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Sympathies

1

He was never much more than an acquaintance, but his devastation at a funeral we both attended left me moved. Afterwards I wondered why it happened to be the look on David’s face that caused me such distress and not the stunned look of the mother that buried her son, or the girlfriend who had lost her life partner long before she could possibly have anticipated doing so as Graham came into the kitchen one afternoon, gripped the table with one hand and his heart with the other, and collapsed on the floor. The person who died I didn’t know very well at all. He was a writer in residence in adult education, and I was one of the tutors in the psychology department. I had sent students to Graham Caulfield on a few occasions, and met him once in the tea room, nodding in that odd way where neither of us were sure whether we were acknowledging a stranger or a colleague. It rested I presumed on no more than a look, with nothing behind it.

Yet based on that brief exchange I liked Graham, and so it seemed did everyone else. Whenever I announced that students could go and see him if they had any problems with their essay plan, those who had talked to him before would say how helpful he had been. When I handed out flyers announcing that the writer-in-residence would be reading stories from his latest collection, people would rarely say what a great writer he was (though he was by most people’s reckoning a very good one), but what a wonderful person he happened to be. The tributes at the funeral seemed like no more than an extension of the praise he would have received when he was alive, and I thought back to my father’s funeral, with the priest admitting that, for all his qualities, he could be a difficult man. I admired the priest’s frankness – before the event I anticipated an undeserved eulogy. Afterwards I shook his hand and said that I respected his remarks. He replied, saying he now respected my gratitude. Yet I never felt good about that handshake, while knowing that it was an honest exchange between two people refusing the hypocritical.

2

I knew David through a couple of much closer friends, and about a year before Graham’s funeral, his own father had passed away, and he seemed more than usually pensive when he came back to Edinburgh after attending his father’s burial in London. David was, like me, in his mid-thirties, and he was someone for whom a serious conversation wasn’t something that he scorned but was neither for the given moment either. I knew many people who laughed at taking anything seriously; and a small number who would seek out serious discussion. But David would sometimes come up to me and say that we had to talk sometime. He was a filmmaker who had finished a post-grad course in cognitivism and cinema, and knew that I was suspicious of some of the claims they were making over both psychology (which was of course my profession) and cinema, which was more than a hobby – one of the courses I taught in the Office of Lifelong Learning was psychology and film. Often when a group of us were out, after a few drinks he would come up to me and say we needed to chat sometime, but this didn’t mean we should talk at that moment; no it would always be in the future. However, that evening, not long after he returned from his father’s funeral, he didn’t say that we needed to talk, he just started talking. As we chatted about his liking for seeing film cognitively, and why I didn’t, so he expressed well the reasons why it was useful for a filmmaker to understand the way an audience’s brain works, and so I proposed it was more useful if the audience remains as manifold as possible. He admitted that he saw cognitivism as a working hypothesis, and knew of others who viewed it almost evangelically, and I replied that I needed to be more tentative in my own dismissals. It was a good discussion, and at one moment I asked him why after always threatening to have this conversation we were having it at that moment. He replied that he wanted to stop procrastinating. His father’s death made him aware that we can’t make promises about tomorrow, and had to live for the day. It sounds facile when I repeat it, but it was said with an expression of purpose, and I didn’t doubt that since his father had died he had put it into practise, evident in the talk we were having. Where before his father’s death he was usually looking for the next party, frustrated with the social situation he happened to be in, within months of it he had started seeing someone whom he had no problem telling friends was his girlfriend, where before they were always people he was seeing or lovers. If he started sleeping with one woman he would then try and find another, as if afraid that the first would take the relationship more seriously than he could countenance. He was never underhand about this, and anybody he was seeing knew that it was not a monogamous affair. But in the year between his father’s death and Graham’s, on the eight or nine occasions I would see him, he would either stop and chat for as long as either of us had time, or would be with his girlfriend, to whom he was attentive and considerate. He seemed keen not only to live in the moment, but intensify it, giving it as much meaning as it could contain.

