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Bi Scott

A Self Portrait


              

My 18 year old daughter Adelina died of drowning on 27 July 2005 when she fell into a mountain torrent. A young Irish-Canadian, Brendan Killoran, also died when he jumped in to her rescue. Witnesses saw and heard the two terrified souls screaming for help but could do nothing for them as the river in Zermatt, swollen by summer snowmelt, is a death channel from which there is no escape. On the night of their death, the rate of flow was an exceptional 27 cubic metres per second.

This Muse portrait, written at the end of 2005, attempts to evaluate the impact of my daughter’s death by referring back to the self-portrait I had written at the start of the year, on the pristine side of this irreparable fracture.

Adelina’s ashes. By coincidence, the calendar in her bedroom showed all the relevant details for the month and year in which she died: Zermatt, dawn, water.

Heaven’s Wicket

For Adelina Scott Lin and Brendan ‘BJ’ Killoran

 
Whenever an inlet floods the imagination
specular worlds surface and submerge
somewhere … just beyond our reach.
Wonderland, Narnia, Middle Earth, Lyra’s Oxford,
Where do we go from here?
A barely perceptible aperture crouches
between one world and the next:
Heaven’s wicket.

 
What act of God propelled you through
The current’s furious maw?
When you slipped then fell into
a moment’s inattention
you’d never been happier, love and joy
surging like a mountain stream bursting its banks.
A dip of the toe – your favoured farewell – then this!
You screamed as the snowmelt swept you past
the young man. He did too! Bless him,
his own father had died of accidental drowning.
So, selflessly, he plunged in to rescue you.
Ten minutes turned eternity
Oh, the terror of that torrent!

 
Is this Kismet’s dividing line?

- Irreversibility -

This is Kismet’s dividing line.

 
Oh, the terror of that torrent
(ten minutes turned eternity)
he plunged into so selflessly to rescue you!
His own father had died of accidental drowning.
The young man (he died too, bless him),
screamed as the snowmelt swept you both past.
From a dip of the toe – your favoured farewell – into this
surging mountain stream bursting its banks.
You’d never been happier, my love and joy
– a moment’s inattention –
then you slipped and fell into
the currents furious maw!
What act of God propelled you through
Heaven’s wicket?

 
Between one world and the next,
a barely perceptible aperture crouches.
Where do we go from here - 
Wonderland, Narnia, Middle Earth, Lyra’s Oxford
somewhere … Just? Beyond our reach
Specular worlds surface and submerge
whenever an inlet floods the imagination.

 

Heaven's Wicket

Many sympathetic friends have said that they cannot imagine what it must be like to lose one’s child. We all, as parents, live in dread of such a tragedy, yet despite this shadowplay of potential loss the reality doesn’t compare with anything we might have anticipated. Imagination is both worse and better than reality. Worse because in accentuating the horror involved, imagination overlooks the buoyant joy of a life and love shared and still retained in memory. But it is also better in so far as imagination, unlike reality, has an off-switch, whereas my daughter’s absence has turned itself into an inescapable – and sometimes searing – presence.

Perhaps, paradoxically, where imagination falls furthest from reality is that it represents an attempt at understanding, yet understanding is precisely what is lacking: at the core of this experience of loss is a bewildering incomprehension. I can run through the whys and wherefores of my daughter’s death interminably and yet still suffer from a fundamental failure of comprehension.

Faith and a belief in fate would be helpful, but unfortunately they don’t speak to me. Poetry sometimes does, perhaps because it offers a more creative and celebratory response to loss than fatalism, and a more personalised one than religion allows for. 

Heaven’s Wicket is an attempt to come to grips not only with the last moments of Adelina’s and Brendan’s life, but also with the one indelible certainty of this terrible affair – the irreversibility of their death. The specular form of the poem, a form I’ve only just discovered but feel I’ve been primed for by my interest in reflections, gave me the chance to tackle several deep-felt concerns simultaneously.

The repetition of sentences turns over and over the abject terror those two young people must have experienced as they realised they were about to die, something it is hard not to obsess about…

The mirror image allowed me to explode my wishful thinking that there might be any chance of retracing one’s steps from the dividing line. Even though the sentences more or less manage to double back on themselves, the meaning does not. It is carried relentlessly forward, much as Adelina and Brendan were swept relentlessly onward to their deaths, and just as those of us whose lives have been fractured are also inevitably carried forward even though it may feel, as in my case, that the best part of me stopped dead when my daughter died.

