Tuesday, 23 February 2016

Missing - Nettie Moore

Cancer removed my sister from the world on the second day of the year.  With this post I honour her, hoping not to be misled into a vulgar display, longing rather, to do her and the "distinguished thing" what justice I can. Still I must tell you that in the end when death came it was only dressed up as mercy, in reality a hypocrite, bearing unbearable gifts.

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.

Barbara 1955 - 2016


  1. This is a powerful and moving tribute. Thank you for sharing it. I hope you continue to find strength in your garden and in the songs.

  2. O, Jane, I am so, so sorry. How truly dreadful. Death is so ordinary in that it is everywhere, and as I age, I see it more and more hitting people we think of as still young. At the same time it is incomprehensible, mad, bewildering and terrible. That someone can just vanish, someone so alive and vivid, is just not possible - and yet there it is, as ordinary as chips. I'd almost ask you to refuse to come to terms with it, as that seems such a stupid and defeated thing to do. But we must, we all must, somehow.

    Feeling for you, rather pathetically. XXxx Anne

    1. Thank you Anne - I suppose that's exactly the confusion - you want to resist what's happened but can only submit. Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate it.

  3. Having read this beautiful tribute to your sister and your anguish at her loss, I find myself lost for words. She was obviously so special to you and of course you will not be the same person again. But you will learn to go on without her, just not for a while yet, and why should you? Heartbreaking.

  4. Thank you Marianne. I am glad to have been able to convey something of this experience. And I know I am not alone, grief is part of life and nothing special to me. You are kind to comment, I appreciate the feeling of having been heard.

  5. The anguish you feel at the loss of your sister comes rolling out of the page. I am so sorry. My father died just before Christmas and I am struck at both how similar and how different our experiences are. The astonishment that the world goes on and that he is simply gone and there will be no more time with him and the pain of that is similar. But he was twenty years older than your sister and Motor Neurone Disease had stripped him of action and speech and so much that made him himself. There was undoubtedly relief for me and my sister when my dad died. It was time. Watching him deal with it for so long had become close to unbearable for us and I think he had decided to stop, stopped eating. It was time. There is no such consolation for you for your sister. She shines out of your writing. She sounds wonderful.

    1. Thank you Elizabeth. These journeys are so hard - I am only now fully realising how awful it was to see her going, hating it so much but suffering such a collapse of her functions that she could not in the end deny it. I have the deepest symnpathy for you and for anyone who must stand by helplessly. We all do our best, I know and then there is the loss of the loved one as well as the guilt of the survivor to deal with. I'm back in Italy, hoping for rest and peace to process it all, I am so lucky, and yet so bereft. Thank you again.

    2. Hope you get your rest and peace. I am aware I am a little too determined in telling myself I'm fine, a little too inclined to pour another glad of wine. So far being aware seems to be as far as it goes. Time passes.

    3. That's a weird mistake: glad for glass. Mmm

    4. rather an endearing one........

  6. Jane, dear- so far from a vulgar display, your tribute to B is breathtakingly honest and loving. I'm in awe of your profound appreciation of her and of your courage in telling that terrible journey you shared. I hope in time you'll find some solace in the garden, even as I know there will be no end to missing Barbara. xoxo

    1. Thank you Leslie. And friendship helps too. xx

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  8. Thank you Loran. It will be interesting to see if subscribing to my feed works now, it didn't see to be once upon a time but maybe that has changed.

  9. Hello Jane

    I have come late into this thread because I have been through similar grieving and could not write before.

    Your sister sounds so much the sort of person who enhances the world, her art is thoughtful and has such respect for human form. Thank you for sharing that with us. We are privileged and lucky to know such people but their loss is so much the harder to bear.

    I do hope that your gardening will eventually be a source of comfort and that the world will turn again from black to vibrant colour. Time is so manifest in a garden, beautiful things appearing season by season. After such loss this is tinged with such regret, it marks the time since the loved person could share sights, it brings home distance. And yet, and yet, the continuity waits for us, patiently, until we can find pleasure in it again.

    I am just now, after 6 months, able to begin to appreciate the delights that my gardens have gone on offering me, even when my world had indeed gone black. I hope that we both will eventually be able to take comfort from the labour and results of our gardening.

    Your choice of Nettie Moore was perfect. You have always had a wonderful precision in your selection of a Dylan song to match an emotion. I had forgotten Nettie in my black time, but went back to it and found it, of course, what it is, an exquisite evocation of anguish but yet a comfort.

    Thank you Jane. I hope we see you again here when the time is right. Until then I wish you much love and strength.


    1. Jenny, your comments have touched me deeply. Every day I feel the same concern - I have no contact with Barbara, where is she? She must be missing me, as I am missing her.

      It is lovely to hear from you - a message from someone thoughtful and understanding - comforting in these times. I feel myself struggling still partly with things that I had not noticed for the last two and a half years of my sister's illness and that have now forced themselves to the foreground. Life is not easy. But I plan to get back to blogging and Dylan remains a very real help. The gardens are flourishing, my head goes down and I get on with the work when I can, happy to escape. But my thoughts are still sticking and hard to handle. The tears are always close.

      What you say is right though and I take hope from it, the continuity, that is what we have to deal with. Thank you so much.


    2. Good to make the connection Jane. We all need that.
      It has helped me to write to you and to have an understanding reply so soon.
      May you stay forever young

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