When I retired as a humanist celebrant I thought I'd stop writing this blog, but my fascination with all things death-related prompted more posts. They're just written from a slightly different perspective, that's all. Oh, and I still do the odd one, by special request.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

When love flourished in M for medical textbooks, and a story of yearning

The Observer | Review | When love flourished in M for medical textbooks

This story reminded me of a client. She was a Jew who came to England as a refugee, like the subject of the story. She was also a doctor who had to retrain before she could practice medicine here. For a while, she worked as a nurse. By the time she retired she was a senior doctor in the public health service. She married an English engineer in the 1950s and they lived in a mews house in Chelsea, where they entertained lots of cultured, artistic and lively people at frequent dinner parties. Then they commissioned a well-known architect to design a bungalow for them, in Suffolk. It was an open-plan, modern design with huge picture windows - the sort that caused a stir in the sixties. She took me to see it once. It had been empty for some time, but you could still see what had appealed to them.

They never had children. Her husband developed dementia and ended up in a nursing home, so they were separated for several years at the end of his life. I did his funeral, which was how I came to befriend her. She was crippled with arthritis and chronic asthma and living in council-owned sheltered accommodation, a tiny flat in the middle of town. Her neighbours were elderly Suffolk people, nothing like the friends they'd had in Chelsea, so they had little in common. She was desperate for stimulation and conversation so I took her out when I could, which wasn't often. A few months before she died she said, "Never grow old," with anger and frustration in her voice. She also spoke about the "yearning" some people have for something above and beyond the limitations of life. At her funeral we played "Upon Going to Sleep", the first of Richard Strauss's "Four Last Songs", which she'd chosen for her husband's funeral. It's a musical version of a Hermann Hesse poem, and one of the most beautiful pieces of music I know. If it hadn't been for my friend, I might never have discovered it. If I was a fundamentalist atheist, I'd reject it because of the reference to a soul, but I haven't, because it describes perfectly the yearning that my friend experienced in her old age and decrepitude.

Upon Going to Sleep
Hermann Hesse

Made tired by the day now,
my passionate longing
shall welcome the starry night
like a tired child.

Hands, leave all your activity,
brow, forget all thought,
for all my senses
are about to go to sleep.

And my soul, unguarded,
will float freely,
in order to live in the magic circle
of the night
deep and a thousand-fold.