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?


  1. opsimathpoet March 6, 2013 at 8:46 am

    I liked the Billy Collins poem very much. There is something so hard about the death of a child. My daughter mourns her lost Ishbel every year on her birthday – she set a slate memorial stone on Dodman Point and it created an interesting response when someone found it and thought it was very old. The need to make something lost tangible, shrines and altars, it’s a strong human need. Enjoy the lovely breaths of Spring that are drying up the garden and enticing us outside. X

  2. Carol Ross March 6, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Beautiful post Victoria.

  3. katecompston12 March 6, 2013 at 9:43 pm

    Yes, this (your words, Victoria, and the Billy Collins poem) spoke to me very powerfully. I lost my 11 year old niece from cancer, so feel for you and your cousin … it’s that loss of an expected/dreamed future, that total reversal of how things are expected to be, and the mystery of not-knowing why, whether there’s any rhyme or reason to such losses.

  4. 6vicky7 March 7, 2013 at 9:18 am

    Thank you Brigid, Carol and Kate for your comments. I’ve had some similar ones too by email. Those mysterious losses and the need to commemorate them run deep. Sending love to you all.

  5. Penny March 7, 2013 at 9:47 am

    Thank you for this piece on sorrow, dear Vicky.

  6. Monica Suswin March 9, 2013 at 10:19 am

    Very moved by your piece – Vicky. Strange to say thank you for sadness but there is something very whole about empathy, something encircling beyond individuality.

  7. stevematt March 13, 2013 at 8:52 am

    Thanks for this, Vicky. Such unspeakable sadness. Reminded me of Jon Silkin’s, “Death of a Son”, which ends, “he turned over on his side with his one year/ Red as a wound/ And out of his eyes two great tears rolled, like stones, and he died.” Like stones.

    • 6vicky7 March 17, 2013 at 8:16 am

      Thank you Steve. That poem is beautiful and heart-breaking.

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