3

I half-envied David this capacity. I suppose I was neither as frivolous as he happened to be before my father’s death, but neither did I become much more serious after it. I always wanted to live with intensity but without responsibility, and my father’s death gave me that chance. My mother and my brother died in a plane crash many years ago, when I was nine, and I won’t talk much about it here except to say that the circumstances of the crash was in the news for many years afterwards. That left my father and me alone, living in a town between Edinburgh and Glasgow, and when I left school at seventeen I did my degree in the former city and then moved to the latter. I knew my father was a difficult man before he lost his wife and son, but he was much more so afterwards. He could turn on people in the bar, and threaten them as though they had just killed his dog, when all they might have done was pass by him too closely for his liking. He would swear at barmen when they said he’d had enough to drink, and would never say please or thank you. I have memories where he was curt with my mother, and, frequently threaten my brother and I with a cuff round the ear which was nevertheless rarely given. But he was no more violent after their death, really, only more threateningly abusive. His bark was louder than his bite, I overheard somebody once say of him, before adding that it sounded like the bark of a dog that wants to be put out of its misery. He died when I was thirty, and if it wasn’t quite suicide, it was a slow version of it. He was told to stop drinking and chose to drink even more. Shortly before his death, knowing that he didn’t have long to live, he said to me at least this way he wouldn’t have to bury another son.

4

I had wondered if after his death I would find that the freedom I sought would disappear as the obligation towards my father went and a feeling of isolation overtake me. I was alone in the world, with no relatives I was close to (my father had alienated them all), and no long-term girlfriend in my life. Yet I felt relieved in my solitude. I was on a good income, and sold my father’s ex-council house and paid off most of my mortgage. I had lovers and I had friends, a job I enjoyed, and, as well as working as a psychologist during the day, I taught the evening classes in adult education once or twice a term as well. Visiting my father once a week for years, even though he got no pleasure from my company, and I got no pleasure from his, thus felt like visiting a loved one who’d been put inside for a crime he deserved to be punished for, and the visit was offered with no enthusiasm on my part, but only with a sense of duty. I no longer visited prison, and was freed from my own.

When I saw David moved at Graham’s funeral I knew of course it was because they had become close friends, as if Graham had also become part of David’s determination to make meaning. David had adapted one of Graham’s short stories the previous year and had been working on another, and they’d both worked on the script. However, that didn’t quite explain why I happened to be moved, and it made me think again of the conversation David and I had that evening in the pub. David said that though his mother was still alive, that he saw his brother and sister occasionally, he could feel that his family was slipping away from him. Imagine a family photo he said, and as we get older each time we look at the picture your image becomes more vivid, but everyone else’s become less distinct, with some no longer in the photo at all. He thought he needed to take a new picture; that he knew he wanted to get married and have children, even if it sounded absurd considering he had no regular partner. Even the conversation he was having with me, though, was part of filling in the picture.

As I’ve said, David was no more than an acquaintance, and I took his remark to mean that while I wouldn’t become one of his good friends, the notion of friendship had taken on much more significance for him after his father’s demise. The next time I saw him a couple of months later he was seeing someone, and by the time of Graham’s funeral they were engaged. I would think about David’s idea of the photo whenever I would see him, and tried to find for myself an image to match it, an image that would speak as strongly for me as the fading photograh replaced spoke to him. What I managed was an image of a hut in the Highlands, half way up a narrow path road, surrounded by trees and with a brook running down the hill nearby. The inside of the hut consisted of a shower/toilet room, and the rest was one space, with a single bed, a desk and a chair, a shelf of books, a radio, and a cooker with a sink next to it. Sometimes when I thought of this image it would leave me feeling calm; other times anxious as I wondered why I couldn’t imagine someone else in the scenario. Over time I modified the image and the hut was around fifteen miles from the city. It was still isolated but within cycling distance to the work I continued doing for Lifelong Learning and that was my only income. I would teach two classes a day, twice a week, and earn around £11,000 and would live off the income comfortably. These additional details alleviated the anxiety.