Another pressing concern was that the English newspapers had focused on Adelina to the exclusion of Brendan Killoran, whom they referred to as ‘a young man known only as Brandon’. I was anxious to mention Brendan by his full name, and to try to shift the perspective in order to include both their stories. When his father died of drowning, Brendan apparently felt guilty because he had promised to teach him to swim but never got round to it. This background throws some light on his heroic self-sacrifice and brings him to life for me at the split instant that he jumped to his death. The four year old daughter of a friend listed all the people she knew who had died, among them Adelina and the Prince. ‘The Prince?’ I asked. ‘Yes, silly, the prince who jumped in to save Adelina!’

I feel unspeakable regret at Brendan’s death, and also anguish at the thought that Adelina might be held in some way responsible in that had she not slipped he wouldn’t have jumped.  Because I wasn’t there to protect my daughter at the end, a failure which strikes hard below the belt of reason no matter what the counter-arguments, I feel driven to protect her memory at least. While in Zermatt I spoke with Brendan’s friends and asked if they were angry. ‘At first, yes’ they answered, ‘but then we agreed that it wouldn’t bring them back and that they both deserved to be remembered with love.’ I haven’t spoken to his family yet and expect this will be the most difficult conversation I will ever have.

Finally, the big difference triggered by a small change in word order, or even in a seemingly incidental detail of punctuation, somehow reflects the ‘if only’ preoccupation that afflicts one after a preventable death: if only she had not reached to touch the water with her toes, if only it hadn’t been dark, if only she hadn’t slipped, if only I had not infused her with my own love of water, if only I had warned her, if only the torrent had not been so exceptionally strong, if only the Italian trains hadn’t been on strike forcing a one night return to Zermatt … and I keep tweaking all the small variables that would have made such a big difference to the outcome. Of all the foolish things we do in our lives, wanting to dip one’s foot in a river is surely the least ‘deserving’ of death … but logic, justice, wishful thinking and the like have no place in events even if they pervade one’s inner discourse.

That inner discourse is largely monopolised by thoughts of Adelina. I have travelled a lot since her death, and have found this helpful in allowing me to balance all the inward journeying of the last few months with actual miles covered and horizons crossed.

I have also had to attend to (too) many other matters and obligations, but no matter what the business in hand, nothing holds my attention in so sustained a fashion as my musings about my daughter. Writing a self-portrait is proving a huge challenge in that it puts the focus on me, yet I don’t feel that I figure very prominently in the story I am currently living. I would much rather be writing about Adelina and singing her praises …

         

‘How can a mermaid die of drowning?’ A friend and former au-pair asked on hearing the news.

How has my daughter’s death changed my life and outlook? Three things spring instantly to mind: people matter more, poetry matters more, and intuition matters more.

People have always been important but they are now a priority. I could not have survived without the human contact and kindness I have received. The sense of compassion and connectedness which has come from kind words and deeds, and above all from human contact, ranging from a hand held in conversation to whopping wordless hugs, has not only kept me alive but also made me more alive to the difference that individuals can – and do most emphatically – make.

Perhaps what has also changed is the directionality of friendship. Ever one to give, I was never very gracious about taking. I have now come to better appreciate the simultaneously humbling and edifying dynamic of a two-way give and take.

The consequence of people mattering more is that I am no longer willing to spend all my time working alone from the isolation of my study, as I have done in the last few years, pursuing virtual connections with people I am unlikely ever to meet and with whom I cannot build a relationship of trust, while my friendships and face to face contacts whittle away under the blade of deadlines. I am therefore cutting back on my online teaching and prioritising connections with people. The Muse, whose mission statement is all about recognising the difference each individual makes and maximising their contribution to communities, seems like a good place to start, and I will be working at the Oxford Muse as of February 2006.

I am also hoping to make more time for photography and poetry. Poetry has come to matter with a force that surprises me. In part it has to do with the ability of poetry to express multiple meanings simultaneously and thus transcend the frustratingly linear confines of everyday language. Sometimes I even wonder whether some of our most pervasive conceptual metaphors are not determined by the linearity of language. One of the misapprehensions I keep coming across is the assurance that things will get better in stages, and my grief will lessen in time. Yet the ‘life is a journey’ metaphor in which one follows the single linear path implied by these reassurances seems misleading to me. From the moment I stopped screaming at the news of Adelina’s death, I have been struck by how many emotional currents I can embrace simultaneously even when totally immersed in grief, and by how much control I seem to have in navigating them. Loss feels more like an amputation, or the irreparable crumpling of a once pristine mettle, than a dark stretch of the woods one eventually emerges from. There’s a way in which I’ll always be on my knees. 

