🔳Face to face with life’s extreme fragility🔲
In a foreign country in March, in the Year of my Life, 2013, I and my wife sat down to supper with a long lost friend for the first time in 47 years.
He and his wife had prepared for us a lavish welcome meal. Many years before, my father had arranged I stay with the family of my friend during my school holidays. His father, a decorative wrought iron blacksmith and Rabelasian larger-than-life character, and my father, a conference interpreter, met by chance after the war.
They quickly recognised their mutual admiration for their own idiosyncratic forms of ‘joie de vivre’. On that foundation, they were to become lifelong friends.
After we had toasted each other in a few glasses of fine local wine, my very dear friend began to tell me the Machiavellian story of his childless stepmother, the blacksmith’s second wife. I had known her only as a quiet capable motherly figure all those years ago. She braved out her husband’s alcohol-fuelled storms, she ignored his infidelities, mainly with wives of wealthy clients of his decorative wrought ironwork. She kept shop and did the accounts.
For me those summers were times of acceptance into the family, of joy and pleasure as a young teenager taking my first independent steps in the freedom of another country under the blazing August Sun.
As we enjoyed the meal, I listened with astonishment to hear how she had spent about 70 of the 99 years of her life scheming with great success to disinherit her stepson, almost ruining him and coming close to breaking his spirit, and, after I had come into her house as a guest and virtual second son, scheming to defraud my own father.
The welcome meal, a Cordon Blue affair, progressed with much joy. The setting was in a delightful spacious, three-story pinewood cabin, open fire crackling away, isolated high on the side of a valley with giant panoramic southerly views across a lake to a range of snow capped mountains – the Eiger to the east and Mont Blanc to the west.
My very dear friend advised me to prepare myself, saying all is not as pretty as it seems. Am I ready for a shock? With all this heart warming reconnection with a friend who had been like the elder brother I had never had, and with such fine wine and such food, I said yes. After all, what could disturb this now?
My old friend began to speak. Some four years after my life path diverged from my friend’s, and I had started out on my career teaching English as a Foreign Language in far away London, his step-mother was the first to hear of my failed suicide attempt at age 21. She saw her opportunity to turn the news to her advantage. To help cover up and protect her thieving ways from scrutiny, she made the choice to lie to her family that I had killed myself.
Silence now around the table. For me in that moment of the reveal of this true lie, I suffered a triple shock of pure visceral horror.
A cry escaped from my throat. It was the same animal outcry of bereavement when, 38 years before, I was shown by the black clad undertaker into the chapel of rest where my mother lay, with her blue eyes closed. I could not breathe. My wife, very alarmed, jumped up from the table to help me sit up and to comfort me. I said I was ready to hear more.
In that flash, with the pain that had extracted the yell from inside me, I felt for the very first time the intensity of the suffering my parents had endured when they were told while on a holiday abroad about my suicide attempt – an uncomplicated and somewhat half-baked cry for help it had been – at age 21. I had at long last begun my journey of compassion and shame for what I had done to them.
In that flash, I felt the grief and helpless pain my dear old friend must have endured for nearly five decades. My father had told me the news of his father’s fatal stroke in the late 70s.
After that, my own research to trace him for over 20 years had always drawn a blank. I had no way of knowing that he had decided to go ‘off grid’ to shelter from the sick pursuit of his stepmother.
A few days before my wife and I were to fly on holiday, by some miracle of the Internet, we had finally managed to connect. On an emotional long distance phone call, we agreed to rearrange our flights in order to have this extraordinary reunion celebration.
His stepmother had effected repeated attacks designed to ruin his professional career. Several times she had written to his employers, even tracking him to a well paid job in North Africa. She would falsely allege his dishonest, immoral, even depraved conduct. This may have been easy for her, acquainted as she was with casual depraved ways.
At this period, she took on the role of carer for his only daughter by his first marriage. And she devoted herself to fill the little child’s mind with toxic fear of her father. With money and psychological pressure, she gained the co-conspiratorial support of his first wife.
Thus the love and trust of his wife and mother of his only child was corroded away. His daughter, long since grown up, severed all ties with him. He engaged the equivalent of our Queen’s Counsel to fight to restore his reputation and his legal title to his father’s house, which had been constructed largely using my late Father’s funds, both with and without his knowledge and permission.
On hearing this, the woman sold the house at high speed well below market value. All its contents, including documents and photos from his life, we’re lost to him. Among these were photo albums and 8mm colour cine film containing records of my several consecutive blissfully happy summer holidays with the family.
He had gone ex-directory and off grid long ago for self-protection. That is why I had only chanced to trace him from his 1949 school photo. There he was, named and easy to recognise by his cheeky grin under his mop of dark curly hair, even though he was eleven years younger than when I first knew him.
I emailed my contacts to the school’s webmaster saying I had been seeking my lost friend. Then I powered down the PC and we took a bus into town. I got his call on my mobile at a coffee bar in Bournemouth. I was crying and laughing with happiness. I think I even blurted out my story to the barrista! In nearly half a century, he had once visited England. It was in 1979. It never occurred to him to try and look me up. Indeed, why would he? I was long since dead.
After that first phone call to me, it had been difficult for him, now age 80, to come to terms with the reality of my existence. So he had jumped at the chance to invite my wife and I to fly out and spend a few days as his guest. And, in that flash, I physically experienced the coldness and cruelty and above all the black darkness of the evil that his late stepmother had secretly carried and concealed for decades in her heart of hearts.
I have since learned there are some people who have suffered such violent emotional trauma, that their natural impulse to love is rechanneled into a perverted form of acquisition based on self-interest and hatred.
We all can find the right words to say, can’t we? Those socially accepted normal few words of respect and comfort we say, when we are told about a bereavement.
But I bear witness to you reading this here, that I found no gentle words. And I found no safety net to stop me from falling suddenly from a great height when, without any preparation, I was given the news of my own death.
Again and again, it is at the point of contact with the extreme fragility of life that life itself reveals there is only one path of acceptance. I see it in the eyes of the hunted animal looking with a final glance at the hunter before dying. Life clothes us with humility. A humility such as a bride and groom may feel as they arrive at the altar.
~ Love is present EveryNow