Today is Remembrance Day in the UK – which I guess is similar to the US holiday of Veteran’s Day except that it’s always on a Sunday – and it was originally designed to honour the fallen soldiers of World War I (the Armistice to end that way having been signed at 11am on 11th November). It’s rather been expanded over the years to encompass pretty much any war, and that’s all totally cool and respectful and stuff.
For me though, for the past decade or more, this time of year has been less about remembering about soldiers than it has about remembering two friends of mine who happened to share a birthday – November 10th.
My father was born on November 10th 1945 and died February 7th 2003. He wasn’t a soldier, or a hero, or anything quite so dramatic as that but he was my father, and you really only get one of those. He wasn’t by any stretch a perfect father – who is, really? – but I always felt he at least tried to be, even though his very human failings sometimes let him down. At various points of our relationship I was angry at him, and disappointed, and worried about him, but was never somebody I didn’t want in my life. His death was sudden, and surprising – or at least as surprising as the death of anybody with a history of heart trouble can ever really be – and in hindsight I think it took me months to really get used to the idea that he was gone. I’d call him at his job, assume that he’d want to come round to my flat for coffee, and things like that. It’s as though the BIOS in my brain hadn’t been updated properly and was still going through stuff in the old way –
Anyway, I consider myself somewhat fortunate in that towards the end of his life he seemed to be moving in the right direction. He’d had a few rough years and for a while things were looking pretty desperate but he managed to turn it around. He had a job that he liked, was surrounding himself with friends and was able to be the kind of guy that he should’ve been, which was somebody well-liked who people wanted to know. Looking back on things now, it’s possible that on some level he might’ve know what was coming because in the last few weeks he made real efforts to correct some of the wrongs that he’d done, and I think that meant that the last impression people had of him was very positive. I know that more people showed up to his funeral than I ever really expected, anyway – something I know was gratifying to both me and my sister.
I still miss him, though.
November 10th also happens to be the birthday of one of my best friends. Graham Courtney was somebody I met at school, and he was a geek, way before being a geek was cool. Well, we all were, really – the few of us who hung around together and went to his house at the weekends to play on his Atari ST and did bowling and Quasar (laser tag) at Hollywood Bowl on Torwood Street. We spent several weekends perfecting the moves for Mortal Kombat 2 and one year, me and Graham and Jason convinced Jason’s father to take us to the E3 Expo at Earl’s Court in London. Where we saw the first PSX to come to England. (this was very exciting, believe me – it just lurked there, suspended in a glass case, like something from the future.) When the Playstation – as it got renamed – was released a few months afterwards Graham was one of the first to get one, having won it in a competition on (I think) the local radio.
Anyway, we were close, or at least as close as teenage boys with very little confidence and hormones and uncertainty about pretty much everything in life can ever be. And..well, honestly, he was always the best of us. Most of us could occasionally be childish or venal or mean, or any one of a hundred other human and unpleasant things, but not Graham. He had a very sharp sense of humour and we would all banter back and forth but at a time when the small group of us were never the popular kids he seemed to be above it all, like he knew the secret to the universe but didn’t want to let on. I don’t really believe in the concept of souls, but if I did I’d have to say that I don’t recall meeting anybody with one as good and as innocent as Graham’s.
Once we finished sixth form we went our separate ways; I went to Lancaster and Graham took a year off before starting at Essex University. Essex had been my provisional college choice – my reasoning being that myself and Graham would have somebody we knew when we both got there, but I got into Lancaster so that was pretty much that.
At Christmas of my second year away, I saw Graham’s parents Rick and Joyce at the Crossways shopping centre in Paignton. They’re wonderful people so I went over to say hi and ask about him. They told me that he had died suddenly, while at college, just a few days previously. I don’t actually remember what I said immediately after being told…it all seems so far away now. I don’t even remember what happened between that moment and the funeral. I remember a sense of loss, obviously, and for quite a while there was guilt – surely if I’d gone to Essex instead I’d have been able to help, and he’d be ok now. It’s probably that isn’t the case – I believe that was very little that anybody could have done, but somehow I contrived to blame myself, and people are probably are wont to do in such circumstance. He was 20.
It is of course entirely possible that I’m looking back on Graham with little more than rose-tinted spectacles; that the passing years have meant that I’ve forgotten anything that wasn’t great about my lost and deeply missed friend. But as I sit here, thousands of miles away from where we grew up, and in that weird emotional place where you think you might be about to break into tears but at the same time not quite able to, I doubt it.
And now, nearly 15 years since Graham’s passing and 11 since my dad’s, I find myself once again thinking about them on their birthday. For one, it’s..almost ok. Losing a parent is something entirely..natural, almost regardless of the circumstances – you accept from a relatively young age that one day the people who bore you and raised you will die, and even though it hurts when they do pass, it’s not necessarily that big of a shock. Naturally, I want to have been able to spend more time with him – let him beat me at snooker, for example, but while that’s an entirely reasonable/selfish thing to want, it is tinged with an understanding that it’s part of the natural order of things.
For the other – it’s isn’t part of any kind of natural order. Graham would be turning 35 today. I wonder what kind of man he’d have turned out to be, what he’d have done with his life. Would he have got married? (even though the 15 year old us would have found it difficult that we’d actually be able to speak to women one day, and even scarier- they’d want to talk to us!) I know I’d have wanted to keep in touch – something that the adult Chris is usually terrible at – and we probably would still playing computer games with each other. It’s that sense of..incompleteness that makes his a harder loss to understand.
I know that part of the human experience is dealing with loss, and grief, and all of the stuff that you see on the back of self-help books, but sometimes – life really is a solid kick in the balls.
You can donate to the British Heart Foundation here, if you feel so inclined