The most powerful metaphor I have come across on loss is in Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, in which he cautions that ‘you don't come out of it like a train coming out of a tunnel, bursting . . . into sunshine’ … ‘you come out of it as a gull comes out of an oil-slick. You are tarred and feathered for life.’

It is no doubt because poetry explores alternatives and expresses the ineffable that I have found myself gravitating towards it as the only reliable source of solace when I am on my own. Poetry, like people, has the power to make a difference, and a day spent without reading a poem that ‘does it’ for me leaves me doubly forlorn. Amusingly (given the delusional dimension of this ambition), I am driven to try my hand at all the most rigorous forms that exist. Somewhere in the depths of my being I seem to be hanging on to John Donne’s belief that:

‘… if I could draw my pains
Through rhyme's vexation, I should them allay.
Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce,
For he tames it, that fetters it in verse.’

The discipline required in writing this self-portrait is proving to be a similar exercise in taming by naming. The effort is to identify what it is one wants to name in the first place! Because thoughts, especially exploratory concepts or loaded emotions, only really individuate and identify themselves as they get articulated, it’s hard for me to predict what this portrait will bring into being. Maybe that’s another reason poetry appeals to me – it gives me a sense of scouting the frontiers of language and foraging into the wilderness beyond.

Finally, intuition matters more to me now presumably because when it comes to life and death one’s instincts kick in. After a lifetime’s conditioning to give the benefit of the doubt and to overrule seemingly illogical reactions, I am now more inclined than ever to trust my gut feelings even if I can’t understand them. This may well represent the onset of old-dog prejudice, but might also usher a welcome release from the corset of reason and a finer attunement to what surrounds and sustains me. I now find myself more proactive in seeking out people I like and shying away from those who make me uncomfortable.

Despite these differences, some important continuities exist too. I still toy with categories and still feel the same drive to make things better – by rejigging categories where possible. I remember how paramount it was at Adelina’s funeral that I should somehow make the people gathered there shift their focus from loss to celebration. Building a website within weeks of her death in which Adelina’s life, and above all her love of life, was depicted through pictures was part of that same impulse to accentuate the positive. As was – and I don’t fully understand this – my compulsion to explain the circumstances of her death to Adelina while I sat alone beside her bruised and battered body, and to reassure her that nobody was angry but only desperately sorry at a farewell impulse gone so tragically wrong. Even though she was dead it was somehow imperative to let her know that she was loved.

I am also still interested in what makes people tick and in what grows under the winter snow. Perhaps with the difference that I am currently more inclined to observe and participate than to initiate. If it is true that still waters run deep, then a reverse causality may also hold: as I plumb the submerged topography of loss I do indeed feel more still on the surface. Or, to stay with the original Chinese proverb: there is much more hard graft taking place at root level than the mournful whiteness of the season might reveal, and I am now more inclined to resign myself to these natural rhythms than to harness and direct them. Perhaps that is where my currently subdued sense of self comes from? Certainly, manmade demands and deadlines don’t scream with the same stridency – more often than not I find my mind focusing on the irony rather than the urgency of the constituent morphemes of words such as ‘deadline’.

My love of language is undiminished and I continue to draw sustenance from it: axe words still ring and sink at intervals; metaphors still elude and seduce. When I wrote my first Muse portrait at the beginning of the year, the word ‘wicket’ and its Norse etymology meaning ‘inlet’ or ‘small creak’ resonated for me because at the time I was putting together a photo exhibition entitled Heaven’s Wicket which had to do with reflections and the parallel world of Oxford colleges and Oxford inspired fantasy worlds such as Wonderland, Narnia and Middle Earth. I have retained the title and the theme image for the poem because those echoes still resonate today – all the more so now that the parallel world which preoccupies me is death. Hence my current fascination for the word ‘kismet’, drawn from a Persian verb meaning ‘to divide’ and thence ‘to allot’ from which comes the notion of ‘fate’. The mixing and matching of words, etymologies and images offer me hours of reflection.

One of the ideas which I find myself returning to constantly are the various options for translating metaphors into still or moving images. Having been sent a dozen books on bereavement by a friend for Christmas (probably eleven too many!), I was struck by how difficult it is to find adequate metaphors for loss, and am now pondering a project where I collaborate with the bereaved in creating a visual expression for metaphors of loss. I’d like to reclaim the original images and free them from the patina of verbal clichės.

