My sister's name was Barbara. I never remember my life without her and she was a pleasure and a joy to me. She was the sunniest person I ever knew, radiating energy. Only 61 years old, beautiful, talented and charismatic. Funny too, a driven, good-humoured, whole-hearted artist of life. She loved the sensual reality of things and was certain of her choices, always developing her practical competence. She was visually alert and penetrating - by that I mean that she looked carefully at the world and perceived the reality in appearances, making sense of what she could see in an unusually thorough way.
Here I show a tiny fraction of an art she practised and took for granted - the art of the living human body, speaking, breathing, moving, resting. She knew it through and through, more than I ever realised. These pictures and drawings were mostly executed quickly, with no fuss, and packed away, in heaps, exercises merely. To me, now, they speak of the mysterious glamour of the body and its weight and beauty - they fill my eyes with tears as they fill the flesh with the loving meaning of life.
I have been away from the anguish and the hurly burly of the hospital bed for well over six weeks now and my eyes are still blinking, my brow still furrowing, the days making little real sense. I'm waiting to come back, but I don't know if I will be able to. Certainly not as I was. Gardens and gardening wait for me, but I am not ready to find comfort there yet. It's the usual thing, one foot in front of the other, all things must pass, hard to believe, hard to bear.
The song that suits me best is Nettie Moore, from the album Modern Times. Here love and loss are perfectly attuned, seeming to embrace each other over the sadness of the grieving survivor, as the weather swirls around, pushing life along. The song beats like a heart, on and hopelessly on.
I have a vision of that march, that dark march, in which we must all engage. My sister is up ahead, gazing wildly back as she slips out of sight, overwhelmed by the press and push of moving humanity. She did not think this would happen, right to the end she was astonished and enraged. We told each other that it felt surreal, that she was there, having to die and it was the truest word we could find.
Barbara loved gardening, like many she was particularly in tune with vegetable growing, seeing the point of it all and mad to try new things every year. She was unable to eat most vegetables for the last year of her life, perhaps more. The losses grew and grew. Her ability to move reduced, gradually robbing her of every joy in life.
We struggled out to the garden, to smell and touch the apple blossom last spring and it seemed like a promise at that stage, when she was recovering from her second surgery. I wanted nature and gardening to help her, and stay with her through the terrible journey, but there was the awful flaunting paradox of attachment and loss to be dealt with. We made three wheelchair trips to see open gardens, and she loved them all. They inspired her to think about what she would do when she got better, but they could not help her bear what she had to.
About a fortnight before she died, I brought Barbara a beautiful and surprisingly large and healthy December rose. It was a hybrid tea, high-centred and a glorious shameless dark pink. A perfect specimen, seized from the bottom of an overgrown hedge surrounding a sadly neglected garden which I passed on my daily walk to and from the hospice. I knew it was meant as a gift for her and watched it greedily for a day or two, then captured it for her at the perfect moment.
That rose was a rapture, she drank its scent and stroked its petals, loved it for three days. It held together, exhaling perfume, though constantly handled, and she gave it her most considered attention, studying its velvety maroon and rosy interior as though it contained the whole world. But of course it shriveled and failed, though she loved it to the end. The word poignant is over-used, metaphors and similes crowd round the dying persons bed. Everything is loaded, nothing is just itself.
Her beautiful face, tilted to the sun. The loss, to me, of an essential sight, a particular irreplaceable feel to the air. A whole colour has gone from the world, a beloved voice and a particular, arresting point of view, She was simple, direct and clear in all her pronouncements, not muddy, or confusing. One was left in no doubt.
And yet, extraordinarily, I find myself confounded by her mystery, now she is gone from me. I cannot make her expression out, and I long to. I cannot make sense out of the space she leaves - what I knew and what I know don't add up any more. Funny that grief should feel so like confusion.
And that is why this is the right song. I know it's partly a clever puzzle, a gamer's paradise, where each line in the verses harks back to other songs and other singers, playing with the challenge of accusations of plagiarism. Some extract the guilt of the murderer from it. To me, the chaos in the verses and the confusion of inconsequential subjects and sudden attacks add up to a world that no longer fits or hangs together.
Against that background, the simple clarity of the repeated central theme, the chorus, shines out unmistakably - the sorrow of the loss of Nettie Moore and the world that has gone black before the protagonist's eyes. The song seems deeply felt and it deals not with the idle partings of love, but the incontrovertible break-up of death. The depth is partly is the singing - strong, soft, warm and heartfelt, partly it's in the gathering and rising of the chorus's melody which lifts and falls like something nearly airborne, carrying life away.
If you have lost someone vital to you, as we all must, listen to the song and the care in the voice. It brings a certain comfort to accept that grief can turn the world into such a difficult muddle for all of us. That phrase, "the river's on the rise" is perfect, implying so much - a coming spring that is almost a threat, a moving, continual flux and yet also a kind of hopeless hope.
Barbara and I used to imagine, with pleasure, that we would be very old ladies together, helping each other about and wearing microscopically varied but similar garments, fussing about what to eat. That's all gone. I am not alone, not at all, but it feels frighteningly like it sometimes. She was a familiar marvel and an everyday wonder. The missing will never stop.