Life, Love and the Human Spirit
Ever the irreverent rogue, defiant of establishment and death, there was my father, on the slow road. Nine lives cashed in, prostate cancer in remission, driving himself from his off-grid, country shack to dialysis in Palma, three times a week, until my younger brother Hieronymus (after Bosch, no less) had to confiscate his keys for driving faster than a man of his condition ought. The final year then, hospital bound, partial to the pain killers, he kept his own stash of fentanyl for self medication whenever he felt the calling. I tried it with him, for empathic, research purposes, the max strength inhaler – knock out gear. The same stuff that killed Prince, but not my old man. He was a rock n roller of the Kieth Richards calibre. The type that might do shots of embalming fluid before bed, courting death, yet living ablaze through opaque stretches of time, where the rest of their generation slip away, one by one. Keith and Lez, vampire crusaders. Yet time and death catch up with every man. It is the great equaliser.
The hospital doctors never knew about his previously prescribed stash of fentanyl, but the nurses would reprimand him, finding nuggets of hash under his pillow, and for generally remaining as wilful and witty a character as ever was, to his own ends – not that of any authority, medical or otherwise. Still semi-mobile at this point, the old boy thus liked to shuffle about and wheel himself off to the elevator and down to the garden for a puff. Eventually they had to strap him down after he continued going walkabout against directives, falling here and there due to atrophied muscle. He persuaded them to untie him again if he promised to behave, which he managed for a while – until he got a bladder infection. The antibiotic and delirium combo that sets a man off like one possessed ensued then. Quite something to behold of someone and something beyond the self that we can only ever partly understand. I have the footage of him inhabited by other characters, speaking in tongues, hissing and spitting at us like an hirsute medieval madman. Quite enthralling. He came back after a week though, and remained the enigmatic gentleman he was capable of being, when inclined, especially to those he favoured. Most of the nurses missed him when he finally left his body for good. Not all. A wild and free spirit, defiant til a month shy of his eightieth. What a brat.
I hadn’t visited for a year or two previously and to be honest, if I had not fallen in love with a brilliant, vivacious and voluptuous gypsy lady I met on a Berkley dance floor in California, sparks flying, I would never have moved back to Europe to spend so much time with my father before he died. She, fled from erstwhile Yugoslavia, invited me to live with her in London where she was raising a daughter. A huge risk for us both, yet we were inextricably in love. It didn’t work out of course, for one reason or another, but how else do you take life by the heart of the matter, to not live a slow death. And then there I was, back in the land of my fathers, fled 30 years since… adrift.
And there you are, on the road to awe, with the father man, mother long since gone. And who are you when your parents are dead, have gone ahead? One begins to wonder at such times. How will I respond to such imminent finality when my time comes, as if it weren’t already always there in the wings? Well, if there’s one thing I do, I assert to myself, it will not be like him. Living his last decade by candle light, rather impoverished, albeit in an impossibly romantic hut in a field in the Balearics. He remained surrounded by exquisite objet d’art, wilderness and beauty, getting by on thinning art dealings and a lot of borrowed love and money, and for the last year, by the whim of state medical facilities. None of us had the cash for comfy care homes or hospice. In the end, the only option would have been to leave him with the Catholic nuns. That would have been interesting. And yet, by the mysterious grace of God, he was held to the last.
My father did not die particularly gracefully however. He was too much of a prima donna in his inimitable, aesthete, velvet, rock n roll gypsy way. Yet, by the grace of Hermes, the divine trickster, who moves freely between the worlds of the mortal and the divine, the fleet footed, patron saint of travellers, thieves and merchants, my father got a hospital bed in a room to himself, over looking the shimmering port of Palma. He told us then, that he’d finally had enough, couldn’t take it any more, was going to give up the dialysis and check out for good. We all honoured and respected this noble choice, to accept the inevitability of death, thus surrender – a graceful letting go. After all, after two years of intense care, decreasing quality of life and increasing discomfort, not to mention the ever demanding tag team attention, we were all ready to let him continue his journey, such as it may be, unto the aether. All his younger friends flew in from afar to offer their heartfelt farewells. He then of course changed his mind. I mean, why wouldn’t you after being graced by so much adulation? So he hung on to the bitter end, that primal will to survive setting in, till there was nothing left to hang on to.
As a father, he was complete rubbish, but we forgave him for all the colour he did bring to our lives, and the siblings and the wives. The last years of his life were born out with his fourth, of 40 years, back and forth. She, the fiery flamenco queen, was the one who, as promised early on in their passionate, if tumultuous life together and apart, was there to take care of the love of her life at death.