I also still have the same old inclination to see the funny side of life. When my son phoned me on his return from Zermatt, while I was still there waiting for the repatriation of Adelina’s body, we shared a sustained exchange in which we included all the expressions involving water that we could think of: ‘further down stream, water under the bridge, making a splash, keeping one’s head above it, a sinking feeling’ and so on, and the relief provided by this and subsequent expressions of irreverence has been hugely sustaining.

For instance, Anton introduced himself at the funeral service as ‘Adelina’s brother and now my Mum’s new favourite’ to everyone’s incredulity and my grateful amusement – a gratitude no doubt precipitated by my guilt at having, in a moment of despair, asked the heavens why they had taken from me at such short interval the two people I loved most, my father and my daughter, only to realise … oh dear … that the gathered company consisted of my son, brother, mother and ex-husband all shifting their gaze in uncomfortable silence. My blushing and rather clumsy rephrasing to ‘that is, uhm, the two people I felt most at one with’ didn’t redress my undiplomatic outburst, nor did the mitigating circumstances that we had only just arrived in Zermatt, only just identified Adelina’s body, only just glimpsed the magnitude of our loss. But Anton’s generous humour did undo the damage! (I should perhaps add that both children had on separate occasions asked me with concern what would happen when the other discovered that they were not my favourite!)

Similarly, in the weeks following the funeral, Adelina’s little half-sister entertained guests with parodies of all the music played during the service, and the other day at a family wedding, Anton and his cousins resumed their mutual teasing of each other’s performance at the funeral, to the incredulity of neighbouring dinner guests .

The ability of humour to right wrongs and turn the world on its head is something I have always loved and depended on in order to retain a sense not just of perspective but of sanity. Milan Kundera’s definition of humour is one I cherish: 

‘Humour: the divine flash that reveals the world in its moral ambiguity and man in his profound incompetence to judge others; humour, the intoxicating relativity of human things; the strange pleasure that comes of the certainty that there is no certainty.’

 
Celebrating my birthday with Anton and Adelina, November 2003

Perhaps the one emotion which I no longer experience as I once did is that irrepressible sense of lift which Adelina also shared. The day before she died she told her travel companion that she had never been happier in her life, an expression of sheer joy that she had delighted me with on a number of occasions. A few hours before she died I had the pleasure of hearing her joyful chatter about what she was up to when she phoned me from Zermatt.

Now I don’t soar as I used to except perhaps with regard to one topic – the unashamedly doting nature of my love for my children. I am so very glad that I never opted for discipline over indulgence, that I always did an extra run to drop off whatever it was that Adelina had forgotten and needed urgently, that I was always happy to taxi her, or to meet her after school for a trip to town, or – and this small favour to her ended up being the greatest gift to me in providing me with so many memories of Adelina at her happiest just days before she died – to photograph her leavers’ ball. I simply doted on my daughter and delighted in her company and am defiantly happy at being able to rekindle the glow of so many good moments lived together.

One of the most sustaining memories, no doubt because it was a daily event for so many years, is cycling with her to school in the mornings, even in her last year when she was 18 – something she feigned disdain for since no other mother, or so she claimed, would ever dream of doing so – and how she would make me turn back just before I could be seen from the school gates. But rejecting expressions of affection in the coy anticipation that more would be forthcoming was a favourite sport of Adelina’s. On those occasions when I turned back sooner, or even more rarely when I failed to accompany her at all, she would pout in mock (or perhaps not!) upset. Today I cherish every one of those morning rides up the Marston-Ferry cycle path, the way her hair blew in the wind, the way we used to turn in parallel by the playing-fields like two dolphins swimming abreast, the enlivening pulse of that lateral line connection… A few moments more in Adelina’s company was always worth the time supposedly ‘lost’ to work.

