‘There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.’
Albert Camus ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’
All family’s respond differently to suicide. The psychic being of the family is to begin with multifaceted like the crystals growing within a geode. Every family is different. This at least is what I imagine, I’m not a scientist or sociologist. The only entities I have studied are my friends, my family and my friend’s families, life studies. I have watched other human beings I have had Cartesian afternoons in the sun. Our similarities outweigh our differences only in number, the quality of the personal experience is what we search for in a conversation, the uniqueness of our interlocutor’s perspective. This original, Ur-speak, is what fascinates and resonates. We search in their eyes for what we understand and occasionally we see what we have not seen, experience what we could not have experienced. This is the wonder of a good tale, the story told from the heart, the fresh blood of newly felt pain.
I write in a moment in time when crimson drips gently upon every moment of the day. I smile and laugh with my child, whilst having the image of my dying mother play across my inner screen. I go from the inane and trivial to the question of why I exist in the blink of my red rimmed eyes. Funerals, wakes and the aftermath of a death, have this effect, on not just those close to the recently deceased. When we sit on the back row, watching the muted howling pain of the son or sister of the now absent loved one, we mourn with them but we also mourn for ourselves. Naturally at some point we think of our own mother or father, alive, dying or dead (we are driven to think of our own genesis and our ever present degeneration). Our own mortality has the light, the light that death gives, shone upon it. The light of death, is light within; sometimes dread; sometimes its subtle contrast makes life more vivid.
I have been lucky, I keep telling myself. Someone I work with, their mother died when they were twelve. Years of conversation, engagement and the debating on life, existence, death. I am rich in mother love, rich in thoughtful, teasing words. I had the lightest of Christian washes. The water from the fount splashed upon my head, standing, a young cub, with a banner of some sort in the nave, teenage internal monologues walking home from school where I heroically turned the other cheek. But my grandfather was a Mason, that strange bird, its plumage colourful, esoteric or more usually eccentric. He was not, I think, a deep believer, nor a regular church goer. His Masonic faith was more to do with commerce than a conversion to Christ. He married twice, the second time to a woman who had also been married and had children, both brought children into the new relationship and together they had children. Three of this family were ‘half’ and four ‘full’. The psychic being, the dynamic was complex and changing. Grandad, my mum’s dad, was much loved and loving, a sweet, generous and kind man, my grandfather, on one uncle’s account, was richly odd, liked to shoot flies in the backroom with an air rifle. The images and impressions are distanced and in all likelihood not always accurate, the emotions closer to the truth.
This is the nature of family lore where a single incident comes to be the representation of the character. Becomes the summation of a life. We are prey to much misrepresentation but then perhaps the romanticisation of our family, the striking detail, the anecdote, captures more than a thousand pictures. If we are told some ancient tale, it is after all the teller we read. The pages of this book are the tremor in the voice, the pause, the punctuation, the particular choice of word, the passion, the desire to persuade which is strangely detached from the audience. When we tell the tale - as my uncle stands before me, older now, than I will ever convey to my children - we are searching for self-affirmation in the far off, the nostalgic air is a resonance of self, of our youth, the breath of something long past, far off but not lost, not gone. This uncle will always be the uncle that tickled me mercilessly till tears spilled helplessly and whose tree trunk arms I swung upon. That is how I will recall him, the story I will tell my children.
So in her youth my mother had the sugar of faith. She absorbed some of that. At the time it was still in the blood stream but her family, her Dad, Percy, her mother, Winnie, the siblings, Mick, Heather, Phyllis, Johnny, Wendy and late addition Max, these were her pantheon. Her bedrock was not spiritual but human, here and now, person to person, familial, not built on faith. This I know because she told me so. Not in one conversation, not in detail, it was in the everlasting love, the timbre of her voice when she spoke of her father and her first family.
As a teenager and young man, when I argued all politics had to be spoken off, all suffering in the world looked at, railed against, demonstrated against and the philosophy of life examined, I knew only my first family. I didn’t recognise the family tree. Her father and mother yes, essences of smells, a few visions of their home in Woodford but nothing overly concrete, they were as distant as childhood holidays in Wales. There was an Aunt and an Uncle and even an ex-Uncle-in-law (who visited on his motorbike) but not much beyond that. Mum was mother, she was the centre of my foundation, the heart of my family, I couldn’t, certainly didn’t, conceive that I was the late comer. And the last of the latecomers at that, fourth of four. Her cosmos had had being, long before I. So when I insisted she talk about everything, not shy away from the great subjects, I did so in the great tradition, that of the naïve youth. The youth who knows little but feels much, whose passion gladly trammels over the shibboleths and taboos. Personality is plastic, we are not made but create ourselves, God is not only long dead but should be forgotten as utterly meaningless, history is simply a path to the future. Speaking of genital mutilation or the meaning of committing suicide was as easy as making the tea halfway through the debate.
Words, passion, politics, the wonders of science, books and more books, the archive of film, theatre, the museum, the art gallery, the field, mountain and river of experience these were primary, primal, they evoked, woke up the elemental within, the creative, the maker of Art. This, this was what needed to be expressed, the everyday was a bore or a working necessity that one should avoid and shun for a long as was possible. The fact that the conversation I was having, in the bright sunlit suburban front room, was underwritten by a working mother of four, only possible in fact because she (my father) worked. That was unimportant, that was a bore, that wasn’t a discussion about freedom, love, philosophy, sex and the other fundamentals that really mattered. It was like her first family, a distant template, of notional importance, but the notion wasn’t much of a thought, it was sand to concrete.
And yet. Even in our young lives we know half of what we say is bluster. It is a beautiful, pristine and, as yet, untouched innocence and it gives sustenance to our elders, in a manner we little realise. We don’t see how it may be, that we turn our head like a brother, smile, as he might have. As we howl at the manner in which politicians destroy lives, as our blood boils, as we kick against the pricks we have little understanding, if any, of the ripples, the echoes we are creating. We think we are making new marks, which is true but it is upon old bark. The family tree stands above us or below us if you like, we are branch or root, we are genetic essence, replicated, evolved and evolving from and to, both in a universal species way and in a particular familial way. Just one branch above me and I didn’t see that my mother had a family before I came along. My mother was a person before I was. My mother had believed in God and had lost a faith. My mother had had brothers and sisters, she had lived through a war, she had been evacuated. When we went to Blackpool, for the first time, it was not her first time, she had lived there before. Her father and mother had helped run a boarding house there. It was my first time not hers. It was the first time I had thought how ancient the planet was, how small the pale blue dot, how amazing the fossil, how deep the canyon of human dreams. Jung and Nietzsche had been in print for a long time. My mother had devoured Hardy, Dickens, Eliot and a hundred authors I’d never touched or even heard of.
Like a missing photograph or daraougetype in the family album he was no longer present but to some in the family, to this young mother, his image remained. I wanted to talk of the great questions of the blackness of ‘Fleur de Mal’ or the striking first line of ‘The Myth of Sisyphus’. What did I know? Her brother had killed himself. I had not heard, she’d not spoken. All family’s respond differently to suicide.