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Advice from My Father

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‘How am I? Kind of you to ask, dear boy,’ bellowed my father from Australia. He belonged to a generation that believed it was necessary to shout in order to make yourself heard on the telephone. ‘I am all right, under the circumstances.’

‘What circumstances?’ I roared back. The habit was infectious.

‘The loss of Angela. It is a blow, to be frank. I miss her dreadfully.’

‘I’m so sorry, Dad. When did she die?’ I struggled to place her.

Was she the remarkably attractive single mother of about my own age? Or the secretary with whom he ‘canoodled’ every afternoon on his office couch? Or the woman he sometimes went to stay with in Sydney? As his primary mistress, Louise, informed me repeatedly in a voice tinged more with pride than jealousy: ‘Your father may be nearly 80, but he is still a vigorous man. A very, very vigorous man.’

‘Who said she was dead? She has gone to live in Canada. I am reading A Grief Observed by that ass C. S. Lewis, to comfort myself. I suppose you have read the Narnia series?’

‘Yes. Years ago. I quite enjoyed them.’

‘I’m sorry to hear you say that. Shows a lack of literary judgement on your part, even if you were only a child at the time. Everything he wrote was total bilge. Apart, that is to say, from A Grief Observed. The man was a genius when it came to describing grief. I have to give him that. If you are coming to terms with a serious loss – as I am – you can’t beat A Grief Observed. You should read it.’

‘Yes. I will,’ I yelled enthusiastically, not meaning it. I never followed my father’s advice on principle and, anyway, I knew that the next time we spoke he would have forgotten our conversation. As I did, until he died and I found his own, well-thumbed edition in amongst a box of b

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‘How am I? Kind of you to ask, dear boy,’ bellowed my father from Australia. He belonged to a generation that believed it was necessary to shout in order to make yourself heard on the telephone. ‘I am all right, under the circumstances.’

‘What circumstances?’ I roared back. The habit was infectious. ‘The loss of Angela. It is a blow, to be frank. I miss her dreadfully.’ ‘I’m so sorry, Dad. When did she die?’ I struggled to place her. Was she the remarkably attractive single mother of about my own age? Or the secretary with whom he ‘canoodled’ every afternoon on his office couch? Or the woman he sometimes went to stay with in Sydney? As his primary mistress, Louise, informed me repeatedly in a voice tinged more with pride than jealousy: ‘Your father may be nearly 80, but he is still a vigorous man. A very, very vigorous man.’ ‘Who said she was dead? She has gone to live in Canada. I am reading A Grief Observed by that ass C. S. Lewis, to comfort myself. I suppose you have read the Narnia series?’ ‘Yes. Years ago. I quite enjoyed them.’ ‘I’m sorry to hear you say that. Shows a lack of literary judgement on your part, even if you were only a child at the time. Everything he wrote was total bilge. Apart, that is to say, from A Grief Observed. The man was a genius when it came to describing grief. I have to give him that. If you are coming to terms with a serious loss – as I am – you can’t beat A Grief Observed. You should read it.’ ‘Yes. I will,’ I yelled enthusiastically, not meaning it. I never followed my father’s advice on principle and, anyway, I knew that the next time we spoke he would have forgotten our conversation. As I did, until he died and I found his own, well-thumbed edition in amongst a box of books he had specifically left for me. A Grief Observed is just that. With the precision of a pathologist performing a difficult autopsy, Lewis meticulously dissects his emotions after the death of his wife, Helen. Every thought, every sensation, is noted and analysed as he tries to come to terms with his loss. He leaves nothing out – his anger, fear, disbelief, despair, misery, self-pity and, eventually, grudging acceptance – yet the book runs to just four short chapters. It is as if he has distilled his grief into a concentrated, written form. He achieves this by the use of sparse, almost clinical language:
At first I was very afraid of going to places where H and I had been happy – our favourite pub, our favourite wood. But I decided to do it at once – like sending a pilot up again as soon as possible after he’s had a crash. Unexpectedly, it makes no difference. Her absence is no more emphatic in those places than anywhere else. It’s not local at all.
Not that there is anything dispassionate about his writing:
Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears.
Indeed, in places it reads like poetry:
Slowly, quietly, like snowflakes – like the small flakes that come when it is going to snow all night – little flakes of me, my impressions, my selections, are settling down on the image of her.
Nor does he shrink from brutal self-criticism:
From the way I have been talking anyone would think H’s death mattered chiefly for its effect on myself. Her point of view seems to have dropped out of sight.
He excels, too, at describing the endless surprise one feels during the mourning process:
How often – will it be for always – will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss until this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again. They say ‘The coward dies many times’; so does the beloved. Didn’t the eagle find a fresh liver to tear in Prometheus every time it dined?
A Grief Observed is more than a lament. Helen’s premature death from cancer forced Lewis to re-evaluate his religious convictions. This gives the book an unexpected sub-plot: will the author be able to reconcile his faith with the terrible tragedy that has befallen him? With a remarkably light touch he also tackles other philosophical questions. ‘From the rational point of view,’ he asks, ‘what new factor has H’s death introduced into the problem of the universe?’ As it happens, shortly before her death, my mother – mourning the end of a long-standing affair – urged me to read a book which she said had brought her great comfort: Elizabeth Smart’s By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept. Her recommendation epitomizes the difference between my parents. By Grand Central Station, like A Grief Observed, is a short, powerful, supremely well-written book about bereavement. Smart, however, is passionate and despairing, whereas Lewis is analytical and optimistic. Which is why I only wish I had taken my father’s advice sooner.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 2 © Jonathan Self 2004


About the contributor

Jonathan Self is a writer and publisher. His autobiography, Self Abuse, includes lengthier descriptions of his parents and also deals with the loss of his children.

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