It is hard to write about loss, and hard to hear about it. After attending Love and Loss at Durham Book Festival, Cheryl Julia Lee wonders what compels writers to produce memoirs of traumatic events and the grief that follows them.
A screen above the staging area declares the theme for today: Love and Loss, in Times New Roman. It is the first thing I see. I am hesitant going in. How does one participate in another person’s mourning without violating their privacy? Why would one want to do so? And how does one find the courage to invite others into their space of grief? And again, why would one want to do so? I can’t help feeling like Harold and Maude.
In a difficult hour-long conversation chaired by Caroline Beck, Cathy Rentzenbrink and Decca Aitkenhead tackle their respective life-defining tragedies: for Rentzenbrink, it is a car accident that leaves her brother, Matty, in a coma for years; for Aitkenhead, it is the drowning of her husband, Tony, while saving their son from the same fate. Throughout, the phrases, “Matty’s death” and “Tony’s death”, are repeated almost carelessly, as if they have become part of the women’s every day vocabulary. Matty’s death, Tony’s death, toothbrush, toothpaste. Love and loss in Times New Roman. Again, I ask myself, why would anybody do this? Where is the dignity in trotting one’s grief out in front of an audience? Sitting on stage, Rentzenbrink admits that even now she feels a “massive instinctive reluctance” to speak of the contents of her memoir. But for the two women, this is all part of the weight they have carried ever since the accidents, the twin burdens of love and loss.
First, always, the burden of love. If literary tradition is anything to go by, all love is labor. In Rentzenbrink’s case, the cost exacted is the emotional and physical toll Matty’s coma takes on her family over the years as Matty lies in a persistent vegetative state. The Last Act of Love is a frank, unflinching look at the “collateral damage” on a family when a beloved one doesn’t die but lives on in a diminished version (“Matty 2” is what Rentzenbrink names her comatose brother). What the memoir explores is the burden of love in its most extreme, the part of the conversation that we don’t know how to have, that we don’t necessarily want to have in order that we might preserve what we think is the sanctity of love. Love can carry us to places we don’t want to be and force our hand in devastating ways; sometimes, letting a loved one go is also an act of love. “We are really mis-served by the idea of coma [as it is perpetuated in society],” says Rentzenbrink, citing the story of Sleeping Beauty and its modern day incarnations in soap operas. “[These suggest] that irretrievable brain damage [can be] reversed by love.” But a coma, Rentzenbrink insists, isn’t clean, and love isn’t easy; on praying for her brother to live, she writes that she was “praying for the wrong thing.”
Next, always, the burden of loss. What comes after the plug has been pulled, after the water in the lungs have settled? The task of remembering, and it is this that drives both Rentzenbrink and Aitkenhead to write, or to “write it down before one forgets” as the latter puts it. We would assume, says Aitkenhead, that there would be a relationship between “the enormity of the event” and “the clarity of the memory” but there is not because the dead do pass away finally. The memoirs then become a kind of personal artefact, not unlike those from the Living on the Hills archaeology exhibition the audience is nestled among in the Wolfson Gallery of the Palace Green Library where the conversation is being held. And as if the task of memory were not arduous enough; the need to remember honestly. Aitkenhead’s All at Sea offers the two truths that make up the entirety of Tony’s being—the flawed individual whose life was marked by mistake after mistake, and the man who died a hero. For Aitkenhead, honesty was an imperative: the memoir will after all make up most of her sons’ memories of their father. She worries that if left up to her, that in the moment, she might be tempted to give them only the second truth: “I didn’t want them to live with the idea of this ghostly perfection.”
At the end, I leave understanding why the authors have written their memoirs. “My job isn’t to be a spokesperson [for the right to live, for instance],” says Rentzenbrink, “it’s to get over the madness and cruelty of my situation.” I also have a better inkling of why the rest of us read memoirs and why we attend these readings. The mourner lives her grief and guard it (not selfishly, under lock and key) but as an artist might protect her vision; and the one who watches the mourner (the still-to-be mourner) sits and bears witness. My own grief has not yet begun but in the fullness of time, I know loss will come to me yet. And when it does, I will try to remember this evening’s conversation. It won’t be enough. It won’t make the burden easier to bear. As E. M. Forster writes in Howard’s End, “One death may explain itself, but it throws no light upon another.” In fact, loss and grief accumulates. A burden shared isn’t a burden halved, after all, but one intensified. But the weight takes on a new meaning: my grief becomes significant.
Durham Book Festival continues until 16th October, featuring writers such as Anthony Horowitz, Pat Barker, Michael Morpurgo, and Helen Mort.