There are some things in politics I find it difficult to talk about. Today’s prevailing narrative is one such thing, because while I may be a muckle big man with a big black beard, I’m horrendously sensitive, too. I don’t deal with death very well at all, even the deaths of those who I don’t know. I was inconsolable when I learned about Jamie Bulger, Rosie Palmer, Sophie Hook. Dunblane. Omagh. Lockerbie. I take it all so personally. So it is with the death on everyone’s minds today.
Because of the way I think, sometimes thoughts just appear in my mind. Sometimes they’re silly musings or creative figments. Sometimes they aren’t. Sometimes they’re horrible, upsetting, monstrous thoughts. And all too often, they’re memories.
I thought back fifteen years. My cousin was hit by a car outside my house. I heard the crash. I heard his mother’s scream – the only time I’ve ever heard her scream. I heard my grandfather calling the emergency services in a panic – the only time I’ve ever seen him so distraught. I looked outside, and saw him lying on his front, like he fell asleep on the road. The family scrambled to get him to hospital. I was left with my youngest cousin, still a baby, bawling the house down. I didn’t know what to do. I curled up in a corner, waiting for someone to come back and tell me everything was alright now. But it wasn’t. My cousin was still in intensive care, and it was still possible he wouldn’t survive. This continued for a week, until he recovered, and is still with us. Yet for days, it almost felt like he had died.
I suppose, in a way, he did. As people get older, sometimes there’s a sense that the people they were have died. I bonded with my two cousins, and part of me still remembers them only as that loving three-year-old in a stookie, and that one-year-old stoic with big blue eyes. Now they are adults, and it feels like those two babbies are gone – even though they aren’t.
I thought back five years, when I attended the funeral of another cousin. She was eighteen years old. Complications in her birth meant she spent her first days in an incubator. She was blind, mute, and immobile. It was assumed she would be unresponsive for all her short life… until she smiled. Ever since, she showed clear signs of reaction: she turned her head when someone she knew was speaking, her facial expressions grew, she even “spoke” in a way. Sometimes, she would even sing. She was communicating.
Being a West Coast of Scotland family, our cousins are practically like our siblings, and we spent much time together. Though I always appreciated Lorne being different, I was of an age where it didn’t really matter. Indeed, my only fear of her was a more existential sort of fear, that it could happen to me. But in time, even this subsided. Even with all her problems, Lorne was imbued with a certain something. Everyone was happy around her. It was a sort of infectious charisma, so to speak, that meant people were amazingly relaxed and cheerful around her. It wasn’t a performance, it was genuine. Every time Lorne smiled, it seemed like the entire world smiled in return.
I thought back two years. I had learned that my sister was worried about a lump in her breast. She was going in for testing. This was around the same time some other people I knew – a great aunt, a former teacher, a dear friend – had mastectomies and chemotherapy. I burst into tears: it seemed everywhere I looked, all I could see was the spectre of death. I knew my sister for all of her life, and all but just under two years of mine. I couldn’t bear the thought that she would no longer be there. It turned out she was alright, too, yet for a few hours, the mere possibility that she wasn’t was too much for me.
None of this is particularly unusual, which is what makes it so much worse. There were times when it was the possibility of my death that was affecting people I love. When I was stillborn, and my family prayed that celebration would not be replaced by grief. When I had an aneurysm at 15, and those close to me worried I would never see adulthood. When I was in Texas while tornadoes were devastating the countryside, and my niece was genuinely afraid I would never come home.
We humans live in the company of death. Family, friends, strangers. One day, they’ll be gone. So will we. I can’t stop myself from thinking that every day. It’s wearying and exhausting. But it’s more than balanced by the company of life. We weep, we grieve, we mourn – and we live. We live to remember those who do not. We live to fight and strive to save those in danger, those who need us the most. Death is certain – but there can be no death where there is no life.