On Love and Death by Erwin Mortier
This is far from the first time I’ve commemorated the dead in recent years, but I’ve never yet written about dead people I was so close to when they were alive and warm-blooded. Now that Jef has been dead for three months, I feel the urge to commemorate him – and Eleonore too, for the first time, oddly enough, in the almost eight years since her death. It’s as if she’d died only now, with him.
For the moment I can’t collect my thoughts of them into anything more than loose fragments. They have left a gap through which cold winds enter, and sometimes nostalgia. Loss is not static. Sorrow alternates with a strange sediment of resignation – and with anger, because I do not control death and cannot force it into any shape. It is pure formlessness. It likes to dress in old clothes, curl up in deserted beds, sit at writing desks where it adds nothing but absence to sentences on a notepad, broken off by chance, beside which a fountain pen has perished of thirst.
Around me their voices rustle and whisper, laugh and cry, crystallized in the manuscripts that Lieven and I found in the old house, in the weeks after the eleventh of May, the day Jef slipped out of this life without knowing it.
I was not there in the heart clinic at three-fifteen p.m. when the monitor suddenly showed a long line and the beep-beep-beep gave way to a shrill, uninterrupted tone. A nurse came into the room and said to Annie and Lieven, ‘Mr Geeraerts has passed away.’
That’s how casual death can be, how unexpectedly his death warned me of my own mortality. You might think mourning always shows the same colour, spreads the same fragrance, but the dead each offer their own cup. Every sorrow seems to have its own method of fermentation, its own dregs, its own aftertaste. Each loss wakes another loss.
As the sorrow goes stale, the memories will ripen – I hope. But for the first time in my life I feel as brittle as brushwood, as yellowed paper, or as plain and ordinary as this body, which lifts my index finger and proclaims, ‘Don’t imagine I’ll always be true to your fantasies.’
His body still felt warm when I arrived at the hospital with a bag in my hands, into which I’d hastily stuffed a suit for him, clean underwear, a shirt, socks, and a pair of shoes, along with the jacket that Nora had worn in August 2008 when she returned home from the cancer ward to die. On the dining table – next to the chair on which she’d left the jacket and from which he’d never removed it – I’d also found the ring she took from her finger before lying down in bed to say farewell to Jef, the cats, the house, the garden, and her life.
A few days earlier, Lieven had visited her. She said she was ready to go. ‘It’s time for me to settle up accounts. I’ve had a good life. But I’m so worried about Jef.’
The day before she returned home, he called us – the first and only time he burst into tears. He’d just realized, truly realized, that there was no more hope.
‘Tomorrow Eleonore is coming back here to die. She’s going to die. I’m going to lose her forever.’ His voice cracked.
He ended by saying, ‘Maybe I want to go with her.’
I don’t remember what I said to him. I’m not even sure I said anything at all.
Later he told me she had asked, ‘Shouldn’t the boys be here for this?’ And he’d said, ‘You can’t do that to the boys.’ To them we were ‘the boys,’ even though in the years we’d known him we had rounded the forbidding cape of forty.
‘Jokers!’ he scoffed. ‘Teenagers! When you’re my age, you’ll understand.’
‘What about me?’ he asked her. She said, ‘You stay alive a little longer to take care of the cats.’ They came slinking onto the bed, sniffing warily at her body as the life went out of her.
The next day, just after eleven a.m., he called me again: ‘It’s over. The undertaker is coming to fetch her.’
It’s written in the diary, which he left next to the phone all those years, in capital letters, on that Tuesday in 2009: EUTHANASIA.
The yellow ribbon resting on the page marks the beginning of the long stagnation, the unstaunchable loss, and the growing isolation of his final year. There were happy times, but he was waiting for death, in defiance of his own immense will to live.
He passed his days at home surrounded by notes and loose sheets of paper with sketches and first drafts for his novel The Black Bird.
‘My last book,’ he said. About Nora, about loss, about life and death. ‘But whenever I sit down at my desk to work on it, a huge wave of dejection knocks me flat.’
He was too faithful to his routines, always too focused on his writerly profession, to see his own devastation for what it was: a sea of shards that rattled through his days and through his nights.
I don’t know when he stopped. We rarely talked about the work of writing. One day the stacks of notes on the sofa, the floor, the side table stopped growing, and one night after we’d gone to dinner with friends, he whispered to me, ‘I’ve written enough in my lifetime.’
A book, a writer’s existence, a life, folded itself shut without a sound.
We went on in silence.
I am still going on in silence.
Since his death, I am sometimes overcome by intense sadness at the most improbable moments, as if now that they’re both gone his grief for her wanders homeless, in search of new dwellings. I want to stop it from ringing my bell and, when I refuse to open the door, seeping its stealthy way inside. I want to know how to transform grief into sorrow, because sorrow presents opportunities and openings for escaping this doleful stagnation. I want to be able to laugh and wail at once, the way I used to – the way a person should.
If we don’t drive the dead from the chambers of our soul, they loiter there. We have to banish them so we can welcome them into our memories as what they’ve become: disembodied; our loved ones who lived but are now gone forever. That temporary exile is essential to ensuring their return. Otherwise loss, in its stealthy way, interrupts each pain and joy with its own dull pages, and before you know it you’ve become a home for the dead instead of a host. This is an exorcism, but for the sole purpose of seeing them again.
Since their death, mortality has crept under the skirts of my language, penetrating my bones. It resides in my marrow, in every layer and coil of this absurd body, inside which the spirit writing this sentence cherishes the illusion of independence but is no more than a footnote. I now know what I always knew but had never felt in my gut: that one day this spirit will break out through my cells, reuniting me with the deaf and dumb matter of nature and all things.
These stoic meditations do little good. The price of eternity is the lack of life, an ancient maxim tells us (but I love life), and the price of life is the lack of eternity (but eternity is too eternal for me).
A modest metaphysics is all I need.
I have always written with the hope that in my words an impersonal encounter will unfold between a reader who does not know me and myself, I who do not know the reader. Reading became the blessing it still is to me on the day I realized that I, in the midst of my own fairly insignificant life, could find a temporary abode in another person’s absence, feeding his or her dead letters with my meagre victuals – and that then the words of my predecessors would sate my hunger and slake my thirst with a generosity utterly out of proportion to anything I carry in the shabby rucksack of my own life.
Since then, I’ve become aware that nothing is so individual as the universal. Without books, without stories, without music, without the arts, I would never have found the escape routes that allowed me to recognize myself in ways I’d never anticipated. Nor could I ever, without the seemingly dead letters of my forebears, have used my own writing to open the narrow spaces where perhaps, one day, others will lend us their breath.
I cannot write without trusting that what is missing means just as much as what is present. I write in the hope that one day the two of us will meet again, here and now, when other lives come to dwell in our absences, misting our dead letters with their vapours.
And now, for the first time, I must find a way to mourn inside my language, which has betrayed my own mortality to me – and I ask myself, why now, why not earlier, or later? Why do I glance now and then, with equal parts pleasure and pain, at the bones in my hands as they write these words? The ease with which they wield the pen or caress the keyboard cannot hide the fact that a future skeleton is performing a danse macabre on the keys. It’s as though I’m staring through my own flesh.
To me, the body has always been that which language suspends for a time – in pain, fear, lust, or ecstasy – just as language keeps us from reverting to the naked animal we are.
I feel that beast stamp its hooves in my sleep to shake off the words.
It wakes me up.
Translated by David McKay