The Malta Independent 5 August 2021, Thursday

Marie Benoit's Diary: Drinking from the River of Silence

Marie Benoît Sunday, 23 May 2021, 09:00 Last update: about 4 months ago

This week your Diarist takes a break from the Covid Diaries and writes about her personal experience of death in May

In The Brothers Karamazov, Fyodor Dostoevski states that "the earth is soaked from its crust to its very centre with the tears of humanity." As each day passes, we know that this is true. From the sufferings of people we know to the news in the media but especially on television, the tears of humanity are everywhere. Just following the unnecessary waste of life in Palestine and Israel makes us cry out to the heavens in protest.

But it is only when we are directly hit that we become truly aware of what sorrow really means and begin to see 'the inside of things.'


The month of May for me has been, since the death of my mother in 1968, an unhappy month. She died in great pain, on the 3rd of May, after being ill for several years which coloured our teenage years and early twenties. She was given larger and larger doses of morphine to kill the pain but at the age of 62 her body gave up and she left five of us behind and my father, who was by her bedside day and night, shattered.

One of the songs I remember my mother singing must have been a hit in her day. I can still hear the words and the pretty tune: "One day when we were young, one beautiful morning in May, you told me you loved me when we were young one day." Who knows what that song really meant to her? Perhaps she had met my father in May. But on a beautiful morning in May my father found her dead at his side.

In her moving and impressive book A Very Easy Death, Simone de Beauvoir gives her account of the death of her mother. Its bitterly ironical title was a phrase murmured by a nurse. Rarely has anyone written with such fierce honesty about the processes of death. Her mother fought death to the end and the daughter beside her had to face a double impotence - she could not save her and she was unable, although her heart was bursting with love and pity, to communicate with her as she longed to. In this case the parent-child relationship with its inhibiting tangle of intimacy and hostility still had them in its grip, and rarely has its tormenting nature been more poignantly evoked.

Another death in May; the 5th of  May 1987. This time it was my husband who left us at the age of 45, a few weeks short of our 13th wedding anniversary.  When the news came to me it was as if the moon had fallen from the sky.  I was left, as on a polar floe to navigate on my own with two small children, in the middle of the Indian Ocean.

Suddenly and unexpectedly the adrenalin which is flowing with the excitement and challenge of each new day is inexplicably extinguished. As C.S. Lewis writes in A Grief Observed, "There were so many roads once; now so many culs de sac."

With his death came the realisation that we will never be a family together again. And as for me, I wouldn't have him there to dance for, he who encouraged and praised and let me be.

I have not stopped lamenting my discontinued marriage which was so  happy.  The feeling that I had built my house on sand persists to this day.

And those of you who simply cannot understand why someone is grieving so much for so long consider yourselves lucky. "The heart has its reasons that reason knows nothing of." Each heart is different and a law unto itself.

Fate is illogical. Life baffles and seems almost to mock.

Another death in May. This time the 4th of May, 2005. Our youngest sister left us, unexpectedly. We were preparing to celebrate her 60th birthday but instead we buried her in what she had planned to wear for the occasion.

Every time someone dies, a child dies too and an adolescent and a young man or woman as well; everyone weeps for the one who was dear to him. In the case of my sister I weep for all three stages of her life for I have known her since she was conceived.

She was the 'lightest' of the five and retained the child in her until she died. The child in me has been virtually extinguished.  

Her Christmases were an excuse for more cooking and decorating and presents. I never tried to compete with her petits fours, Bacio and Christmas cakes, strawberry jam and marmalade.

At school she never got a good conduct ribbon - not a Pink Ribbon, or a Green Ribbon or a Blue one. She simply wanted to have fun. You couldn't, not really, if you wore a good conduct ribbon.

She collected people like she collected recipes. She talked to everyone and had no filter. If left to her own devices she would fill her house with people. If you were going through a tough time and needed a soft place to land, as I did when I arrived here, reluctantly, to start my life all over again, she would provide it.

We still miss getting round her kitchen table and talking about nothing and everything, as she made us taste her latest concoction.

I feel so sad to think that these family members who died out of season, who were not of an age to die, were unable to see their children grow and meet at least one of their grandchildren. It is too cruel.

Then there are the mea culpas. I should have asked my mother more questions and the same with my husband - about the lives they had led before I knew them. So much left unanswered and it is too late now. If only I knew then what I know now.

I still ask: 'Where is God in this?' I still look around at so many innocent people who did nothing to deserve the lives they have or the heartbreak and ask that if God is all-good and all-powerful why does he allow brutality and injustice to thrive and the good and innocent to die. All those children with dreadful lives. What have they done?

And please don't mention freewill. Yes, sometimes we are responsible for what happens to us but certainly not always. Far from it.

I still wonder if there is such a thing as fate and destiny. If, given other circumstances the lives of our loved ones could have been prolonged. I think of Joseph Conrad's Lord Jim: "As if the initial word of each our destiny were not graven in imperishable characters upon the face of a rock."

And André Lafon: "Je ne dirai pas: il fallait, ni pourquoi?  Puisque c'est si peu nous qui faisons notre vie."

Is it too fatalisic to believe that?

 "How dark oh Lord are thy decrees."

Sorrow reduces us to silence.

A friend quotes Corneille's Le Cid to me: "Je cherche le silence et la nuit pour pleurer." Indeed.

While trying to come to terms with our private crucifixions perhaps we should keep in mind that the comforts and attachments which we take for granted are very fragile and we have to make the best of them.  It is useless crying when they are gone. Let us treat each other with tenderness and kindness while we are here. Tomorrow may never come and who cares about pompous funerals and the furniture of heaven or hell?

NEXT WEEK: Gorg Peresso's Covid Diary


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