ANNA BELFRAGE

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Archive for the tag “death”

In Memoriam – of graveyards and mothers

A recent survey here in Sweden has concluded that a majority of Swedish people feel we should spread the ashes of those that have died in the great outdoors. A gust of wind and what little remains of a human after cremation would soar upwards, spread and eventually settle back on the ground.

No need, according to this survey, for headstones. No need for a little plaque engraved with the name of the recently deceased. Just this anonymous letting go and then the living can get back to their daily lives, the hole left behind by the deceased filled in by other things, other people.

20180406_180235I like walking in old churchyards. I stroll from headstone to headstone, read the names and the dates. In doing so, I remember that they once existed, even if they’re people I never knew nor have any connection with. When it comes to my own dead, I don’t have any headstones to visit. The lease on my great-grandparents’ plot was not extended in time, and one day my mother got a letter informing her that as there had been no extension, the remains of my great-grandparents and my maternal grandparents had been dug up and reburied in the common memorial grove. She took it rather badly. Even more so when we drove all the way up to her hometown to discover just how depressingly anonymous their new resting place was. Still, at least they had their names there.

My mother died recently, so the whole issue of headstone/plaque vs anonymous resting place has been up for discussion. We didn’t have a choice: my mother had left instructions and wanted her cremated remains to be put to rest anonymously in the same grove where my father’s ashes were interred twenty years ago.

20180406_180453Those that rest in this grove do so without names. Their ashes come in cardboard boxes and are buried by the churchyard staff so that no one knows exactly where their loved ones’ ashes ended up. It is a beautiful and peaceful place, a circular space bordered by a hedge and with a couple of very old trees that strive upwards to the heavens. It’s a stone throw’s distance from one of Malmö’s central squares, and so here the dead are surrounded by life, by the sound of laughter and music, of buses and cars. They may be anonymous, they may be forgotten, but somehow they’re still part of life. I like that. My mother would have liked that.

Us human beings are on this world for a very short time, and if we’re going to be honest, very few of us leave a legacy behind. Most of us are born, live and die in obscurity—which does not mean we don’t live life in full. It just means we’re like most people: too unimportant in the overall context of things, no matter how important we are to those that love us and are loved by us.

As we wander through old churchyards we may think all those who died in the past ended up with an engraved stone commemorating their existence. That is not true. Only those who could afford a mason could commission a headstone, and that means many, many people ended up in unmarked graves. In times of epidemics, war and disaster, people were buried in mass graves. No one carved their names on a headstone. They were simply gone.

Obviously, for those most affected by a death there is no need of a headstone to keep the memory alive. Children remember their parents for most of their lives, Grandchildren may remember their grandparents, but go one generation further down the line and there are no memories. There may be stories, little anecdotes shared from one generation to the other, but these are not necessarily representative of the person in question. It’s a bit like with history in general. We study the information that comes down to us and try to build a cohesive picture of the man/woman who lived ages ago based on entries in rolls and charters. However, what we get are details—not necessarily the truly important details—round which we try to recreate what that person might have been like.

mamma simone-martini-angel-gabriel_u-l-o2ohx0It is difficult to lose someone close to you. Losing a parent brings home that there is no IF about death, it is only a WHEN. Yes, we know that rationally, but we don’t feel it until it actually happens. With my mother’s passing, I am the eldest person in my original family. Reasonably, that makes me next in line. Not an entirely pleasant thought.

What is also difficult is handling the cocktail of emotions. It is especially difficult when the presumption is that as a daughter and a mother, my mother and I were very close and loving. Don’t get me wrong: I loved my mother and I am sure she loved me. But that does not mean the relationship was an easy one. In fact, for most of my adult life I have lived under a burden of expectations I have never quite lived up to, and that is very draining.

We are all a product of our lives and my mother was no exception. From the horizon of a fifty-plus woman, I can understand why she was as demanding as she was, her constant need for affirmation and attention a consequence of a difficult adolescence. I can understand that now, but I couldn’t quite understand it as a young woman when I mostly felt that no matter what I did, my mother was not entirely happy with me. She felt alone and abandoned. I juggled four children, a full-time job and a home, and still invited her over for dinner every weekend. But she was lonely all the other days as well and I went about with a constant burden of guilt.

Guilt is an interesting emotion. It steals so much energy that somewhere along the line it starts morphing into resentment. Years and years of not being quite good enough led to a certain distancing—it had to, as it hurt too much at times to be accused of being self-centred, of never having time for my mother, the person I owed everything to as she had given birth to me.