5

It was an image I had in my mind for months, but it was as though seeing David’s look of grief at Graham’s funeral displaced it. Over the next few weeks I would sometimes feel emotional when listening to clients, and the notions I was teaching seemed suddenly to be pertinent to my own life as much as to the class I was taking. As I talked to the students about terms like denial and displacement, I wondered how much I had been practising them myself. As the class was devoted to Ego Defence Mechanisms, so I explained that denial was a primitive response that can distort our relationship with reality; refusing to acknowledge feelings of love towards another, we reshape our world around this unacknowledged feeling. Intellectualization would help a person to keep anxiety in check by viewing events in cold and abstract terms. I had taught these ideas many times, and took some of them more seriously than others, but the words had never been close to me emotionally, just as the clients’ problems had been their problems and not at all mine. That morning at the funeral however I managed to create a no man’s land that couldn’t quite be located in any one person but instead in a place between people, and it was in this space that so much flooded in. When one client talked about problems he would have with his father, my own memories would mingle with his recollections, and I showed a compassion with the patient that was maybe too close to retreating from his story and conjuring up my own. When he saw that I looked more distressed than usual he assumed it was through the vividness in the telling and continued the story where on other occasions, seeing my reaction was no more than sympathetic, he would stop. As he became increasingly immersed in recalling his father’s moods, so I became increasingly absorbed in recalling my own father’s. Yet by the end of the session I could see he had made more progress in one week than in the previous two months. He wasn’t wrong to feel this; just that he couldn’t have realized that his story was on occasion becoming irrelevant next to mine. In the following weeks this happened with several patients, and again they thought they were making much progress, either verbally expressing such a belief, or illustrating it in their body language as they left.

6

During this time I could not hold on to the image of the hut, and, whenever I would think of it, other thoughts would trespass on this private space. It might be the look David offered at the funeral, the conversation that we had, a story a client told me, or a moment where I would remember my brother, my mother or my father.  I couldn’t escape the feelings of other people, and my imagination kept conjuring up              images not of my own solitude, but other people’s pain, suffering, and weakness. I recalled an image from when I was around seven where my mother was ironing some shirts in the kitchen and my father came in, took one of the shirts from where they were hanging on a hook behind the door, saw a hint of a crease in it and insisted that she do it again. As she did so I saw him hovering behind her, and I was frightened for both of them as she re-ironed the shirt, worried that at any moment my mother would receive a slap round the back of the head, but also thinking that she might retaliate by clobbering him with the iron. I remember rushing out of the house as if my thoughts would create the action were I to stay.

It was with this type of feeling that I would see clients, teach my courses and try and sleep: this sense that my imaginative faculties were no longer in my control, and could leap like electrons from place to place. It was as though I had lost the emotional equivalent of that faculty atoms have to hold themselves together, to be contained by what physicists would call a strong force. Some protective substance had dissolved. I could disappear back into my childhood with the most minor of prompts, and relive the experience with many of the same feelings. Once or twice I caught myself wincing, as I crouched as my father’s open hand came towards me ready to offer a slap. On another occasion I was listening to a client: as he talked of a feeling of abandonment when his mother went away for a long weekend when he was six, I shivered with the memory of seeing my mother’s coffin, and my brother’s smaller one.

Throughout, I always retained enough control over if not the memories then the social situations in which they would sometimes appear. The clients would have taken my reactions to be responses to their stories, not memories of my own. My students would have assumed that the case studies I would offer were moving me rather than any similarities I happened to be seeing with my childhood. A lover I took home one evening thought I was one of the most sensitive men she had known. As she told me of an incident when she was six, my mind located a similar memory from my childhood as I swallowed to prevent the tears. She smiled and said she wasn’t used to men showing such feeling, especially with a woman they hardly knew. I replied that I hardly knew myself recently, and she put her arm round me not like the casual lover she was, but a mother holding her son. I did not see her again, but I couldn’t easily forget how comfortable she was offering much more than the intimacy of a one-night stand. She went back to the States the following day (I had met her at a conference that weekend), and after a few email exchanges we no longer remained in contact. I thought of her not as a special person at all, but a normal one, someone capable of feeling automatically and unreservedly. She saw in my vulnerability I assumed a compassion that was a shared feeling with another human being, not a prompt for her own memories. I had moved from someone incapable of that compassion no matter the competence with which I practised my profession, to someone who saw never ending instances of others’ pain and vulnerability reflecting my own.

