loved you in so many ways so much. And now it is clearly even more true — you can give me nothing now yet I love you so that you stand in my way of loving anyone else — but I want you to stand there. You, dead, are so much better than anyone else alive.
I know you will assure me that I am foolish and that you want me to have full happiness and don’t want to be in my way. I’ll bet you are surprised that I don’t even have a girlfriend (except you, sweetheart) after two years. But you can’t help it, darling, nor can I — I don’t understand it, for I have met many girls and very nice ones and I don’t want to remain alone — but in two or three meetings they all seem ashes. You only are left to me. You are real.
My darling wife, I do adore you.
I love my wife. My wife is dead.
PS Please excuse my not mailing this — but I don’t know your new address.’
Today would have been his 100th birthday, this letter shows the man. His awards and academic recognition show the scientist. I’ve always been a little in love with the person. A true magician.
(Taken from the book ‘Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman’, James Gleick (1993).)
Silently and quickly,
he stood up,
removed my sunglasses and smiled at my eyes.
‘That’s better’, he said.
And he sat down.
The companionable silence resumed.
We stared out to sea once more,
from time to time glancing at each other
– almost coyly.
Because we knew.
There will never be a last time.
Late last year, I had cause to stop and take stock of friendships. I jotted down these notes in a moment of clarity to help me focus on when to hold on and when to let go. It was a useful reminder in funky times. Now, I’m sharing…
Friendship: Notes to Self.
Good ones are there for you and you them. Suspend disbelief, it’s often not those you expect who step up.
Friendship can only be based on what people are, not on what you want them to be.
Do not use friends to plug a gap in your life.
Online friendships can be supportive without needing to move off-screen.
Do not base friendship on one you made earlier. Jack is not just like John used to be. No, he isn’t. You aren’t who you used to be either, and if you knew where the hell John was now, you’d find he’d changed, too.
Manage your expectations and let others manage theirs.
You cannot live solely for the approval of others.
Never say never when starting a friendship, but do say never again when calling it.
It’s ok to forgive, it’s not ok to forget.
True love changes with you, it doesn’t end, don’t confuse the two.
Fear of rejection can only drive you deeper into relationships you don’t need.
Let go before a friendship’s bled right out. Walk away, don’t look back.
Clinging helps no-one. Ever. Even Cinderella almost overstayed her welcome.
Accept that you’re only human and afford others that courtesy, too.
Laughing is good. Laughing with someone else until you get cramps and can’t see through the tears is even better.
Hold onto your self-esteem.
Love After Love
The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,
and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you
all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,
the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.
Derek Walcott KCSL OBE OCC (23 January 1930 – 17 March 2017)
I got the phone call in the supermarket. Already in a bad mood, I pulled the smartphone from my pocket to stare at its screen and a number I didn’t recognise. Too pissed off to ignore it, I pressed accept. It was a call from a tearful female –
‘Is that Jane?’
‘Yes, who is this?’
‘We’ve never met’ (Really, I need this?).
‘I found your number in some old papers’ (Not helping).
‘I work with Jeff’ (Mind clearing).
‘I didn’t know who else to call. I have some bad news’ (Right, I’m your go-to gal,then).
‘Can you talk?’ (Can I ever?).
Taking a deep breath, I put down my shopping basket. I told her to go on, please. She did, thank you.
‘We thought it was an abscess and he just needed a tooth out, but it’s mouth cancer and it’s too far gone.’
So, she was calling to tell me Jeff was dying and at a much faster rate than us. I said no, no I didn’t mind that she was calling me and not to worry that she was in tears but that I was in Asda and it was all a bit much to take in.
‘Why don’t you text me with your mobile number and then I’ll come visit? We can talk face to face and I can see Jeff.’
She stopped crying and apologising, agreed, and I rang off politely but firmly.