My mother’s last few years were bad years. She suffered from COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease) and this is a cruel, cruel condition, leaving the afflicted constantly short of breath, constantly in a state of air-anxiety. Every breath is a conscious effort, every movement is a challenge. We did what we could. We tried to show her that we loved and cared—because we did, of course we did.

We wished she would let go, because with each day her suffering increased, but my mother was not a quitter. She clung to life with everything she had. She loved life, was worried that the alternative wouldn’t be much fun. So she fought tooth and nail to stay alive, she breathed and breathed and breathed, she looked at us with panic in her eyes and breathed some more.

Talking to her about death and an eventual afterlife was not an option at this stage. She was too scared, too angry. And yes, she took it out on us—as we all take things out on those we trust the most.

It was almost—no, I must rephrase—it was a relief when the doctors concluded there was nothing more to be done for our mother. Instead, she was transferred to palliative care.
“What do you think your mother would say if we asked her what she wants?” the doctor asked me.
“My mother?” I shrugged. “She wants to live. Don’t we all?”
“Her body doesn’t. Not anymore,” the doctor said. And as our mother was no longer all there, the doctor made the decision to stop with all invasive treatments and instead to help her die with dignity.

My mother died at home. She died wearing her favourite nightdress, lying in her own sheets with her favourite painting on the wall in front of her. For the last four days of her life there was no pain, no air-anxiety. There was only peace—and resignation. I believe she died feeling safe. I hope she felt she was being called home and that in those last moments she could give thanks for a long and fulfilling life.

mamma b79e66fca0cf0d38dbbe12df843a2e40Now my mother lies in an anonymous grove. In summer, the wind soughs through the trees, through the flowering shrubs. In winter, frost crackles in the grass and in the deep, deep winter night, the stars are like miniature diamonds in the distant sky. Where she is right now, I do not know. I hope she is at peace and that if there is an afterlife, she has run effortlessly through the rolling pastures into the arms of her waiting man.

Expected but unexpected

It was just a matter of time – we all knew that.

But that doesn’t help

She was old – very old, even.

But that doesn’t help

She said she was ready to go – life, as she saw it, was done.

But that doesn’t help

The phone call that jerked us awake yesterday was a confirmation of an event about to happen, and yet just hearing the words “she is gone” left me struggling for breath, tears a thick wad in my throat. I loved her so much, she gave me so much, and now I worry that maybe I didn’t tell her just how much she meant to me. Did she know how I relied on her strength, on the way she could make me laugh at myself?

It was expected. But when it finally happens, it is just as unexpected as if it wasn’t expected. It is one thing to say that someone is approaching the end, another thing entirely to wake up to a world where they no longer exist. Only when it happens, do the emotions hit us. While we live in expectation of the event, we mostly shove it away into a corner of our mind, thinking we will always have tomorrow to whisper just how much we love and care. But one day, tomorrow is no more…

lupinerA person I respected is dead. A constant support, a person who loved me and liked me, who made me laugh and think. She raised four sons into admirable, loving men. She taught me to knit, to bake bread. She decorated her house with wild flowers, saying there was as much beauty in the dipping head of a grass straw as in a rose. In the early months of spring, I’d find her picking nettle shoots, and sure enough, dinner that night would be nettle soup. She saved me the marzipan decoration on her Easter cake, because she knew how much I liked it.

Of course we quarrelled – two determined women with strong opinions do. But mostly we didn’t, and now that she’s gone I feel as if something has been yanked out of me. She gave me a place in her family – an obligation, seeing as I married one of her sons. But she also gave me a place in her heart, a gift freely given and gladly received.

In her eyes, I was always good enough. She loved me for who I was, accepted my weaknesses and lauded my strengths. From her I learnt that the secret to being a good parent is to always remember we only borrow our children for some years, that at some point we must let them go and it is our obligation to do so, to trust that they will make their own way.

IMG_6031She is gone. I was touched by her and will always carry the gift of her love with me. Whenever I see a meadow of grass rippling in the wind, whenever I see the sun set over the sea, I will think of her, hoping that she is there with me, in the warm caress of the wind, in the last rays of the setting sun.

It was expected.

But that doesn’t help – not at all.

The things that make us human…

lupinerSome people would argue that humanity’s defining characteristic is our intelligence. Hmm. Given our predilection for constantly endangering the future of our species through war, pollution and excessive exploitation of this our very precious, very small, green planet, I am not so sure about all that intelligence.

