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Four Hours


Four hours. How was it four hours? Time swirling loose around us as we talked and laughed; tears springing to eyes from emotion high and low. One woman just in her 30s, one just in her 50s, death rendering all chronological difference inconsequential. Two fragile creatures making sense of life together through death.

I remember when my babies were born, those first forays out into the world after the early intense days of obsessive attention to one fragile and impossibly new creature. The new little unit suddenly out in the world, at once in and apart. Marvelling that the world of other people was unfolding around oblivious to the momentousness of our unfolding. It felt like that sitting there with her in that café as we rolled around our stories with each other – making sense, making safe, making community. Attention occasionally drawn by a pause or a noise to the rest of the room. The unhappy looking woman alone at a table, her pile of papers and pot of tea vying for space and attention, her eyes wandering to the window and the world outside. The group of young women with babies, each juggling attention between food, infants and each other. The older couple sharing food and intimacy, a stroke along shoulders as one left the other for a moment to survey the cakes.

Was death on their minds? Would they value a chance to join our discussion about the sharp joy that facing death and illness brings? Would care pathways and euthanasia and incontinence be things they’d like to explore with laughs and occasional outbursts of frustrated indignation at the lack of wit in our fellow man that condemns us to a lack of choice at that most precious final moment? Would they have imagined, looking at us, what depths of intensity we were diving into? Could they imagine how joyful and powerful it is to find someone to talk with of all this – freely and unafraid?

And us, would we have known in those past occasional encounters that one day we would find this camaraderie? I’m not a mystical thinker – life everyday is intensely magical enough for me. But as we sat there it was hard not to feel the threads of chance that drew us to this comfortable and rewarding exchange, differences fading as the similarities between us were drawn sharper into relief by the bond of death’s presence in our lives. Two watchers, believers in the power of disruptive thinking, practitioners in the arts of the examined life. Two women whose lives have been committed to the idea that ‘this can be better’. Two women who will go into that dark night gulping furiously at every moment of happiness and joy life gifts us.

Those fours hours led us with gentle good humour to a new commonality, for now we were two women discovering a mutual belief that the dying should be nurtured through that journey with as much humanity as they were through their birth. Two women marvelling that somehow our sense of joyous wonder at life has led us to a feel a sense of joyous wonder at death. Two women joined by the idea that embracing the preciousness of life makes no sense if we do not embrace the preciousness of death. Two lives made meaningful through the idea that holding the dying gently and with dignity is the ultimate measure of our humanity. Two women sharing the knowledge that our joy and love of life must find its place in our death.

Fours hours. How was it four hours?

The Difference Lived


TWO roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;

Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,

And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden black.
Oh, I kept the first for another day!
Yet knowing how way leads on to way,
I doubted if I should ever come back.

I shall be telling this with a sigh
Somewhere ages and ages hence:
Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—
I took the one less traveled by,
And that has made all the difference.

– Robert Frost, The Road Not Taken


After a hectic few weeks of work, a short pause before the next round of (fascinating, challenging, exciting, infuriating, whirlwind) days without enough hours, hours without enough minutes, and lists extending in every direction beyond the notebooks and devices insinuating a done-ness ever destined to be just round the next corner.

Of course we restless, rootless, over stimulated creatures of the regimented days and flickering screens will always make sure a pause is filled quickly. Though at least its filled with time for music and words, idle chatter and clouds, and lazy whiles away-ed in bed or café or cinema.

Time now for thoughts to wander more leisurely around life’s endless parade of what ifs and if whats, of this-es and thats, of heres or theres. Although of course ironically in the more languorous time lurks the spectre of rumination. The undistracted mind can quickly turn the parade from orderly procession to ear shattering cacophony of choice and decision. Poetry is always close to hand at such times.

I read Frost’s The Road Not Taken as a teenager first. Every road was untaken then. Every road, like the end of the to do list now, permanently just around the corner. A friend who read it at the same time found it thrilling and exciting. I’m not sure why, but I felt afraid to say it made me feel sad. I wasn’t as convinced that the difference had been a good one. There was something melancholy about this wanderer. Perhaps it was my anxiety about the life about to be lived that shaded Frost’s roads for me from glittering Kodak summer plains to misty autumnal forests.

Now, so many years later, so many roads taken and untaken, the melancholy hovers still but more welcome this time. Somehow there’s comfort in the knowledge that roads untaken are simply the by product of a life lived. The untaken road the signifier of the taken. Without journeying, without turning point decisions reached, no differences good or bad would have been made. But unlike Yeat’s Irish airman foreseeing his death, Frost’s wanderer feels less defeated than resolved, less nihilistic than accepting, less doomed than hopeful.

Roads diverge, that’s their nature. We wanderer’s stand and ruminate and then we take. That’s our nature. It’s not the taken-ness of the roads that will matter at the end really. It’s the difference lived.



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