Grasping the Wind
Reconnecting to a lost past
6 / 7
I had suppressed the memory of my mother for over two decades. By the time I came to rediscover it, she had become a mystery to me. To resurrect her memory, I needed to have many difficult conversations but it was music more than anything that reconnected me to her.
SONGS OF LOSS
A MUSICIAN'S JOURNEY
THROUGH DELAYED GRIEF
"Getting a sense of her was like putting together an incomplete thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle"
Grasping the Wind was recorded where I grew in Grafham and Ellington Thrope. Please feel free to us the music to remember a person or place or time lost to you.
A mother shrouded in mystery
One of the tragedies about losing a parent so young is that you never get to know them as an adult. My mother was shrouded in mystery. She had raised me virtually single-handedly until she died. Having been there for every step of my formative years as my personality took root, she is an integral part of who I am today. Yet, when I came to consciously rediscover her after a quarter of a century of suppression, I realised just how little I knew of her.
Memories only provided a few clues as to who she was. I was seven when my mother died and, like most seven year olds, I was the centre of my universe with my mother playing only an ever-present side role in my discovery of the world.
Apart from those memories, I had a rough timeline of events and a few anecdotes from family. There were so many holes and so much that didn’t add up. Getting a sense of her was like putting together an incomplete thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle with no finished picture to go off.
As an adult, I had never been back to the house in Cambridgeshire where I grew up with my mum. I had always felt ambivalent or numb towards the place. But not long before grief hit, I started getting urges to visit which I eventually followed.
When I did, I parked nearby and approached on foot avoiding the old neighbours’ house so not to be seen. I could see the chimney, the top of the thatched roof and the weeping willow tree in the garden, but I was only able to catch a glimpse of the house from the road through the thick hedge. That seemed enough.
I then made for the walk I used to go on with my mother, up a small lane by the side of a farmer’s field. Half way up the track, I was suddenly hit by the overwhelming sensation to take off my shoes and socks. It felt silly, but the desire was too strong.
My bare soles on the land, unimpeded by rubber, felt liberating. It gave me a deep sensation of connectedness to the place where I learned to use my feet. That urge was, however, no random one as I would later find out.
A warm summer’s glow
Yet, from the beginning of my grief, I could feel a fleeting sense of the warmest love when thinking about my mother. When I could stay with it for a few seconds it felt like a late-summer’s evening with the golden light streaming down on the fields where I grew up in Cambridgeshire. Lying in the grass, on a gentle breath of corn rustling wind, the feeling of an all-encompassing love would be blown in filling me ever so briefly with a glow before whispering on up field.
This was the missing key in my life, the lost mother’s love that had sent me confident into the world until her death. It was the protective loving backdrop to all my self-centred memories of that time. It was a love that was so strong I couldn’t bear to acknowledge its loss; a love as powerful as the overwhelming grief I was then feeling. It was the love I needed to reconnect to.
I felt if I could harness this feeling I could keep my mother with me and use that warm, loving energy as a cornerstone of who I was. Staying with the feeling, however, was like trying to grasp the wind, something I’d eventually learn to do with music.
My first steps with my mother looking on
"This was the missing key in my life, the lost mother’s love that had sent me confident into the world until her death."
"It is no exaggeration to say that picking up the phone those four times was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done"
To start the process, I needed to speak to the people who knew my mother in order to piece together a picture of her. I just had so many barriers to doing so.
To start, I didn’t know what questions to ask. I wanted to get at the essence of who she was. I wanted to work out my unknown feelings towards her. But all that came to mind were seemingly trivial questions and asking what she was like or what her favourite colour was seemed futile in solving these mysteries.
Then, there was the code of near silence in the family. My mum was occasionally mentioned in conversation, but it never went deeper - and for my part, I had never encouraged it either. Indeed, I would go number or start to well up in any conversation about her and so avoided them. I would not only have to navigate my own emotional minefield, but also the emotions I would drag up in others who would have each dealt with the shared tragedy individually to a greater of lesser extent.
Breaking life-long customs and opening up unknown kettles of fish with potentially shattering emotional impact was a literally petrifying task.
Starting the conversations
I had to start small. I decided to light a candle for my mother at a family Christmas dinner as my first public move - a task that required a monumental amount of will to carry out. After I lit it, I had to run out just before dinner was served to release my emotion.