It was only after he took his final leave then, looking over photos shared on the family chat group, that this superlative artist, wife and mother of my kid brother, commented on a photo of the man back in his 40’s, handsome, dark, swept back hair, strong jewish nose and flowery shirt, exclaiming, “que gitano!” And it hit me then. The DNA of generations defining how we live and die. I never thought of my father as a gypsy, though born of Austro-Hungarian parents who, fleeing Vienna during Hitler’s march of death, created a new life, and birthed their son in England, and later a daughter. Thus my mum was the Swedish au pair hired to take care of my younger aunt. So what would that make me actually? English? By birth and culture, perhaps, but DNA doesn’t die. It evolves across creed, race, time and space, absorbing life experience, and it informs us, inhabits us. It is life, across generation after generation after generation.
I live my life in growing orbits
which move out over the things of the world.
Perhaps I can never achieve the last,
but that will be my attempt.
I am circling around God, around the ancient tower,
and I have been circling for a thousand years,
and I still don’t know if I am a falcon, or a storm,
or a great song.
If the road to death begins at birth, every day is a trial and a baptism, a learning and a triumph, great or small. The gift of life, each moment, miraculous in itself, held, within the greater encircling arms of death.
Amidst the tumult of all this living, we may learn to listen, as attentively and courageously as we dare, to the only authentic voice there can ever be, the unwavering, quiet whisper of the wisdom of our own coherent heart. The word courage coming from the French, la coer of course – the heart. And so, with conviction, we may walk among forces far greater than ourselves, from womb to tomb – these great portals of life. The invitation to be present in the only moment we can ever know, as we follow our star.
Do you begin to see how all this works?
I took a photo of my dad in his coffin, just before trundling into the furnace. Great photo. He’s in his best flowery shirt, sporting an impressive shock of white hair and a flourishing, wild, two-tone goatee – somehow his final act of rebellion. There is a gorgeous bunch of fragrant tuberoses, clasped between his gentle hands, grace imposed there by death, and a sticky fat bud of weed placed neatly on top by my brother. There, our father lay, shrunken, except for that nose and all that hair. He looked like a sadhu in the photo. Outside, I watched the plume. Up in smoke. Ashes to ashes.
Later, going through some of his things, out pops an old photo he took of his dead dad. Interesting.
Well, the next big thing is Covid, media pandemia and global disarray a year or so later. I decide to bail and start a new life on that little bit of land I bought in Mexico some fifteen years ago with the ex-wifey. I’m sitting here now, in a field, in a trailer that belongs to my eccentric rock n roll psychic sister. I hauled it across the States from the Burning Man ranch, down to Baja California Sur, Mexico. It is beautiful here, elemental, an oasis in the desert, framed by dramatic mountains, tall palms, mango trees, and the Pacific. I’m sitting here, in a field, in a trailer, off-grid, working on my game plan. And then it hit me! Wait a minute! How did that even happen?
He’s here with me now, laughing, the fucker. We laugh a lot together actually. It’s a beautiful thing. The more I forgive him, the more I love him, the more I love myself. He is, after all, an undeniable and inextricable part of who I am. As of course is my mother. All our ancestors. We are all connected thus, forwards and backwards through time. Death, to that extent, an illusion, like time. A tough notion to grasp for the Cartesian mind. Yet what we notice is, that those cultures and traditions who remain close to death in their everyday life, who honour and embrace their ancestors and the thin veil that separates us, live life to the fullest. There is no life without death. Embracing both fully can be our only freedom.
I wandered off the street into the Victoria & Albert Museum one day in London soon after my father passed, a favourite haunt of his, and found myself in the sculpture wing, drawn inextricably towards a bronze that had a numinous effect on my psyche. As I circled around it, running my hands over its form, I felt an overwhelming, beatific sense of the embodiment of the mortal suffering of all of humanity. I felt the tears. The collective grief. This apparently was Rodin’s “Fallen Angel.” To me an exquisite expression of Life. Of Love. Of Death. Of Art.
So I wrote a love poem for death.
What heaving wings fell through the black night
spinning down to earth, hot body crouched
in the moist ground
pressed over naked form – the beloved
crumpled wings and heart
a kiss of tenderness, longing and loss
the angel has descended, into gravity’s well
she is no more, but the density of blood, feather, bone
upon this earth…
Youth, beauty, were fleeting. You must love this ageing body, now
the slow withering, sallow skin, crumpled leaf
scuttled by the wind
there can be no relief
but the yearning, the submission
to gravity, to grief
ever portentous of
the great beauty
Bound in eccentric orbit
ephemeral grace, returning
to dust, slow embrace
offering a love poem
clinging to this body
all that has been loved
yet the tearing ascent
Fly close to the source, brilliant
plenipotentiary, mesmerised, then
forgetful, falling, willingly
falling back, ever deeply
into the body of earth, once more
into love’s embrace.