This continued for another couple of months, until one Saturday afternoon while sitting in a coffee shop off Princes Street I noticed David coming in with his girlfriend. He came over and said hi as I saw his girlfriend waving at a couple of friends, and as he was moving towards me I was reminded strongly of the moment at the funeral, and he saw that I seemed vulnerable. He asked how I was and then added that if I could give him a moment he would be right back. He went across to the counter, spoke briefly with his girlfriend, and then returned to my table. A couple of minutes after, his girlfriend came over with his drink, and said that we could join them whenever we were ready. As she said this she didn’t look at me at all, and didn’t introduce herself; yet this wasn’t, it seemed, out of impoliteness, but instead out of sensitivity to the situation. She appeared to acknowledge my presence without violating my privacy. David must have said he needed to talk to me alone, and she understood that this meant respecting me without entirely acknowledging or ignoring my existence.

As he asked if I was okay, I announced that I hadn’t quite felt comfortable with myself since Graham’s funeral, adding there was a look he gave me that morning for some reason I couldn’t quite get over. As I explained to him that it was not the look on Graham’s mother or girlfriend ‘s face that devastated me, but one on his own, I added that while I wasn’t one to believe in telepathy, I did wonder what strange transmission had taken place that day. I added that ever since it was as though the slightest sign would take me back into my personal history, and the most casual remark would make me feel like I was being tossed into a childhood I couldn’t quite comprehend. I looked across at his fiancee and the friends she was sitting with across on the other side of the cafe, and said that this was hardly the time to burden him with my thoughts. He insisted it was fine; they were taking a break from shopping, and he could stay here while the three of them continued going round the shops. He asked for a moment, and went over the others, said a few words to the friends, gave his partner a kiss, and came back. He just asked Carina to send him a text when they were finished, he offered. I wondered what he had said to them: there was a fragile lonely psychologist who needed a taste of his own medicine, or was I a friend he hadn’t seen for a while and wanted to chat with?

I suspect he offered the latter, but that Carina knew it was the former. I found I could use her name easily, with that gesture of consideration earlier defining some aspect that deserved a name. I’ve always had difficulty remembering people’s names when I first meet them because I feel the name has been offered too soon. I have no detail to hang on them, only the name their parents have presumably given them, and later when trying to describe them to someone else, while the name is hard to remember, the gestures, the movements, the clothes, the hair, the eyes that support this nominal figure I can often vividly recall. A few minutes after David had returned, Carina and her friends left, with Carina waving over to us, and giving me a look that indicated she didn’t at all mind that I’d waylaid her boyfriend on a Saturday afternoon.

7

David wondered whether it was a form of telepathy that we practised after I talked to him that afternoon about the loss of my mother and brother many years earlier, and my father’s death also. He said that one reason why he looked distraught at Graham’s funeral was because, a year or two before his father died, when he was still in good health, his father said the one thing he hoped he would never have to do was bury one of his children. David knew that his father’s brother had done exactly that, when his brother was in his mid-twenties and the child three, and the death had left a blank space inside him, as though the world could only be met with a delay. He had other children that filled his life, but none that filled the excavated part of himself. That was how David described it to me, and while I couldn’t say that the image he offered matched my father’s reaction to the loss of my mother and brother, I understood it as a reflection presumably of his uncle’s personality. David said that like his father, his uncle was a gentle man, and admitted that the way I described my father indicated that he wasn’t, probably never had been. I concurred, adding that the image which came to mind, when I thought of my father and his loss, was of someone with acid in his stomach that slowly eroded his gut. Everything was an irritation, and if David’s uncle reacted to everything with a delay, my father acted with anticipation. He seemed to look for things that would irritate him, and always found them. Whether it was something he ate or something he heard, something he touched, or something he saw, existence was a source of endless exasperation.

David admitted as I talked to him that he had known a little bit about my life, ever since the conversation we’d had that evening where we first talked properly. A couple of days afterwards he met someone we both knew better than we knew each other; and David had asked a few questions about me. The friend we had in common said that I’d suffered a few more of life’s losses than most, and didn’t think I would mind if David knew a little about them. Since his father’s death David had talked a lot with friends about their parents, and when he asked this friend about me, David said that he saw in me someone so self-contained and yet also somehow so isolated. The friend explained why that might be so.