I picked up my shopping basket and put in a litre bottle of Jack Daniels. On the short walk home, I decided I felt guilty for not visiting before receiving Jeff’s death sentence. While waiting for the promised text, I entertained myself with the notion of how hard I’d punch the next person who told me that it’s best these things happen to me ‘because you’re a strong person, Jane, and you can take it.’ I stared at the still unopened-in-spite whiskey bottle, harder and harder – I used it as a lens to look around my room, an amber filter for my rage. The text arrived. It was signed off with kisses. I’d never met this woman. I replied yes, yes, of course I’d visit xxx.
It’d been almost three years since I’d last seen him, and that was at Grandad’s funeral. His Dad. Jeff had come to the crematorium with Dave. Dave had approached me as I received condolences in the rain ‘We need to talk, what happens when Jeff dies? Is there a funeral plan?’ He wanted to tell me about Jeff. It wasn’t the time or the place for that conversation. I gave him my number and my mother’s (wishing him good luck with that one, but hey, she is – technically – next of kin) and then continued accepting sympathy and stories as Dave drove Jeff home. Grandad took care of everything, he had told me so. I was his executor, so I knew ‘officially’, too. But I had no details, so I minded the gap and that bothered me. I resolved to visit Jeff and to find out. But I didn’t. I left the country again and on fleeting return trips he wasn’t a priority – Grandad had taken care of him.
I made an appointment and I visited. From my house to his was an hour’s walk either way. The address was an unassuming pebble-dashed bungalow in a residential part of town, next to a bus stop and opposite a large pub. I rang the doorbell and, after a few minutes, one of Jeff’s housemates answered. He was chatty and wary and eventually stood aside to let me in to meet the woman who’d called me. Jeff was on his reclining chair in the corner of the sitting room watching a musical on the television. He looked up when I went in, looked at her, then we all smiled at each other. I walked over and hugged him and then she told me the story of Jeff’s cancer diagnosis. A shockingly short story. He had months left, at best. Someone else came in and offered me tea, I accepted. It was a good cup of tea, I told him. By this time, I’d met Jeff’s other housemate, who’d been in to check me out – to be certain I had Jeff’s best interests at heart. Everyone had stories of Jeff, yet wanted to know more. Suddenly, we all minded the gaps.
I thought, well, he’s my mother’s brother, he’s 19 years older than me, I haven’t seen him for three years – that’s it, really. All I know. But, of course, it wasn’t. Not at all.
Between then and Christmas I visited regularly. I met more of the growing team who were caring, and cared, for Jeff. As I did, we all tried to find him, to know a Jeff which matched all memories, none of them in common. He looked on; smiling, then frowning. But in striving for ‘Jeff always…’, we could only hit ‘Jeff, as far as we know’. I knew what I’d been told and what I’d witnessed from childhood to my twenties, until Jeff had to go into care. When my grandparents, ageing, could no longer cope physically day-to-day. His carers knew him from the time he’d gone to live in his shared bungalow. One of his housemates knew him from the time they’d spent together in an institution (the mere sight of which now caused an expression of horror to cross Jeff’s face). We all tried to find him though he was right there with us.
Jeffrey was autistic, and he never spoke. His silence and our not knowing was quite the burden. Yet it was all the blame that could ever have been laid at his feet and even that based entirely on our expectations, not his demands. Not knowing had eaten away at my grandparents: they’d looked tirelessly for answers, for help. Finding little, they’d provided their own and then some for many others. Grandad – A Tribute outlines some of their work. Grandad said he’d made sure that Jeff would always be taken care of and that he was proud to have a son who would never let him down. Jeff was there with me for my Early Learning, I’d sit with him and recite my spellings and we’d draw letters together. He could communicate just fine to a receptive audience (can’t we all?) and I was always left with the impression that he was simply too good (or thought he was) for the rest of us.
As his condition worsened, I sat with his carers to plan his funeral. Grandad had taken care of it, of course. It was fully prepared, yet we had to choose music, hymns and readings still. We did. In the end it was so simple to provide everyone with a breath of air, a glimpse into a blameless life and one which taught us all so much about ourselves whilst giving away so little of its own. The last time I saw Jeff was a week before he died. I kissed him on the forehead and wished him ‘Good night, God bless’ as I left. It’s what Gran always did for me and him and one thing I had remembered quite clearly in finding Jeff.