Not world wars, neither disease or plague or natural disaster … all these have gone before at times when humanity was still so vulnerable … when we were still small tribes wandering from water to hunting ground to shelter just to stay alive … and we did. And we did because of one central desire: a desire to be a part of other’s lives … a loved one, a special one within the tribe itself … within the shelter of the tribe as a whole … that other one who shared our particular liking for a particular fruit or woven style of cloth or place of refuge over all others … that someone special that would in times more conducive to individual preference develop into a love.
And regardless if it can be fulfilled in the interests of tribal custom or culture … these days call it ethnic group or class structure and creed … regardless if it is never consummated in a relationship, still the embryonic desire will develop in the imagination till it reaches a kind of fruition in the hidden senses and is held to one’s heart in secret conspiracy and there it is stored and adored.
There are moments many of us live through in our lives that can give such emotional pleasure and personal joy that they are held in deepest secrecy and must never be revealed except perhaps … and that is a big “perhaps” … at point of death. For to release such a secret of one’s deepest personality is equal to destroying the base belief in a personal future. The fate for those partners who seek or demand that such be revealed to them can be the unforeseen ruination of the current relationship.
I have experienced this as a revelation on the death bed moment – of which I’ll say more later – but consider this passage from James Joyce’s story “The Dead” in his book “Dubliners” … where the jealous “Gabriel” pushes for his wife “Gretta” to tell him of her past love … ”Michael Furey”:
“O, then, you are in love with him?” said Gabriel.
“I used to go out walking with him,” she said, “when I was in Galway.”
A thought flew across Gabriel’s mind.
“Perhaps that was why you wanted to go to Galway with that Ivors girl?” he said coldly.
She looked at him and asked in surprise:
Her eyes made Gabriel feel awkward. He shrugged his shoulders and said:
“How do I know? To see him, perhaps.”
She looked away from him along the shaft of light towards the window in silence.
“He is dead,” she said at length. “He died when he was only seventeen. Isn’t it a terrible thing to die so young as that?”
“What was he?” asked Gabriel, still ironically.
“He was in the gasworks,” she said.
Gabriel felt humiliated by the failure of his irony and by the evocation of this figure from the dead, a boy in the gasworks. While he had been full of memories of their secret life together, full of tenderness and joy and desire, she had been comparing him in her mind with another. A shameful consciousness of his own person assailed him. He saw himself as a ludicrous figure, acting as a pennyboy for his aunts, a nervous, well-meaning sentimentalist, orating to vulgarians and idealising his own clownish lusts, the pitiable fatuous fellow he had caught a glimpse of in the mirror. Instinctively he turned his back more to the light lest she might see the shame that burned upon his forehead.
He tried to keep up his tone of cold interrogation, but his voice when he spoke was humble and indifferent.
“I suppose you were in love with this Michael Furey, Gretta,” he said.
“I was great with him at that time,” she said.
Her voice was veiled and sad. Gabriel, feeling now how vain it would be to try to lead her whither he had purposed, caressed one of her hands and said, also sadly:
“And what did he die of so young, Gretta? Consumption, was it?”
“I think he died for me,” she answered.
A vague terror seized Gabriel at this answer, as if, at that hour when he had hoped to triumph, some impalpable and vindictive being was coming against him, gathering forces against him in its vague world. But he shook himself free of it with an effort of reason and continued to caress her hand. He did not question her again, for he felt that she would tell him of herself. Her hand was warm and moist: it did not respond to his touch, but he continued to caress it just as he had caressed her first letter to him that spring morning.“ (The Dead: James Joyce: “Dubliners”).
In breaking the seal of trust that Gretta held in union with the memory of the dead; “Michael Furey” the character “Gabriel” had also broke the seal of affection between himself and his wife.
A similar bond can be held in the heart with an unpleasant memory. In his book of recounting his surveying of an African plateau; “Venture to the Interior” the now disgraced Laurens Van Der Post recounts his method of dealing with troubling memories …
He would lay still and imagine himself taking down a suitcase containing these memories from the top of a wardrobe. He would then imagine himself opening the case and taking out the memories one by one, going through them dispassionately until the feelings were gone, then repacking them into the case and returning it to the top of the imaginary wardrobe. In such an exercise would he satisfy those ghosts of his personal secrets of a bad moment in his life which he was wont to share with others.
This holding close to the heart is a most human desire that it can reach right into our most personal hungers for company. A (now aged like myself ) woman I knew in my younger, wilder years told me recently of why she was in a relationship with a man we both knew in those years:
“He was a strange bloke, was B … ” I remarked. “How’d you get along with him?”
“Oh … quite well, as a matter of fact … and we only broke up because he went to work to the North West of WA. and I stayed here to finish my nursing training … we wrote for a while but we were both young and we drifted apart … ”
“How’d you get to know him?” I persisted.
“He was just a friend at first … and we went out together a couple of times. He was an electrician … and his flat was full of bits and pieces of electrical gadgets that he’d fix for friends … and clocks … he liked making electric clocks. He had a bench in the front room full of junk …
I came to his flat from work one day all teary and upset as I’d just had my first patient die on me and he just held me and talked to me in his deep, slow voice while I wept … that’s all he did … he just talked about his electrical stuff and what he was doing and he stroked my arms and back and just talked softly and slowly until I went to sleep in his arms. He was such a comfort … a lover-friend.“
And this is why we, as a species may not survive. We have been hollowed out, gutted like a dead fish! We now are so untrusting, so protective of our sensitivities, so afraid that we will not allow another too close lest they seek to hurt us emotionally. Perhaps losing our collective confidence in ourselves to survive emotional trauma. Many young people do not enter into relationships anymore, choosing instead to conduct temporary “meetings” that demand no commitment, no deep emotional give and take where those “secrets” of heightened pleasure or pain are nurtured and ensconced within our psyche … and we, as a species are getting weaker for it … for if we cannot trust ourselves with holding that secret of emotional pleasure to carry as a talisman through rough life, then what trust will we allow others that we hold dear to have their own private “suitcase” with their own private desires … and will we destroy our own relationships from a desire to destroy the entrusted confederacies of others?
That “death bed revelation” moment … well, it was a long-running chiack between my mother and myself, that the local GP, Doctor Short, who used to do house calls in those days and attended me when I was bedridden with bronchial-asthma at an age of around 6-8years old. He would attend to me while my mother fussed with the pillow or blankets … and my mother, being in her mid-twenties at that time and married to a much older man AND quite attractive … must have caught the attention of the tall, deep-voiced Doctor, who I in memory recall was sometimes in close attendance as much to my mother as to myself … NOT that there was any encouragement on HER part … but I used to tease her in her older years by saying on a regular basis:
“That Doctor Short … I reckon he was burning a candle for you … ” … to which she’d pooh-pooh the whole thing away and say don’t be ridiculous! But the last time I saw her in the palliative care ward, dying from pulmonary fibrosis … I again said in a teary attempt at jest:
“I still reckon that Doctor Short was burning a candle for you … ” to which to my surprise she looked straight into my eyes in the most meaningful manner, that I have to say threw me a little and whispered:
“I believe you are right … ” … and I am not sure to this day if she didn’t give me a wink …
And that was the last visit I had with her as she died a day later.