Is it a bit of a depressing start to this blog if I said I were simply too sad, tired and emotionally wrought to do anything else other than sit here bashing at some keys, hoping for the pain to pour out of me and onto the page? Perhaps, but it’s true. A few short days ago, my Uncle Peter, a brilliant man and a lifelong inspiration, a man who had an opinion about everything and talked incessantly, finally went quiet. He had been slipping in and out of consciousness, on pain relief drugs, as the cancer he’d been fighting for so long began to overwhelm his now frail body. Still, it didn’t dawn on me that when I spoke to him on the phone a week ago it would be the last conversation we would ever have. And even then, despite the weakness I could hear in his voice, he was still intent on not letting me get a word in edgeways. I just about managed to tell him that I loved him, before I hung up, promising to call back. I didn’t realise that, by the time I had the chance to, he would be heavily sedated and unconscious, waiting to be finally released from his suffering.
In many ways, being told that he was no longer conscious seemed to me as though he was already gone. I felt far more loss and sadness that day than I did yesterday, when my mum called to tell me that he had passed away peacefully in the early hours of the morning. By that point I felt a wave of relief, happiness even, at the news I had been dreading for the whole weekend. But, realistically, it was the news I’d been dreading ever since he was diagnosed. In this day and age, people seem to think that cancer isn’t so bad, and yes, the statistics are looking better, it is treatable and many people overcome it. But, as much as I hoped it would be the case, indeed he seemed to have got over it at one point, it somehow returned, like an act of revenge, as though almost beating it had made it angry and even more determined. Yes, I know it’s wrong to personify the illness, the imagination invests it with a power and intent that was never there, it was always the purely random mutation of cells, but that is almost worse. We humans like to ask, like to know why things happen. Random chance is beyond frightening because we can’t comprehend it.
But now it’s gone. At last. He is free, to wander the bluebell woods, drink Guinness that tastes even better than it did in Dublin, and put the world to rights with his dad, my grandad, who must have had a lonely wait these last 15 years for someone to join him on the other side. I have always felt very close to both of them, and still do, in death as much as life. It’s a warm, comforting feeling, when you know there’s always someone watching over you. As a small child, my grandad would spend hours telling me stories, teaching me about the world, how to remember the colours of the rainbow, how to break words down in order to read and write them. He was an intelligent, practical person, and I knew that whatever he said would be true and right. Uncle Peter had many of the same qualities, as well as a great sense of fun. He was my mum’s big brother, and as an older sister myself I used to love hearing stories about how he used to wind her up and tease her. To con her into doing his chores, he would use the phrase “you’ll never see what I’ll give yer!” And she never understood why she didn’t get anything from him!
As I grew up, Peter and Jane were a constant and very welcome presence in my life. When I was confused about what to study for my gcse’s, he was someone I could discuss it with at length, weighing the pros and cons of each subject, and it was Uncle Peter who convinced me that languages would be more useful than IT because it would be out of date by the time I needed to use it. How right he was. Although he wasn’t always right of course. When I started to get interested in politics, our debates could go on for hours and would have if my mum hadn’t jumped in to complain about the phone bill. We had very different views, but I at least felt that I could respect his point of view, which came from an informed position. He would probably think it quite ironic, then, that though he was no fan of the European project and told me so many times, it is because of him in a way that I am now an Official of the European Union!
I’m also not sure he knew that he inspired me to try to give up eating meat, which I managed for 5 whole years. I remember one Christmas when they came to stay, they looked so good and healthy, and more to the point they were allowed to eat fish for Christmas dinner which was unheard of before in our house! I thought, I can get away with it of they can, and I did, until an unfortunate incident at a barbecue when I fell off the wagon…
Perhaps people don’t always realise the ways in which they have shaped your life. I’m not sure Uncle Peter knew this, and I wish I’d had the opportunity to tell him before he went. He taught me to question, to challenge, and to aim higher because anything is possible. It was in this spirit of positivity and determination that he took up the fight against his illness. For a long time, Uncle Peter was winning. I started to hope, to believe that he could beat it through the sheer force of his will, or maybe he could wear it down by arguing with it until it gave in. Sadly, in the end, the cancer rallied, like a savage coup, massing it’s allies, and eventually drowning out all protest.
I still find it hard to believe that I won’t see him again, or that I won’t be able to call him to debate the future of Europe. Well, not physically, but I know that I will always think about what he would have said, and I feel sure that the answer will come as though he were talking to me on the phone. I said this to a good friend of mine, who sent me a poem which put this thought across beautifully and far more eloquently than I could myself.
Bye for now Uncle Peter, rest in peace, though I know really you’re only in the next room.
Death is nothing at all
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.
All is well.
Henry Scott Holland