Others will say it is our communication skills that set us apart Definitely a good argument. People talk – a lot. However, communication is a two way street, and how good are we at listening? Especially to someone who doesn’t agree with us? (And I must immediately raise my hand in the air on this one and admit I have a teensy-weensy tendency of being so carried away in the heat of a discussion that my ears close. Literally. Working on it – which may make my friends choke on laughter, as I’ve been working on this  – and on learning how to keep a low profile – for like four decades…)

I would say that there are some emotions that are very specific to humans – like insecurity. We fret about a lot of things, us oh so intelligent bipeds. Does he/she like me? Will they give me the job despite my deficiencies? How can anyone love me when I have a HUGE pimple on m nose? Who am I to think I can do this? Will my children turn out alright given my lousy parenting skills?

The-Hunted-Roe-Deer-on-the-Alert-Spring-by-Gustave-CourbetNow, consider instead Mrs Bambi, who lives out in the forest somewhere. Does Mrs Bambi ever struggle with insecurity? Does she nudge her fawn and wonder what on earth he’ll grow up to be, what with her not spending enough time with him? Does she ever look at her reflection in a forest tarn and sigh, thinking that who can possibly love her, with those huge eyes of hers? Nope. Mrs Bambi simply IS, all the way from her beautiful, dewy eyes and twitching ears to those long, fragile legs of hers. And the same thing applies to Mrs Crocodile (except she has neither dewy eyes, twitching ears nor fragile legs. She is mostly tail and teeth).

Another very human emotion is love. Sorry to tell you this, but Mrs Bambi doesn’t love her kid – she nurtures it. That utterly stressed pair of swallows that flies back and forth, back and forth, to feed their voracious young don’t love them either – in fact, one can suspect they will sigh with relief once their nestlings take flight.

I’ve had a pair of gulls nesting on a ledge outside my office window for some weeks, and after sitting on their egg for ages, out came a speckled fluffy chick. A most demanding chick, that grew at an impressive speed as its parents flew out, flew back in, hawked up what they’d swallowed so that their baby could eat it. Now and then, Mama and Papa gull had to defend their chick against others – which they did – but despite all this care, one day the chick was gone, having plummeted six floors to its death. (This due to some very determined magpies. Now, I happen to like magpies much, much more than I like gulls, horrible raucous things that they are, but in this instance I was a bit upset – if impressed by the intelligence the magpies gave proof of as they herded the chick towards the edge…) Just like that, all those caring instincts disappeared in Mama and Papa gull. They did not swoop down to sit by their dead chick and weep, nor did they expend much time looking for it. Proof, I’d argue, that they felt no love for their offspring – it was merely biology taking over.

Just as animals can’t feel love, neither can they feel hate. Deer do not band together, sharpen their antlers and hooves, and set out to punish those nasty, hateful foxes. Even more to the point, animals don’t hate us, despite humans being by far the most dangerous and cruel of predators.

Deer huntingAnimals, it would seem, are advocates of Determinism – what will pass, will pass, and there is little we can do about it. Some humans belong to religious groups that also advocate Determinism – Islam comes to mind, as does the Greek-Orthodox Church, and Calvinism – but this concept sits uncomfortably with most of us, seeing as it can be perceived as being in conflict with our very precious Free Will. So as not to go entirely wild and crazy while attempting to penetrate this very difficult issue (Determinism vs Free Will), let us just conclude that here we have yet another thing that separates us from animals: many of us believe in God – and those of us that don’t, still remain fascinated by the existential issues. Let me tell you that Mrs Bambi rarely raises her head from her grazing, looks at her sister and asks, “What do you think happens after death?” If she did, chances are her sister would say, “Death? What is death?”

a002175501-001And here, I believe, lies the most defining differences between humans and animals. We are aware of our mortality, of the ridiculous brevity of our time on Earth, while they are not. They live unencumbered by the gnawing disquiet that most of us humans fall prey to, those eternal questions ringing in our minds: Is there life after death? Does God exist? And what if He does exist and I’ve been laughing my head off at the concept of God throughout my life, will He punish me for that? And what if there is no life after death? What if it is just over, the moment my heart stops beating?
“Aaaaaagh!” wails this particular human, “I don’t want it to be over!”