Next, on her birthday on the 8th of January, I decided to phone up my two aunts, my grandmum and my sister with little more plan than to tell them it was my mother’s birthday. It is no exaggeration to say that picking up the phone those four times was the most difficult thing I’ve ever done in my life. I broke down in each call, broke down after each call and I took at least half an hour between each one to build the strength to make the next. That was a colossal step, however, and paved the way to future dialogue.
Slowly those conversations started happening. The questions started coming to me as I began to fill in the gaps and reveal my hidden feelings. The trivial questions also turned out to be stepping stones to larger ones. It was a genuine revelation to me to come up with questions such as: what would her wishes for me have been? Or, what do you remember best about her?
It took me around eight months to overcome the resistance to ask about the negative aspects - why she went to Hawaii just before she died and the reasons she had left nothing behind for us. But when I finally managed to, I was prepared to hear the sometimes difficult answers. In hindsight, my resistance seems to have been protecting me until I was emotionally ready.
My Mother will always be somewhat of a mystery to me
What I wanted more than anything else was confirmation of my feeling of warmth for my mother. In hearing my mum described as warm, generous, intelligent, incredibly brave, strong willed, loving, happy, smiley and positive, I got some of that. I heard how much she loved us, how much she had done to keep her illness away from us. I heard about her sense of fun. I heard how she always got involved in life and how she had touched so many people’s lives in some way.
Hitting a wall
And yet despite this confirmation, my mother remained an enigma. What I wanted to know was always just out of view. And, somehow, the positive adjectives made the loss I had suffered sink in more: if she was this bright, loving and positive person, then I had irretrievably missed out on 25 years of that in my life.
As I grew in confidence, more and more I found that I met limits in the people I was talking to. No one I spoke to could reminisce feely about my mother. Everyone had invisible barriers they didn’t want to or couldn’t go beyond. Hundreds of little unknown moments were buried beyond my reach.
The two people who knew her most intimately as an adult, my dad and my mum’s last partner, turned up nothing. Asked directly, my dad couldn’t recall a single fond memory of my mother. My mum’s last partner replied to a letter I wrote to him promising to write to me of memories only to go silent not replying to a further three entreaties.
I had a burning sense of injustice that the information I needed was somehow locked in the heads of those I spoke to. In reality, perhaps they had no key to it either. Perhaps some of their memories were as locked down as far as mine had been along with my supressed grief. Despite the feeling of injustice, I needed to be compassionate and hope that understanding would build bridges that might allow future dialogue.
I was hitting a wall with words. Even when people could talk, words could never get close enough, and they seemed to hide more than they ever revealed. More and more, I realised that it was the feelings within me that were the most important, the unmediated sense of my own relationship to my mother. It was in musical expression that I began to deeply connect to that.
"As I grew in confidence, more and more I found that I met limits in the people I was talking to."
"I had the distinct sensation that my mother was standing behind me."
First connection - The Mazurka
Early on in the grieving process, I had my first musical connection with my mother. Years before, in my early twenties, I heard Arthur Rubenstein playing Chopin’s Mazurka Op. 17 no. 4. Despite not playing the piano or being able to read music, I was instantly possessed by a desire to learn this piece, which I eventually did with moderate success.
Soon after grief hit, while playing the mazurka on the family piano in my aunt’s house, I had the distinct sensation that my mother was standing behind me, not in a ghostly or unpleasant way, but in a loving, warm motherly manner. I tried playing a piece of my own composition and she vanished. I started the Chopin again and she was back. I later discovered that my mother had loved to play Chopin on the piano when she was younger.
The piece that I leant the piano to play and through which I felt my mother prescence
I don’t believe in disembodied spirits, but I certainly felt her presence for the first time in 25 years and it was comforting and happy to have had that feeling of connection through music.
It was with my own music, however, that I eventually managed to capture and hold onto something far deeper as the sensation of my mother’s love in the fields in Cambridgeshire started to find musical expression.
The land that speaks
The fields surrounding the old house hide countless memories. This was the land that built me from the ground up, that obligingly pushed back up as I had pushed down with each step. My early life played itself out here in these field, the land the container of all events.
These field had been speaking to me for some time, but in a forgotten tongue that I no longer understood. I thought they spoke of sadness and loss. But it was me who had misunderstood the dialect.
In the fields opposite the old house
As my ear tuned in, I noticed that the fields were alive with music. Perhaps, they had always been and it was just I who was numb to it. The fields sung of an untold happiness, of an idyllic and joyful innocence. They want to tell me of that precious connection to my mother and of her ever loving presence which blows protectively almost unnoticed between the blades of grass.