David offered me this a little guiltily, feeling like he had been talking behind my back, yet I said to him there is backbiting and there is  also the gossip that comes from compassion: where we go behind someone’s back not so that we can judge and condemn them, but so that we can understand a little better who they are and where they are coming from. I appreciated his interest, and appreciated no less the friend’s willingness to talk about me with what I knew would have been understanding. What David suspected I saw in that look he had given me was an acknowledgement of my pain and not only the pain he felt towards Graham’s family. Graham’s mother had buried a son; his girlfriend had buried a lover, but he knew as he looked across at me that I had buried my whole family. As he said this, his voice gently cracked, and his eyes beseechingly searched mine, wondering if what he had said was out of place or succinctly appropriate. It was the latter; but I don’t think I would have couched it in such blunt terms, but the bluntness was required. I had buried my entire family. I was moved yet not at all perturbed by David’s remark, and unlike the numerous indirect comments in recent months that had thrown me in and out of my feelings, David’s helped solidify the self that I sometimes thought had turned to liquid. Moments afterwards, David received a text; Carina was asking if she could come up. I said that it would be lovely to meet her. He texted her back, and a couple of minutes later she arrived. Their demonstrations of affection towards each other were small but telling, with each gesture indicating a world of intimacy and consideration. I knew that I had never managed to offer such gestures to anyone I have ever gone out with, even though I have on several occasions received them.

David and Carina said they were going to dinner if I wanted to join them, and I said that it was lovely of them to invite me, but that I should get home. While I felt sure my company wouldn’t have been wearisome, I believed it was better that I would be the topic of conversation for twenty minutes, than part of its avoidance for a couple of hours. I thought this neither with paranoia nor egotism, but with the vague warmth that people cared, whether it happened to be about me or someone else. I don’t think I’ve acknowledged that very much in my life, even if I’ve never found the world the caustic place my father did. As I walked home I thought about that look David offered at the funeral, and why it made sense that it moved me more than the look on the mother and the girlfriend’s face. They were understandably oblivious to my own hardened pain, and focused on their own weakening centres. But David was aware of pain in various manifestations that day, and the look I caught directed at me was his moment of showing concern for mine. I thought also of his image, of the fading picture with him vivid within it, and my image of the small hut. I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to keep that picture as it was, or fill it with other lives, but at that moment it seemed like a vista of choice rather than the claustrophobia of emptiness. I felt, perhaps temporarily, safe.

I thought again of Graham, the fondness with which others would talk of him before and after his death, of the mother and girlfriend’s loss, and of the fact that I’d never read anything Graham had written, even though I’d bought  a copy of his final story collection a few days after the funeral, as if paying my respects. Reading through a few stories that evening I came across one that contained a passage very similar to the moment where I saw him in the kitchen but I didn’t quite acknowledge his presence and he didn’t quite acknowledge mine. In the story, the first person narrator in the kitchen is sharing it with a tutor whom he knows to see, and by reputation, but doesn’t quite find the wherewithal to start a conversation. I was touched reading the passage, and was also gently amused as I laughed lightly, believing that telepathy can take many forms, as if Graham were finally talking to me, but from beyond the grave, from a mausoleum of many rooms that often goes by the name of literature. On my father’s death I found no letters, notebooks, diaries: nothing that told me how he felt in the years he lived as if he had already died, and all I had to look at were photos that left me the living thing in a tableau of death. Graham’s story suggested fluidity between the two worlds.

I wondered if the dead can get in touch with the living whether it would be possible for the living to be in touch with the dead. I thought again of the priest’s comment and the idea that my father was a difficult man, and of the unease I felt that day. The priest’s remark was not at all hypocritical, but perhaps my feeling troubled by what he said lay in my inability to offer anything more substantially positive in response. Perhaps if I had, maybe if I still can, then I will find an image to match David’s. It would be an image not of anxious solitude, but of wary acknowledgement, a feeling that I exist because others have existed, however painfully my father undeniably lived his life and unavoidably occupied mine. Those two glances, David’s at the funeral and Graham’s in the kitchen, carried a comprehension beyond their own experience, and I wonder if my clients might be able to see as I look at them a fellow feeling that is neither professionally dutiful, nor quietly autobiographical, but a look of fellow feeling. It needs to be, however, a compassion that goes beyond their feelings and mine, and absorbs a place somehow occupied by both the living and the dead.

 

©Tony McKibbin