I once heard this very depressing philosopher expound on the brevity of human life. “Our lives are as inconsequential in the overall context of things as a soap-bubble,” he said. But guess what? You look at that soap bubble and it shimmers with colour, it twirls and it dances as it soars upwards, ever upwards. Pretty wonderful, all in all, even if it pops into non-existence far too soon.

Mrs Bambi doesn’t care about soap bubbles – nor does Mrs Crocodile. They take each day as it comes, and worry little about a tomorrow as intangible as the wind. That, dear people, is something we should learn from them, the ability to live in the here and now, the only moments of time that are truly ours to fully enjoy. Yesterday is gone, tomorrow may never come. But we always have today. Always. Which is why I will now turn off my computer and wander down to the lake and go for a swim. Halfway out, I will flip over onto my back and float, my eyes lost in the blue of the summer sky, and wonder, as I always wonder, what lies beyond.

 

Fear of Dying

Marc_Chagall_L_180Ange_BleuSeveral years ago, when I was still a child, my single greatest fear wasn’t that I was going to die – it was that my mother would. At the time, I was young enough to consider myself more or less immortal – life extended before me as an endless sea. But I was old enough to have grasped that at some point in time, that endless sea would sort of shrink into a puddle, a most finite expanse of water.

My mother mostly laughed when I padded into her bedroom, crying that I didn’t want her to die. “I’m not planning on dying yet, honey,” she would say, and comforted by her presence I’d fall asleep in her bed, secure in the knowledge that she’d be here tomorrow too.

Tomorrows pass quickly. It is no longer quite as certain that my mother will be here tomorrow. It raises issue – topics that are difficult to discuss when one is in the best of health, are touchy, toothy things when the “if” of dying has converted into a fast approaching “when”.

I suppose this is when having strong faith bolsters the fragile human soul. The concept of a hereafter, a reassurance that all will not end when we suck in that last gasping breath, is a lifeline to those among us who simply cannot get their heads around the “not existing” part.

800px-Starry_Night_Over_the_RhoneSince man first began walking upright, the questions of where we come from and where we go to have been rebounding in our brains. Primitive man stood outside his cave and gawked at the stars overhead, wondering if perhaps that was where we came from. Some not so primitive men still hold to the rather odd notion that we are the offspring of an alien race, sent down from a distant galaxy to colonise Earth. Hmm…

As our Stone Age ancestors followed the herds of big game from one location to another, they told each other stories. I bet already back then many of the stories were girl-boy stories, I bet quite a few featured handsome broody young man in a loincloth who has problems expressing his feelings (he’s vulnerable within his shell, you see) until SHE comes along, all tight mammoth skin and dreadlocks decorated with knucklebones. Misunderstandings, heartbreak, separations and reunions follow…. Yes, yes. You get it, right? Besides this particular story is most hale and hearty even now, several millennia later, except that these days broody and handsome is an unhappy millionaire with a dark background and she has lost the mammoth skin in favour of lacy underwear and designer heels.

But apart from the light entertainment offered by timeless rom-com, these flint wielding ancestors of ours also spoke of existential issues. How do we know? Because of the way they buried their dead, preparing them for a journey to the hereafter. All over the planet, our very distant ancestors seem to have found it necessary to bury tools and clothes with their loved ones. At times a faithful dog or horse is included as well, at more gruesome times the companions include other humans, seemingly killed for the express purpose of accompanying Mr Number One to the afterlife.

These days, we have a predilection for cremation, which might make things difficult should Resurrection Day ever come – assuming you subscribe to the version where the dead rise from their graves. These days, we rarely send along a dog or a bagel. Should there be a life after death, we assume dear departed will fix the sustenance thing by themselves.  But even in these days, we still wonder; what comes after death?

Personally, I believe humans are more than their flesh and blood. The thoughts we have, the experiences and memories, our dreams and ambitions – surely they add to the total mass of who we are. Does all that disappear? Is there a whispered “poof” as everything intangible that made a person into a specific person is erased – for ever? Or is it this cognisance, this collection of half-formed thoughts, of remembrances and hopes that constitute our soul, and if so, does it float off to a HEA moment? Deep shit, isn’t it?

My mother and I have rarely spoken about faith. I know that once my mother believed very deeply in God, but that she never quite forgave Him for allowing her mother (my grandmother) to lie abed for years, slowly shrinking into nothing, before she died. I also know that for years my mother kept radio silence vis-à-vis God – until the day when I hovered so close to death that she clasped her hands and prayed for my life. That time, it seemed God listened – or maybe it was the doctors who saved me. I wouldn’t know, being too young at the time to have anything more than the haziest recollections of lying in a tent filled with ice. Whether this event led to a reopened conversation with the God of her youth, I don’t know. The issue of faith is far too personal for me to pry.

