I was talking with a friend about the worry over elderly parents and she said “we’ve reached a new phase of our lives”. In older cultures transitionary life stages were marked with ritual and given a sense of meaning and purpose. In our pretend ‘civilised’ culture we plough through with an unmitigated expectation that we’ll bury death and the paths towards death and buy into everything that encourages us to remain silent and treat our lives and those of our loved ones as though they were a contract to be negotiated purely in monetary terms.
I’ve been finding some comfort in Rumi, the 13th century sufi poet. I’d recommend The Guest House with its admonition to treat ‘a crowd of sorrows’ with honour and gratitude.
I keep returning to one poem in particular that reminds me of the stage in life that is passing. I don’t know how I’m going to face the changes we’re going through as a family and hold it all together? I look back at all the mixed feelings I’ve held about my father: how to put those to rest with the dignity and humour that Rumi suggests?
Furniture for a room of loss and mourning
An aura of wood surrounded my father
resolute as the banister we children slid down
to avoid the grief dried out in the knots
and grain of the furniture of our lives.
All the real words sat hiding in a tin bath
at the end of the garden, amongst newts
and tadpoles, searching for relief
until a hot sun evaporated all traces.
The house became full of emotional objects:
a print of Chester clock tower (with real picture clock),
a sewing machine, an asbestos-coated ironing board
(great for scratching), the hope that mum would paint
herself by numbers back into reality.
I made a home beneath the upright piano in the living room
whilst dad tinkled ivory keys on hopeful Sundays,
refusing the religion that grew like fungus
in the damp patch invading the space left by burnt brain cells.
The piano sits there still, playing
an out-of-tune silence, battered, majestic;
a reminder of a love etched like varnished wood grain
into the shadow of all the unsaid things.