Their glass-bottomed boats


Today would have been the first birthday of my second cousin, who died as a baby in a tragic accident last year, aged just four months old.  His birth, after a roller-coaster year, brought enormous joy and his sudden death still, disbelief.   What should have been a day of fun and celebration is one of heartache, especially for his lovely parents and his grandmother, my aunt.  Such anniversaries, although they are ‘only numbers’ are somehow felt viscerally, or perhaps even more at a cellular level.  It’s a date that for a small group of us will now always be remembered as the day that would have been Monte’s birthday.

Today though, is a radiant day. The sky in Canterbury is a flat matt blue.  Sheets hung on the line this morning dried in a couple of hours and are scented with what I might call spring. I walked with the dog in the woods and my boots were as free from mud as when I set out – a first in many months.  The snowdrops are still massed in the garden but there’s also a crocus and some daffodils. The magnolia is bursting with buds.  And yet, the whole day, my mood, my thoughts, my every cell, have been washed in a tint of loss, nostalgia, mystery, grief, sorrow and wonder.

The baby died ‘unsullied by life’ to quote a priest friend of mine.  And somehow ‘unsullied’ is a good word to describe this immaculate spring day. Blean Woods were even unsullied by spring – the oaks and sweet chestnuts not showing a single sign of coming into leaf and there was only a hint of bluebells and ransomes under the fallen leaves.  Their bare branches were sculpturally magnificent against the blank blue sky and the canvas of the land was painted in shades of grey and brown with hardly a hint of green.  A jay flying across the path provided a flash of colour.  I’ve yet to see the woodpecker in my garden but he’s there, rat-a-tat-tatting every morning and just now, entering the garage, a tortoiseshell butterfly sleepily flapped past me.

So what poem do I go to?  I certainly don’t want chicken soup but something light, in the best sense, that conveys a poignant mixture of beauty and sadness.  Billy Collins  has a poem ‘The Dead’  which is reproduced on many blogs, including here in series of comments and poems contributed to USA Today after 9/11 by the five then most recent US Poet Laureates.

Why do I like this poem?  It’s comforting, even slightly twee, the references to sandwiches and shoelaces are ways of reminding us how trivial, yet wonderful, ordinary life is.  And there’s the implicit rhythm of lazily rowing down a river, the promise of long days and pleasures of lying in summer grass.  The poem’s paradoxical too – we usually associate the closing of eyes with the living watching the dead, yet in this poem it is us who are being watched going to sleep by those who’ve gone before us.  And who of us knows how many more times we’ll awaken?