Now and then, my mother will make the odd sarcastic comment about the hereafter. “I’m not so thrilled at the thought of wafting about as an amorphous spirit,” she said once. “I mean, what’s the point of an afterlife if I can’t hug and kiss the people I love?” Which is when I realised that my mother and I have a great deal in common, starting with a romantic streak that hopes that there will be opportunity to love – in the full sense of the world – on the other side as well.

dance-1962

Like souls, rising towards the sky

I think the problem with dying is not the actual dying part, it is the not knowing part. Us modern humans don’t like it when we’re not in control of our destination – and this is definitely one of those occasions, isn’t it? I suspect it was easier to die some centuries ago. First of all, because everyone had at some point or another seen somebody else die, while to us this is mostly a process draped in the shrouds of hospitalised care. Secondly, because at the time no one had as yet begun to question the existence of an afterlife – at least not openly. Going to heaven (or hell, gulp) was a truism, sort off.

All of us will die – someday. But until we do, let’s make sure our tomorrows count. Life is a gift, and whether finite or not, the one thing we know for certain is that THIS life, THIS moment will never return. A wasted minute can never be recouped and used again later, a day spent bemoaning the downsides of things is one day less to praise the joy of living.

When I die, I want there to be someone I love beside me. Someone who holds my hand and croons me gently out of life and into the unknown. And when I am truly gone, I want that someone to open a window so as to allow my soul to soar into the never-ending deep blue of the star-strewn skies.

450px-Campanula_rotondifolia (1)As to what comes after, well as one formidable lady in my acquaintance once said, “I have no idea what will happen after death. The only thing I know is that I will be taken care of – somehow.” Not a bad thought, hey? I mean, either there is God and his angels, and rolling green meadows and gambolling lambs (I have a very traditional view of heaven) and it will be happy days ever after. Or there is nothing, in which case it won’t matter. We will simply sink into universal oblivion and if we’re lucky our body (or our ashes) may one day be reborn – as harebells in the sun!

 

Love, gruesome death and the happily ever after

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My love is like a red, red rose

There is something strange in our relationship with love stories. While most of us hope for that happy ending, the stories we remember are the ones that end in tears and loss, such as that of Juliet and her Romeo. Even weirder, we will sit in our sofas and snivel as we watch – yet again – how Jenny in Love Story dies, or how Rhett Butler leaves Scarlett O’Hara behind ( although she really had it coming, didn’t she?).

Personally, just the thought of leaving one of my characters eviscerated by the loss of the other has me in jitters for days, so I’ve compromised: no matter the tribulations they go through, there is some sort of reunion at the end, not necessarily all song and dance, but still, I leave them together, with the promise of future tomorrows. I know, I know; not at all realistic, but there you are. I’m a person with a huge romantic streak in me, okay?

Today is Valentine’s day, and in various parts of the world frazzled men will fall over their feet in their efforts to live up to their partner’s expectations on the day. Chocolate in heart-shaped boxes, booked tables at a fancy restaurant, an armful of roses…. Sigh. Obviously, I’ve screwed up somewhere, because in over thirty years with the man in my life I have not seen as much as a glimpse of a heart-shaped box of chocolates. I’ll retaliate by keeping the lacy bits well out of sight…

Anyway; everyone has heard of Romeo and Juliet, most of us have a passing acquaintance with Tristan and Isolde, or Lancelot and Guinevere. But how many of you have heard of Juan and Isabel, commonly known as Los Amantes de Teruel (The lovers from Teruel) or of Salim and Anarkali, a most tragic story from the ancient Mogul empire? No? Well, dear people, allow me to do the introductions.

los_amantes_de_teruel_by_muc3b1oz_degrac3adnThe Lovers from Teruel is an ancient legend, harking back to 13th century Spain. It has classical ingredients such as a rich girl of good family (Isabel) that fell in love with a young man (Juan – for some reason renamed Diego in re-tellings from the 16th century and onwards) without a dime to his name. Naturally, Isabel’s father was less than inclined to wed his pretty, rich daughter to a pauper, no matter how upright. Juan wholeheartedly agreed; this pearl amongst women deserved only the best. Oh dear; things could have ended already there, but fortunately, Juan had a plan. He succeeded in convincing Isabelto give him five years in which to make his fortune, and so he set off with nothing but a beating heart full of love and commitment.

