When I first moved to Wirksworth, in my early twenties, two of the first people I met were Bernard and Xenia Fielding-Clarke. They were both in their late eighties. Bernard was an intellectual, communist and clergyman and full of ideas. Xenia, was Russian, and very warm – excitable, and loving. They were generous in their interest in me, who knew so little and was inclined to idealism. Their large house 18th century house was darkened by the copper beech tree in the garden and dust lay thick on the furniture and rugs. There was a study full of books, and a basement kitchen, the table cluttered with newspapers and chipped crockery, cutlery encrusted with old food, as Xenia had all but lost her sight.
I remember when Xenia died, I went to visit Bernard. He was sitting alone in his study. Sweet-scented lilacs drooped over the desk. It was late afternoon and the sun was going down over the meadows.
‘I have been thinking about what I want to do with the rest of my life,’ he said. ‘It is important to be clear about the work I still want to do.’
Though I have long forgotten rest of the conversation, I have always remembered those words, and the fact that he wanted to tell me. It seemed to me both remarkable and significant.
I have just finished reading Atal Gawande’s wonderful book, ‘Being Mortal,’ an uplifting, and at times harrowing read. It is about our attempt to find meaning, particularly in old age or through suffering and illness. What is a good death, he asks. He writes of his challenges as a medic, the mistakes he’s made in skirting around uncomfortable truths, and the wonderful transformations he’s witnessed in people when terminal illness is approached with honesty, sensitivity and courage.
Seeing my parents retreat into very old age is an unsettling experience, a slow insistent and persistent grief. I can’t see an end that won’t bring more sadness, at least for a while. Sometimes, in order to keep buoyant, I find myself searching for meaning – a search more urgent when I’m at the lowest ebb. And meaning shifts and changes, sometimes disappears altogether – for better or worse.
Love and friendship are essential, as well as movement and dance, and teaching others to find balance, strength and ease in the body. But though it doesn’t add up – being of little significance to anyone else – the days I manage to write are strangely illuminated. Why do I keep forgetting this need to grapple with words, sentences, character, and story – the need to listen ever more intently to the unconscious, to be truthful to what is heard, and to perfect the skills of interpretation?
Tricia Durdey dances, writes, and teaches Pilates.