My riff on the nature of tragedy seems to have struck a few sparks – enough to flare briefly in the #Justicefor LB comment threads. So today I am going to look at a life that contained the elements of true tragedy – one where the outcome was unavoidable despite everything that was done to fight against it.
Tim lived a few doors down the road from us; he was a year or two older than my younger brother. He was a strikingly good-looking little boy, with a flop of nut-brown hair, strong features resembling his father’s and huge, beautiful, dark-brown eyes as clear and deep as peat pools. His over-sized head on his little-boy’s body gave him an appearance of wisdom and maturity beyond his years.
Perhaps not all primary-age children are the same, but back then I think I generally took things as I found them. As a very small child, of course, I thought that my immediate family’s way of doing things was The Only Way: that everybody had Readicut hooked rugs in front of the hearth; that all sitting-rooms had a coal fire, under which everybody’s father would put a tinfoil-covered enamel plate of potatoes or chestnuts to bake; that everyone’s doorstep tiles got a weekly going-over with Cardinal Red polish; that everybody had to walk along to the box outside the Telephone Exchange, with a handful of coppers and small silver, when they wanted to make a phone call. The delusion didn’t last long. Even visits to wider family, never mind beyond, showed that viable alternatives included polished parquet floors and fitted carpets; steps in grey concrete and beige stone; central heating or gas fires; and Bakelite telephones on a stand in the hallway. None of my grandparents favoured my Dad’s camp-cookery style of cuisine; while my English granny fed us pressed ham, wafer-thin bread and butter and slices of raisin-studded fruit-cake presented on a cut-glass footed stand, my French gran’mère lobbed garlic by the handful into the rich, aromatic stews that she referred to as her ‘petits plats mijotés’, served cockles dressed with vinaigrette and had a pot of coffee instead of tea for breakfast.
By the time I was over five, I remember noticing differences, but not supposing that they were significant. If I considered them at all, I think I had concluded that difference is what makes us unique – some people’s mothers wore spectacles or permed their hair; mine didn’t. Some people liked to eat cake and sweet stuff at parties; I used to clean out the cheese footballs and Twiglets. So the fact that Tim didn’t speak, but mostly just rode his trike and bestowed serene smiles on the world around him, neither puzzled nor bothered me. It was simply the way he was.
In any case, in all important respects, he was just the same as the rest of us. He liked to join in games of tig, he loved curling up to have a story read to him, he looked like his Dad, squabbled from time to time with his big sister, and was the apple of his Mum’s eye. I don’t know when his parents began to worry about his developmental delays and to seek explanations, but it’s safe to assume it was before we children began to realise that Tim’s running was getting more, not less, staggery, and well before he began to need a harness to keep him safely upright on the tricycle seat. Nor do I remember whether I asked a question about what was happening to Tim, or if my Mum decided it was time to explain, but I do remember sitting on the sofa while she told us, “Tim is ill. He has a growth called a tumour inside his head. You know how he has been wobblier on his feet lately? The tumour in his head is interfering with the part of his brain that tells his body how to move. Yes, the doctors are trying to find out a way to make him well again, but they are not sure what to do. No, they don’t think there is any medicine that can help. He may need an operation, but even that might not make him better. No, it’s not the catching sort of illness. We just need to be a bit careful because we don’t want to knock him over while he’s wobbly, and we need to be thoughtful because Tim will probably get tired quickly while he’s ill.”
Further investigations showed there was nothing that the doctors could do. His parents had to accept they would have to say goodbye to him. After that, they didn’t waste energy on useless pursuit of chimeric treatments. Instead, they focussed on filling his life and their family life with friends and laughter and the simple fun things. Even when the growth of the tumour robbed Tim of movement and made him sleep nearly all day, we were still welcomed to visit and talk to him. His parents sought help – not easy to find, forty years ago – to prepare themselves, his sister and his friends for what was to come.
In a certain sense, all lives are the same length. They last from birth to death and it is what happens in the space between that gives them worth. It would be easy to call Tim’s short life a tragedy and a waste, since he never got the chance to shape its direction for himself, accomplish anything specifically recognisable or leave any tangible legacy. But accepting an inevitable outcome is not the same as acquiescing in a rubbish journey to that unvoidable end. There is almost always more than one way to accomplish a task, and one of those ways will be better than the alternatives. You can take elements of potential tragedy and remake them into something else, even if you can’t change everything.
Although what Tim’s family accomplished still shines down the years as a jewel of happiness, love and care, I’m loath to call what was made of his life ‘a triumph’. It sounds too glib. Yes, his family did the most they could for him, yet the ‘most’ was simultaneously the least. All they did – that commonplace, superlative, ‘all’, was – the right thing by him.