Isabel sighed. Isabel pined. Isabel dreamed. Isabel counted days, weeks, months. Her father pestered her to marry, but Isabel told him she’d made a vow of chastity for the coming five years, and he, being a good father, respected this (plus I suspect he was very aware of why she’d taken this vow) but wrung a promise from her to marry as he chose once the five years had expired. Months became years, and Isabel took to anxiously scanning the road for her returning lover, but as the fifth year progressed there was no sign of him. And finally, the deadline came and went, and as she had promised to do, Isabel married the man her father had chosen for her the day after Juan should have returned home. (I do find this rather callous behaviour from the father, but maybe he was seriously worried his radiant girl was well on her way to be an old, unwanted maid)

On her wedding night, Isabel woke to the sound of footsteps in her wedding chamber. It was Juan, shocked to find her married when he had, in fact, returned before the deadline expired. You see, Juan counted the day after his agreement with Isabel’s father as day nr 1, while Isabel and her father considered the day of the agreement as day nr 1. Juan approached the bed and stood gazing down at her, heartbreak etching fissures of pain on his face.
“Kiss me, before I die,” he told her.
“No way,” she hissed, pointing at her sleeping husband. “I can’t, I’m a married woman now.”
“Please,” he whispered, “kiss me, lest I die.”
“Juan,” she said, close to tears, “you know I can’t honey, it’s too late for us.”
Upon which Juan sighed deeply and died at her feet.

Los-amantes-de-Teruel-Antonio-Muñoz-Degrain.-Museo-del-Prado-300x202

Poor Isabel went into a fit. She woke her husband, who was just as shocked as she was, and they decided to arrange for a discreet burial of Juan on the morrow, the husband very worried that they might be accused of killing this young man.
Los_amantes_de_TeruelNext day, when she saw her beloved Juan lying on his bier, Isabel just couldn’t help herself, hastening forward to give him the kiss he had begged her for the night before. She kissed him and died, collapsing on top of his inert body.
This story so touched the hearts of the inhabitants of Teruel that they buried the lovers side by side. Their effigies (created much, much later) seem to strain towards each other, hands almost touching – but not quite, as Isabel was married elsewhere. Sad, right? Excellent literary material, which is why a number of famous Spanish authors have written about them.

SalimThe story of Salim and Anarkali is the same but in reverse. He was the prince, son of the emperor Akbar, ruler of the Mogul empire. She was a mere concubine, a dancer whose beauty has entranced Akbar. Father and son shared a common taste in women, but where Akbar viewed Anarkali as a decorative addition to his many wives, Salim fell in love with her – and she with him. They met in secret, they loved and yearned, and finally Salim couldn’t stand this anymore, but approached his father and told him he had lost his heart to Anarkali, whom he wanted to take as his wife.

Akbar exploded. Maybe he didn’t like the somewhat oedipal touch to all this. Or maybe it was Anarkali’s low birth that made Akbar tell his son to forget it – Anarkali would never be his wife. Salim pleaded, he begged, and when his father remained obdurate, he raged – which resulted in Akbar imprisoning poor Anarkali in a dungeon in Lahore. Things could have ended there, but Salim was a man on a mission, and besides, he couldn’t quite conceive of a life without his beloved Anarkali, so after several attempts he succeeded in breaching Anarkali’s prison and they rode off together. Yet again, things could have ended here, two young people on a horse galloping towards a happy sunset finale. Not to be.

For some reason, Salim decided to rise in armed revolt against his father. Though a skillful general and a veteran of warfare, Salim was no match for Akbar’s superior forces, and so things ended as one could expect, Salim vanquished and grovelling at the feet of his father. Well, I don’t think he grovelled, I believe he fixed beautiful, almond shaped eyes on his father and glared, head held high. Akbar studied his prisoner. A long, long time he studied him, torn between the love and pride he felt for his son, and the anger he felt for his rebellious subject. Finally he gave Salim two choices: either he surrendered Anarkali to die, or he would be put to death.

