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All The Lives We Have Lost

All The Lives We Have Lost

Then the tears came…


There’s a TV show I think you’ll love this Wednesday evening on PBS:

We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of all of the lives we have lost.”

One of my favorite books, H Is For Hawk, tells the true story of one woman’s struggle with grief after the sudden loss of her father. Training a goshawk slowly brings her back to the surface and ends up saving her life.

Helen Macdonald’s book is so beautifully written it is almost poetic.

I thought of sad birds in soundproofed cages, and how your earliest experiences teach you who you are. I thought of home. And then, with a slow, luxuriant thrill, I realized that everything was different about the house I was in. It was the hawk. I shut my eyes. The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.”

“I think of the day after my father died, when I was shown into a hospital room where he lay. But this isn’t him, I thought, wildly, after the woman closed the door. He isn’t here. Someone had dressed a wax-work of my father in hospital pyjamas and a patterned duvet. Why would they do that? It made no sense. It was nonsense.”

I took a step back. Then I saw on his arm the cut that would not heal and stopped. I knew I had to speak. For ages I could not. Physically could not. Something the size of a fist was in my throat and it was catching the words and not letting them out. I started to panic. Why couldn’t I speak? I have to speak to him.

Then the tears came. They were not like normal tears. Water coursed in sheets down my cheeks and dripped to the hospital floor. And with the water came words. So I leaned over the bed and spoke to my father, who was not there. I addressed him seriously and carefully. I told him that I loved him and missed him and would miss him always.”

And I talked on, explaining things to him, things I cannot now remember but which at the time were of clear and burning importance. Then there was silence. And I waited. I did not know why. Until I realized it was in hope that an answer might come. And then I knew it was over. I took my father’s hand in my own for the last time, squeezed it in a brief goodbye, and quietly left the room.”

And for the first time I understood that shape of my grief. I could feel exactly how big it was. It was the strangest feeling, like holding something the size of a mountain in my arms. You have to be patient, he had said. If you want to see something very much, you just have to be patient and wait. There was no patience in my waiting, but time had passed all the same, and worked its careful magic. And now, holding the card in my hands and feeling its edges, all the grief had turned into something different. It was simply love.

Using her gift with words to literally paint luminous scenes in my mind…

Then I see it. The bare field we’d flown the hawk upon is covered in gossamer, millions of shining threads combed downwind across every inch of soil. Lit by the sinking sun the quivering silk runs like light on water all the way to my feet. It is a thing of unearthly beauty, the work of a million tiny spiders searching for new homes. Each had spun a charged silken thread out into the air to pull it from its hatch-place, ascending like an intrepid hot-air balloonist to drift and disperse and fall.”

“I closed my eyes against the glare and remembered the spider silk. I had walked all over it and had not seen it. I had not known it was there. It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.

That is just so beautiful!

People do not live very long, or look very hard. We are very bad at scale. The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.”

If you love words as much as I do, YES, buy this book.

And even if you’re not a reader, take an hour — this Wednesday — to watch this story on NATURE on PBS.