A Letter to Henry

And what can I tell you, my brother, my killer,
What can I possibly say?
I guess that I miss you, I guess I forgive you
I’m glad you stood in my way

from Famous Blue Raincoat, Leonard Cohen

"I've seen things you people wouldn't believe...
... attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion...
...I've watched C-beams glitter in the dark
off the Tannhauser Gate...
... all those moments will be lost, in time...
... like tears... in rain..."

Bladerunner, Ridley Scott

Dear Henry,
In the minutes, hours, days, weeks and months following 12 December 2007, I have felt at times that I’ve been living on a lifeboat. I’ve seen some big seas and some flat calms; I’ve heard strange, unidentifiable sounds in the night, welling up from the deep; I’ve felt the waves throw themselves in desperation onto the beach and then I’ve heard them hiss through gritted teeth as they’re dragged back out to sea again; and every wind on the Beaufort Scale has had something to throw in my face. I have been wet through, I have been dried out; I have been hungry and thirsty. There have been too many high and low tides to remember (although, at a rate of two a day, I could probably count them). And as day has followed night has followed day since that date, I have expected the worst to happen... as if worse could happen. I should have been drowned, at sea; I should have died of exposure or exhaustion, to have my body pecked at, fought over by seabirds; of all the possible outcomes, survival with anything like equilibrium did not seem the most likely.

My sweet, brave, so sorry boy, I am grieving for you and will continue to grieve and mourn for you until my turn comes to die. You leave behind an aching, gaping great hole, never to be filled. Stretching away to the far horizon and beyond, lies the desolate landscape of a life to be lived in some way without you.

But I seem to have made it back to the shore and found safe havens on solid earth. For all that I know this place like the back of my hand, I also know that it’s different and can never look or feel or work the same as before: it’s as if Plate Tectonics has been at work. In spite of the continuing aftershocks, I find myself able to stand up and walk steadily and while I don’t know what comes next, I don’t feel afraid.

In the immediate aftermath, I was swept off my feet by the love, concern and heart-felt sympathy of friends: but at the same time, I knew deep down that this tide of emotion would recede, as it had to, leaving me high and dry with the flotsam and jetsam, to fend for myself. What I found buried in myself was an entirely surprising ability to cope; I had no idea how it got there but I surrendered to it absolutely.

From time to time, I wondered how it might appear to other people. Grief, it turns out, is a very territorial thing – all the people close to you (and plenty from further off) have had to establish their own borders of grief. With some, it’s been an easy thing to share; with others, less so and unwitting trespasses have been neither welcome nor forgiven, I suspect. And there might be nothing so disturbing to people who are plunged into darkness than someone who appears to be resolutely light-emitting: how can it possibly be OK to be OK?

But I didn’t descend into depression, anger or denial, or any of the Stages of Grief so clinically described and prescribed by Kübler-Ross; if anything, your being dead has made me feel more acutely what it means to be alive. Someone said to me “It makes you think about what’s important, about what matters”. I have been thinking about what’s important and what matters and acting on those thoughts.

I have been doing things I would never have done: I talk to complete strangers, I allow my curiosity greater rein; I have taken myself to places I would never have gone to, both physical and cerebral; I have embraced the idea, a doctrine almost, of “why not?”.

That I shouldn’t have needed you to die to do this is a self-evident truth; but we all of us arrive at our personal freedoms in different ways – assuming we get there at all – and if this is what I do as a result of what you’ve left me, then so be it: actually more, much more, than so be it. During all of this, I feel you smiling down on me with love and affection and approval, radiant, buoyant, potent. You yourself were much constrained by your own perimeter fencing and knew all too well how it feels to deny your first instinct and to allow what you imagined to be superior considerations to lie in the way. I have found that all it takes is to step lightly over the tripwire; the confines are metaphors of our own construction. We imagine them to be there, knowing in that dreamlike way that to step over is to take a desperate, don’t-look-down risk. It’s illusion, the stuff of nightmares.

So I haven’t taken up bungee jumping, paragliding, or snake charming. I have merely walked on, blindly trusting that the ground will come up to meet my feet as I go. And if I’ve come to regard that as part of your gift to me, how on earth do I, can I, could I thank you for it?