“Death!” hollered Salim, getting to his feet, chains jangling. The emperor must have been taken quite aback, perhaps realising for the first time just how much his son loved his Anarkali. But things were beyond the point of no return, and Akbar could not stay his son’s execution – not now. (Hmm. I would like to point out that Akbar was the EMPEROR. Of course he could have stopped things, but I guess he didn’t want to lose face)

Anarkali (1)The day of Salim’s execution dawned. He sat in his cell and watched the sun tinge the skies pink, and knew that very soon he would be dead. Did he whisper her name, did he beg for one last chance to speak to his father? No idea. But someone else did speak to his father. Little Anarkali, graceful as a doe in flight, left her hiding place and came to see the emperor. She loved Salim too much to let him die for her, and so she made a deal with Akbar: one last night with Salim, and then she would go to her death in his stead.

There was no curved scimitar waiting for Salim when he exited his cell. Instead there was Anarkali, his beautiful Anarkali, and Salim couldn’t believe his eyes. Had the emperor relented? She just smiled and led him away, and for one full night she loved him and held him, until the moment when she drugged him and left him fast asleep. She didn’t want him to witness what was to follow – or maybe she feared he might yet again attempt to save her, thereby condemning himself to certain death.

anarkaliIt is said Anarkali was buried alive. Or immured into a wall – alive. Neither of the alternatives hold much appeal… Even worse, in some versions of the story, Salim was forced to witness as the love of his life was walled in – which must have left him with permanent claustrophobia. Tradition has it that once he became emperor, he built his beloved Anarkali a golden shrine, a monument to a love so strong she gladly went to her death for him.

Sheesh. I’m emotionally exhausted by all this. It also seems sort of wrong to end a Valentine’s blog on such a sad note. After all, one may come away with the impression that love hurts far too much for it to be worthwhile. This is anathema to my pounding romantic heart, and so to end this little tour of fated lovers, I will give you a story of perseverance and steadfastness, of a woman who wove and wove while she waited for her man to return home. Took him twenty years to do so, and by now those more classically versed among you will have gathered that I am talking about Penelope and Odysseus.

Odysseus_Tiresias_Cdm_Paris_422_n2Let me be frank. Odysseus is NOT my favourite guy (I’m a Hector fan). I hold him personally responsible for the destruction of Troy, the death of Andromache and the exile of Aeneas – although this last thing was maybe a good thing as without Aeneas no Rome  (according to Virgil). He is also a savvy type, one of those people you can’t quite trust as they will extend their hand to seal a deal while keeping the other hand behind his back, fingers crossed. Ask the Cyclops what he thinks of Odysseus, and you won’t get a panegyric, rather he’ll spit and rage, cursing this particular sheep-thief to hell and back. The Siren will pout prettily and tell you it ain’t fair when men she tries to entrance tie themselves to a mast so as to hear her lovely song but be incapable of going to her. But Penelope will smile and stroke the fabric on her loom, telling us that “nowhere lives a man so true and fair”. Huh: I guess he didn’t tell her about Circe and Calypso, did he – although to be fair, one was a powerful witch, the other a nymph, and what was a poor mortal man to do but succumb?

penelopeWhile Odysseus was out doing his man thing (besiege and conquer a city; check, steal away important treasure; check, see the world at large; check) Penelope was patiently waiting for him in Ithaca. Their son she raised on stories of his fantastic father, and her days she spent industriously at her loom, always weaving. After some years, Penelope began to experience man problems – well, apart from the constant man problem of being without her husband, that is. We are told that 108 men came to beg for Penelope’s hand, and to stave them off she told them that only once she’d finished the burial shroud for her father-in-law would she make a choice. Every night Penelope snuck out to tear apart what she’d woven the day before, every morning she sat down to weave some more. Poor woman; how utterly boring! Anyway, one day her ruse was revealed, and Penelope’s rather odious suitors became even more insistent that she had to make a choice.

Fortuitously (which is how we know this is a story rather than the truth), Odysseus came hobbling in, disguised as a beggar, just on the day that Penelope had promised to make some sort of choice. Tired of her milk-sop suitors, of greedy men in general, she told the assembled men that he amongst them who could string Odysseus’ bow and shoot an arrow through twelve axe-heads would be her chosen spouse. Now, had I been one of the suitors I would have protested loudly at this impossible test, and maybe they did, but lo and behold, the beggar stepped forth, stringed the bow and shot an arrow through the twelve axe-heads (which, one must presume, were made of something soft and penetrable. Odd axe-heads…)

jstykapenelopeodysseus-jpgAfter something of a slaying spree – Odysseus was mightily irritated by these pesky suitors – Odysseus and Penelope settled down to live in uxorious bliss. And while Odysseus is not my favourite man, I do have something of a soft spot for patient Penelope, sitting there day after day while never giving up hope that someday her man would return. Awwww…..