"These field had been speaking to me for some time, but in a forgotten tongue that I no longer understood."
"I’ve captured the wind with my fingers tips and can let it blow, bluster or ease."
Grasping the wind
As I improvise the opening notes of Grasping the Wind, I’m taken right back to those fields. The notes are the rustling wind stirring the grass and, somehow, I’ve captured the wind with my fingers tips and can let it blow, bluster or ease.
The wind carries with it the faint sense of the warmth and love of my mother. It’s just out of reach. But if I go with the wind and sing with it, I can grasp a hold of that elusive sense, I can coax it into my being. There I can keep it with me, let it swell and know it fully.
Through the music, I feel her with me, I know our relationship lives on in her physical absence. And of all the stories and anecdotes I might hear of her, that sense of who she was to me, the sense of our relationship, a memory with no events or images, is the most precious memory of all.
But in that music, there is something undeniably of her, too. There is very real part of her that lives on through me, and it is to that part that I must connect to in order play this piece. The music is not just remembrance; it proudly sings out that part and shines a little of my mother forth into the world. Grasping the Wind is a rejoice: a part of her lives on through this music.
"a part of them, however incomplete, is allowed to live on in this world through music."
Music and life after death
While a solemn bugle call might come to mind when we think of musical remembrance, we can also remember with joy, love or any other emotion.
When the words failed, music helped me to find a sense of profound connection to my mother, something that had seemed lost. Not only that, it helped me to nurture that happy part of me, hold on to the sense of our relationship and deepen the connection. It helped me find my joy in life once more.
The willow tree in the garden has a special place in my heart
All I need do now, is to play or even think of that music and I feel the land with her loving warmth blowing through it. She is with me now as she had not been for so long, resurrected as a founding pillar of who I am. Instead of numbness or tears, I now celebrate her and can musically feel the part of her that lives on in me.
It’s more than just an illusion. Music helps us get at something very real. Humans, as the old adage goes, are not islands. We are social beings; our bodies and minds are built from the ground up through our interaction with others. The people we are close to become a part of us as we become part of them in a very literal sense, especially in our formative years as our malleable beings form through interplay with culture, environment and those near to us. Lost loved ones don’t become a mere memory trace. They remain integral, even living parts of us.
It is to that that music gives us the possibility to connect to. By listening to or playing music you shared or through improvising and composing anew, it can allow that part in us to breathe and remain alive.
Music can bring back not only times, places and memories, but also a sense or feeling of someone or something. Music gives form to those things that can’t quite be pinned down and allows them to be experienced through our bodies.
Used to its full potential, music can distil something of the essence of what a relationship was and still is to you. In letting that part of ourselves that was jointly constructed with the other live, we can feel them with us, and a part of them, however incomplete, is allowed to live on in this world through music. Somehow music allows us to grasp the wind.
Postlude - The next-door neighbour
On another trip to the old house in Cambridgeshire when I was looking for a place to record Grasping the Wind, I saw a ‘for sale’ sign on the old neighbour’s house. We had known the family well when we lived there, but I had never before dared knocking.
In my old next-door neighbour, I found someone who finally and without prompt understood what I needed. The second time I visited, she had written down little memories, stories, important events, and tiny details. She told me how my mum would break traffic laws when late, how she would spend two weeks determinedly cutting the hedge by hand, how she loved to get involved in local life and how she would wear shorts all summer long. She told me she once found her bouncing on the trampoline alone when us kids were at school.
And most resonant with me was the smallest detail that she had always remembered us running around barefoot. In that nugget was said so much. It conjured that carefree, idyllic childhood I had always remembered. It gave a picture of my loving mother with her sense of fun letting us run around free outside. It spoke to that direct connection I had felt with the earth in that place. The spontaneous urge to take off my shoes 25 years later all seemed to make sense now and the music flowed better than ever.
"It conjured that carefree, idyllic childhood I had always remembered. "
SUBSCRIBE TO HEAR ABOUT
THE NEXT INSTALMENTS
This is the 6th video/single release in A Musician's Journey through Delayed Grief - a seven part musical and textual series by Douglas MacGregor exploring the connections between music, loss and healing arising from his personal experience of delayed grief twenty-five years after he lost his mother to cancer at the age of seven.
These are songs from the deep, meditations and manifestations of loss...and a hymn to hope in disguise.
The last thing my mother gave me before she died was a guitar. That instrument saw me through the toughest of times and pointed the way to a new life post grief.