There are times when a word or expression we use all the time comes alive for us, and from being a worn pebble that we pass over without thinking turns to a jewel that holds the eye. Seamus Heaney has a fine poem about such a moment, called The Shipping Forecast. It is a sonnet, and this is the concluding sestet:
L’Etoile, Le Guillemot, La Belle Hélène
Nursed their bright names this morning in the bay
That toiled like mortar. It was marvellous
And actual, I said out loud, ‘A haven,’
The word deepening, clearing, like the sky
Elsewhere on Minches, Cromarty, The Faroes.
It was only in grief that I realised the full sense in which we use the word ‘miss’ when we speak of ‘missing someone’. When my father died, aged 93, an odd parallel occurred to me. I remembered our old cat, Tinkerbelle, who had also died full of years, and how for some time after she was gone I maintained the habit of checking behind me to see if she was there when I closed a door, or surveying the kitchen before I left to see if any food (butter especially, which she liked to lick) was vulnerable to attack – gestures which no longer had a purpose, and served only to remind me that the object of them was gone.
I experienced something very similar with my father: time and again I would come on something that would make me think ‘Pad would like that’ and I would store it away for the next phone call; or in relation to some question that needed resolved – and what a fund of particular knowledge is lost when a person dies! – I’d think ‘I must ask Pad’ – only to realise, with a little stab, that he was no longer around to ask. I was missing him, in a simple, literal sense – I would turn to where he ought to be and find him gone.
In losing their original purpose, these movements acquire a new meaning: they become memorials, moments of bittersweet recollection when we smile at the remembrance but grieve at the absence that it reinforces – and how many such moments there are! It is brought home to you how closely your lives intersected, at how many points you were connected, so that now you have a sense of something ripped away, leaving the fabric torn and ragged: you know now what people mean when they say ‘I miss him at every turn.’
That is how it is with Patrick: he has torn himself away leaving so many ragged points and I miss him at every turn.