I realise it breaks a taboo to say this, but that doesn’t make it any less true: it’s good, this grief. I wouldn’t have sought it under any circumstances; it’s unthinkable to welcome it. But now that I have had it thrust upon me, I must make something of it: a bit like the swimless man who falls overboard and has to learn either to float (and quite quickly: not much time for lengthy analysis) or give up all hope and sink. My swimming turns out to be less than elegant, Henry, but it’s good enough. And strangely, it has conferred upon me more than just the ability to stay afloat: the water begins to feel like a home of sorts.

But the world without you is a very different place. I feel like an immigrant in my own home, an amputee somehow learning once again how to operate the machine tools of his trade: in my case, this is how it must feel to learn to write with my left hand, having lost my right. Everything is superficially the same, but actually feels alien. Eventually, of course, the immigrant learns a new language, a new landscape; the amputee learns how to work the levers, gains a new operating system and I will acquire sufficient dexterity to write with my left hand. The wound will heal, the waters close over and become calm, the echoes will die out. But that is in the superficial world, the one which everyone can see; in the hidden world of “without you”, the wound remains exposed, the waters stormy, the echoes regular and, on occasion, deafening.

Since you’ve been gone, I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve come up to me and said how much I remind them of you. I feel this acute sense of bursting pride that people see in me so much of you: it’s a strong cocktail of feeling proud, honoured, humbled, surprised, blessed. Like me, you weren’t a saint, but you at 24 years of age were a better man than I ever was at the same age, let alone at 54 years of age. Would it be too mawkish, too much of a cliché, altogether too Walt Disney, that I should somehow see in you something of a rôle model? That’s not for a moment to suggest I must be more like you. But I feel quite strongly that there was – is – a current that flows directly from you that I am only too happy to drift in, feel comfortable to be caught up in, without quite knowing where it leads or how or why.

It’s not just losing you that’s so sad. It’s also what has been lost to you – the rest of your life, which was sitting there waiting for you to occupy it in some way. It’s now some sort of surplus: you fully intended to use it, you would have figured it out, I know, but now that you can’t, what’s to be done with it? It seems bizarre to leave it sitting there – a spare – an empty vessel running parallel to actual lived-in lives like one of those riderless horses in the Grand National which always win because they’ve rid themselves of their tiresome riders. Nobody can live the life you’ve left behind for you; and nobody else can assume the multiple rôles that you had: but I have this sense that there’s a kind of inverted vicariousness in it – that there’s a leaf to be taken out of your book that I, at least, could learn something from; not to live a life for you, but from you. And the one proviso would be that it’s a life that you might have approved of.

Am I trying to keep you alive? Is this a creeping form of denial out of the Kübler-Ross handbook? I don’t think so; I feel your presence in my head, my heart and – yes, sorry – in my guts. I talk to you every day: I say good mornings and good nights to you; I ask your opinion on all sorts of things, I wonder what you would say or do. I hear your laugh – the laugh of genuine pleasure and also the laugh of complete derision. I wish I could imitate it aloud... but that would go horribly wrong. I feel your presence, it’s you and it’s palpable.

But you are dead, Henry – or, as I prefer to put it in my own semantic way, you have been killed. As far as I am concerned, there’s no room for any other fact. It was nobody else’s fault that you lost control of your car on that icy road, driving to your grandfather’s funeral, and met your violent, sudden, but mercifully instant death. And took poor Kirsten with you.

While I’m in the business of tinkering with taboos, I might as well address another, get myself hanged for a sheep as for a lamb. Henry, I’m so glad you didn’t survive as a brain-damaged victim. You made your exit with emphatic determination: your death was instantaneous, as they said at the time. That, of course, is only a technicality. You will have known only too well that you’d lost control of the car. In the few – the very few – seconds between losing it and losing yourself, I’m pretty certain you would have been – well, quite pissed off, actually. But I also have no doubt that you didn’t see it coming, that grotesque, bastarding, avenging length of steel pole.

