Family and Friends
2 August 2001
It's only an accident of culture that we say these words: we might have exposed your body to be a feast for the birds as Zoroastrians or buried you with a filofax and the telly, your spoils of war; it's only custom that would make us balk at eating your flesh, a more symbolic buffet than the coronation chicken Mum's got prepared.
You believed these words, though, the resurrection and the life, this comfortingly sonorous ritual that we're all allowing to wash over us. I refused to read the lesson, Mum couldn't understand, got tearful about it's what you would have wanted, but I hope that it isn't: hope you'd've had more respect for all of those explosive teenage rows than to expect my principles to crumble the minute they were faced with a bit of insidious guilty sentiment. I'm calling them principles anyway, trying to silence the fear that I was as enslaved as you, to nature not culture, latching onto anything I could to stake my claim as alpha male.
You called me an 'unnatural child' once and I guess I was, spat out too early, your father took one look in the incubator and said I looked like a bloody rabbit. I don't remember the guy, dead at sixty from a heart-attack like his father before him and his son afterwards: nature again, no permutation of slimming regimes was able to help you escape from that genetic tic. Perhaps that was it, once man had interfered to reverse nature's rejection I's freed from her blood magic, her tithe of unspoken duty and irrational devotion that interlaces itself with tears and milk and placenta.
The front pews are filled with faces that I only ever see in church: christenings, weddings, today. Given pride of place amongst the mourners, ahead of the friends from the club, the friends from the pub, your secretary of twenty five years, a deeper connection assumed despite the fact we only saw them to tick off the milestones, even the holiday visits drying up once the kids left home. The family is no longer the tribe: our caves have become distant. Progeny are no longer spawned in succession, the eldest becoming mother to the youngest, like the others you had the statutory pair.
There are happy memories, sherry-fuelled anecdotes from great-aunts, cousin Katie teaching me to plait my own hair, but is this what I would want? My passing marked by those I did not choose, young relatives who only saw me in decrepitude, pleasant acquaintances that knew me as the polite mask of endured Christmases. We met to tick off the milestones but what I am was everything in between.
We knew each other better, of course, more by instinct than intent. However little was knowingly revealed, on your side as much as mine, there was plenty we picked up circling around one another in that house for eighteen years: moods, habits, reactions. Not thoughts though, I never worked out what went through your head, such as why you had me: did you hope for something better? A genius or a hero or just to perpetuate yourself with a younger copy? Did you ever resent the result? Was I a botched experiment? Did you regret lavishing such care on my education when I used it to sever all dependency as soon as I could?
Is there a biological urge I haven't come across yet, a mad passion to sacrifice yourself to the creation of the mewling, puking next generation, or is it a status symbol? Are kids a requirement for joining the club, flash your virility, give you something to preside over, be able to join in the conversation with all of the others? Was it nature or culture?
We are rational creatures, we acknowledge the abuse of the angry father, the demented ferocity of a mother's love, the children pawned in divorce courts, we have exploded the myth of the family. But today I have put that aside and whether it is nature or love or guilt I shall play my part, one of the triumvirate of chief mourners, recipient of condolences, protecting (perhaps) those who feel your loss more acutely by being a part of the ritual, every bit as much as the family, the words and coronation chicken.