With this rather appropiate ending, this Valentine’s day post of mine comes to an end. And as to love, what is it Paulus says? “but the greatest of these is love” Couldn’t have said it better myself!

If I die …

Unfortunately, there’s no “if” about dying – it’s just a matter of when. And if you think about it, is the alternative all that palatable? Does anyone truly want to go on living and living while the creases and wrinkles deepen, the eyesight weakens and the joints swell up with arthritis? Or maybe we’re all hoping that soon (and it best be very soon) there will be fantastic replacement surgery to be had, a bit like reconditioning an old car.

“Aah, Mrs Belfrage, how nice to see you again.” The young male nurse smiles down at me. I have to squint to make out his face, not all that certain I’ve met him before. But he did say “again”, right? I shuffle towards him, gripping the handles of my walking frame hard.
He helps me into the lavender coloured pod-shaped bed. I lie down, he takes off my slippers, my glasses, my rings, adjusts the hospital gown (sorry; no major development in that area, they’re as un-sexy then as they are now) and runs a scanner up my hips, nodding as he verifies that the implant numbers match his data.
“Well, off we go then, hmm?” he says when he’s done and then he presses a flashing red button and I’m thrilled to bits the anesthesia works this time round as well – not like for poor Clara who was AWAKE, let me tell you, totally AWAKE during the whole process.
Six hours later I wake when someone shines a light in my eye.
“Well, well, Mrs B has come back to us,” the enervatingly chirpy male nurse says. Come to think of it, now I notice he isn’t all that young and when I give him a thorough look-over I’m not that sure it’s a he to begin with. Looks more like a she with a dismal haircut, and really, someone should tell him/her fuchsia is NOT his/her colour. I swing my rejuvenated legs out of the bed, stand and stretch. “Everything in working order?” the nurse coos.
“I think so. But I…” I break off to try out a tennis serve. “The elbow is a bit sore,” I frown. I do some toe bouncing, a couple of knee bends and finish off by adopting one of the more complex yoga postures.
Once I’ve completed the paperwork, the nurse accompanies me to the door.
“See you in a decade or so,” I say in lieu of farewell.
“Oh no, Mrs B, no, no, no. You know the rules.” She/he wags a finger at me. “Three times each, Mrs B, and then its over.” She/he fluffs at his/her hair. “No, in ten years it will be me in the pod.” He/she titters and flutters ridiculously long eyelashes at me. I want to ram something hard and sharp into his/her gut – in my opinion a very natural reaction when you’ve just been told you’re set on the narrow path ending in DEATH.

So why this fear of death? After all, it does seem relatively straightforward: we ‘re born, we live, we die. No one seems to have any issues with the being born part, but maybe that’s because we have no memories of what must be a pretty drastic experience. Quite a few have a fear of life – sadly – but the vast majority just get on with it, enjoying parts of it, shouldering on through others. And as we get older we shove the dawning realisation of impending old age and – gulp, gulp, gulp – death away from us by saying stuff like “the sixties are the new forties”. Ultimately, it doesn’t help. One day the bell will toll for everyone of us, and we have no idea where we will end up or even if we end up somewhere.

Maybe it’s just a total blank once we’re dead. Or maybe it’s not. There’s no one to ask, and taking leaps into the unknown on faith alone sits uncomfortably with most of us – at least in this day and age. And if you ask me, it’s not the being dead that scares us, it’s the process of dying that has our bowels cramping. Make it painless, please. And quick – yes, very quick.

When I die (and that is of course like in fifty years from now) I hope it is in bed and that there is a window that can be opened so that I can register the scents and sounds of bustling, heaving life. I wouldn’t mind it there was a remnant of daylight, the soft golden glow of a Nordic summer twilight. And I want someone there to ease my passing, a hand to hold on to as I begin the final fall from life. As to where I’ll end up, I’m an optimist. All that vibrant energy contained in a human soul can’t just dissipate into nothing, so something must be waiting on the other side of the great divide. I hope it’s green, rolling meadows and fluffy white lambs. I wouldn’t mind an angel choir or two, and if someone can make sure there’s tea and cake to go with it, I’ll be in total heaven.

Life is a wonderful gift. Maybe the glory of living lies in the insight that one day it’ll all come to an end. And should there be nothing after death, then maybe my ashes will suffice to make a bluebell or two grow and bloom. That’s not too bad, is it?

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