But, for me, it would have been a bigger tragedy if you had survived in a persistent vegetative state. (I remember that we once speculated together which vegetable it would be better to be: is it invention on my part to think that you chose ladies’ fingers, while I, less wittily, chose rutabaga?) The idea that you might still be here, comatose, dribbling, incontinent (doubly, or trebly), utterly disabled in every function, your beautiful face lolling in a disfiguring way, is too awful to contemplate. How long would I have agonised before slipping round the back of the life support machine and pulling out every plug I could find, with your wholehearted but unspoken approval?

No, you spared me, us, that. Indeed, you also spared me, us, what poor Kirsten’s family had to experience and endure: the long dash from Ipswich to Addenbrookes hospital, the brainstem tests, the hope dwindling and yet not quite ready to be wholly abandoned, cruel reality stalking it in the too-brightly lit institutional corridors with their corporate paint scheme, wheely trolleys and trained bereavement staff lurking in the wings, vultures waiting for the kill. No, you went for full impact, maximum shock, total annihilation.

(The morning after I wrote the above, I found a lengthy piece in the paper about an Italian father whose daughter was injured in a road accident – her car slid on black ice, Henry, same as you, but she met a lamppost. She has been in a PVS (yes, a glorious abbreviation – pick the semiotics out of that) for ten years, no less, and her father is now trying to get them to withdraw the life support so that she can die in peace. The ghastly insult added to his injury is that both Berlusconi and the morbid clerics in the Vatican are attempting to change Italian law to make it illegal for life support to be withdrawn, in some spurious exercise of moralising zeal. In addition to this, the father was asked by the journalist if he had photographs of the girl in her coma: he did, but refused to show them, saying that she wouldn’t have wanted anyone to see her like that: the exact same response I had when we were asked at the hospital if we wanted to see you... How angry you would have been with us, and what a mistake it would have been to have had a final farewell image burnt indelibly in our minds of your sweet face so brutally, utterly disfigured by that wicked piece of steel. You would not have forgiven us that.)

Henny, in my darkest, most sullen or most other moments, I allow myself to believe I should have done a better job of dying before you. Here’s the text of a horribly foreshadowing poem I wrote well before the shuddering event of your death, before I came to understand, or appreciate you as a brother:

The brother I never had
would have died before me
to show me how it’s done,
like sharpening a penknife
or vaulting a gate;
but in his demonstration
of this dying art
there would have been
an undying truth:
I could never have done it
as well as him.

The saying goes that no father should have to bury his son: it flies in the face of what we comfortably like to think of as the natural order of things, in which an older generation has the grace to make its exit before the next – age before beauty. It makes exceptions, however grudgingly, however tragic they may be: murder, war, illness, suicide… accident.

Would I turn the clock back and offer myself up in your place? Of course I would – and this is not to engage in idle sentiment, speculation or metaphysics, nor is it the empty offer of self-sacrifice. It’s simply to recognise, pragmatically, that the thirty years I had over you should more properly have belonged to you than to me. Just think what you could have done with them: what larks: the life you could have had, should have had. Just look at what I’ve done with them... I can honestly say that I’ve done nothing with them that you couldn’t have done so, so much better.

But there it is. Cruel, heartless, bastard fate.

You have left me with a certain fuck-the-world recklessness. Death holds no fear for me, although I’m as fearful of pain as anyone would be. But then, there’s always Max with a shotgun, Dignitas, or morphine... and Macmillan nurses.

Henry, you and I were never given to solemnity for very long, were we? Flippancy was more our style, however irritating that can be. I once looked it up in the dictionary: “unbecoming levity” was the definition, a tonal rap over the knuckles that might have been used by an exasperated Headmaster. If you suffered from excess flippancy, I have to recognise that I must bear some of the responsibility for it, as I suffer from terminal flippancy – it’s in the genes. My first instinct is to apologise for it – but why? There are those who would suggest that flippancy is an attempt to wriggle out of taking things as seriously as they should be or, worse, a form of defence, an attempt to keep emotions at arm’s length. Well, I hope they’re comfortable in their humourless hair shirts. Flippancy, for us, liberally peppered with freshly ground cynicism, was – is – all part of the jeux d’esprit.