If I compare the Muse self-portrait I wrote at the start of 2005, with the one I am endeavouring to write now at the end of the year and on the painful side of loss, I am struck by two reversals. The first is that the January portrait is very much an expression of how I chose to shape my life, whereas this portrait focuses on how life is shaping me. If we see a portrait as consisting of the very individual profile which emerges at the interface between shaping and being shaped by experience, mine is morphing even as I write. Death, illness, accidents and exile are some of the life-changing things that happen to us unbidden and we are either destroyed by them or we come to deal with them. Some stoical voice in me keeps intoning ‘just deal with it’ whenever I feel anguished or unable to deliver: although I had no choice in what happened, I have the choice of whether – and up to a point of how – to carry on. Beyond what I have written here I cannot yet say how I have dealt with or will continue to deal with my daughter’s death. Some six months after the event everything is still too much in flux. I would certainly never be inclined to generalise or give prescriptions on how to cope because of the non-replicable nature of the forces at play.  I think it is this quality of uniqueness, with regard to both character and experience, which makes bereavement (and other difficult experiences) so very isolating. The image that comes to mind is of a fingerprint in which each whorl is individuated by the complementary pressures of what we have to offer and what we have to suffer.    

The second reversal is that in the January portrait I felt recategorised by the world as a result of my job status, even though nothing had changed in who I was or what I had to offer. Now I feel that although nothing has changed conspicuously in my interaction with the world, underlieingly something so central has been recalibrated that everything is altered. It is as if my life were dislocated, as if I myself had passed through a wicket gate into another world and were living a parallel existence. I am the same person engaged in the same activities, capable of the same joys, tears, hopes and fears, but I am no longer the person I had projected when imagining the future or when anticipating my grandchildren.

What I am coming to understand – still only tentatively – is that who we are at any given moment is largely predicated not only on who we were, but also on who we will be, or envisage being.

Thus this time last year I was teasingly negotiating access rights to my future grandchildren (Adelina was afraid I would spoil them, hence the rationing), and was laughingly dismissing her latest suggestion for names (Ulysses, Oedipus and Henry were outlandish and I refused to trade any access hours at all for them; Rognvald I would consider because of the Orcadian connection but wouldn’t Magnus be easier to spell?). This year that confidence in the future belongs to another life.

In one of several very meaningful discussions with my son about death, he tried to console me by suggesting that nothing really changes pragmatically for us as a result of Adelina’s death, everything ends only for her. When I mentioned grandchildren, he acknowledged that they did indeed represent a tangible difference - then added ‘but given the names she was considering, maybe it’s all for the better!’ The sentiment expressed in the last sentence of my earlier self-portrait, ‘I very much look forward to having grandchildren and would love nothing better than to become a great-grandmother’ is a wish for the future that has always defined me very strongly. Valse Triste, in which both the point of departure and of conclusion is that of a cradled infant, was written when I first became a single mother.

Valse Triste

An infant's head
asks to be loved with

An open palm

seeks to cradle
the sine curve of

A lover's gesture 

gathers movement
to release in us

An artist's hand 

draws out contours
to further contain

A hold of notions 

pauses, then pulses
into the strains of

An unphrased grasp

singles its medium
to sound out a ring: ten 

Fingers engage. 

The fashioning of intimacy
gentled by an infant's head,

Hand held.

Valse Triste

 
Now that I am exiled from my own future, I have become something of a stranger to myself. True to precedent, I feel most myself when I am focussed on the here and now – a personality trait which makes me feel at ease with children, and which, according to my son, makes mourning easier for me than for those who are temperamentally inclined to philosophise about the larger meaning of life. But where humans are concerned, the here and now is always amplified with fantasy, with projections into possible worlds. The pity is that as we grow older those possible worlds become increasingly constrained by probable and pressing futures, and by problematic pasts.

Relatively unencumbered by a concern for either past or future, my driving fantasy has always been as primal as the selfish gene has decreed – to swim in tandem with my young, and with their young in turn. That lateral line which maintained an ever-dynamic yet optimal proximity between me and Adelina as she grew up had, in typical human fashion, acquired a temporal dimension to supplement its kinesthetic function. Now the neuroblasts continue to pulse but the echoes respond only from the past.

I feel myself to be embarking on a very long refamiliarisation which will no doubt involve the rerouting of endless neural networks, not only those imprinted by Adelina as an individual over the course of our two decades of shared existence, but also those hardwired by parenthood. The latter, I suspect, are the ones that bypass rational and emotional intelligence and make the loss of a child so impossible to understand.

My failure to imagine my life, or indeed my very self, without my children comes with a small glimmer of a silver lining however: I had by the same token never anticipated the extent to which those who die live on through their legacies, and that even someone as young as Adelina could make a difference for the good because of who she was, how she lived her life, and how she influenced others. Although the evolving story of her life is denied us, it is nevertheless possible to observe the subtler effects of her legacy on my life, the lives of those she knew, and perhaps – in ever greater degrees of dilution – on further lives still. Which suggests that not all is lost.

     
Time and tide

December 2005