I remember you listening patiently while I banged on about my theory of cynicism – that if you scratch away at the surface of a cynic for long enough, you’ll uncover an idealist, or a romantic, or both; the cynicism is assumed as a protection against too much disappointment with the real world. But actually, it’s also true that it’s fun and funny, fun and games; for us, it was a playground, with words and ideas being the big, brightly coloured bouncy balls that we could fearlessly and harmlessly hurl at each other. And in any case, cynicism is listed as a form of humour in Fowler’s Modern English Usage, so it must be so.

Flippancy and cynicism: they brought us closer together and it’s a privilege to have shared them, played with them, with you, even though we both knew how much and how often those qualities can be misunderstood.

And now, here I am without you, with the loss of you so keenly on my mind and heavy on my heart and still I have to laugh and play the jeux d’esprit, keep them going, an endless round of pass the parcel – the current, again. I manage to make that sound like a burden, but it’s not. It comes as naturally as a breeze, unbidden, unforced; I surrender to it easily, perhaps because I feel I’m not doing it alone. “This dear, playful spirit was only just out of sight, exploring the jungle ahead of me...” a friend has written of the loved man she lost. At the risk of adding yet more to this metaphor-laden piece, I agree. And we like metaphors, don’t we?

The truth is, you bastard, it’s so much easier for you to be dead than it is for me to do without you. People have been very kind: I have been told how well I’ve coped, how strong I’ve been, how I have faced this ordeal with courage (although I never did pluck up enough courage to call your mobile to hear your sweet voice delivering its witty message).

A few people have been keen to look for or offer sources of consolation on my behalf. I do my best to receive them with outward good manners and keep my feeling of disdain to myself: the consolation being offered, I suspect, is not exclusively for my benefit. Luckily, not one person has taken refuge behind their God to offer thanks for your life and to console me with the thought that you’ve gone to join the heavenly throng; I say luckily, because I think that would have been the moment when my good manners would have abandoned me and a horribly gruesome massacre (chainsaw, I think, over Samurai sword) would have ensued.

As for therapy… I’m afraid that just wouldn’t do. A listening ear that tells me what I’m feeling is “normal”? How consoling would that feel? Nothing about this is “normal”: that goes straight back to the grieving-by-numbers prescribed by Kübler-Ross.

In the long term, the coping that’s been going on in the background of my un-, sub- or super-conscious mind may catch up with me. Or it may turn out that it has simply been a further instalment of the gift you’ve left me: when I think of you, sweet boy, I simply feel stronger. Just that. Can we add it to the debt I already owe you?

You might have noticed that I have not said goodbye to you, Hen. I never will. In many ways, I feel I haven’t yet finished saying hello and have a sense that that alone could last a lifetime – sadly, mine now, not yours. That’s not to hold you back, nor myself. I won’t say goodbye because we’re not done with each other and I neither expect nor want to be. There is unfinished business to do, business with the living world, and I need your help to do that. And I’m not prepared to consign you to history. I can hear the therapy community gathering up their pens to write “but you must move on”. What they will never know or understand is that this is moving on: it’s just that I choose to do it with you, instead of without you.

So, goodbyes have no place here, Henry. You are with me, inside me, around me and above me, the smile in my heart, the laugh in my head and the voice in my guts, always and forever. Or at least until I’m done with this living thing. Time will drift on through the occasionally so so long days, the seconds skipping minutehood into hours, days, weeks, months, years. And there you are, unageing, forever stopped at 24, while I must struggle on for who knows how long. If such a thing can happen and we actually meet again, I know I’ll recognise you. I just wonder if I’ll be recognisable to you, or for that matter to myself. I promise to do my best.

I write this with a love as eternal as I can make it, with all the feeling, admiration and respect I can summon, my darling Henry: you are and will remain always, for as long as forever is, my boy, my son, my friend, my brother. And I will remain yours. In the solitude, seclusion and without-you-ness of the life I now find myself living, the things you’ve given me have taken on a significance that’s immeasurable, beyond extraordinary. I only hope that I can be man and boy, friend and brother enough to deserve them.

Your loving Dad,