Two weeks ago I learnt that my former next-door neighbour, Ian, had committed suicide. He was 50 and he had fought alcohol all his adult life. Yesterday I went to his funeral.
During the seven years we shared a garden fence I got to know him and like him very much. He was cheerful and helpful and he valued good neighbourliness. We swapped things, garden tools, a run to the skip, and chatted easily. Although we were never close I felt that over time there grew a certain mutual respect, maybe even affection.
Earlier in his life he had worked on fish farms. Latterly he gardened for the council and dreamt of developing a plot of land he owned, a little further north. But back problems and domestic complications – his wife and children moved out a few years ago – made for an erratic working life. And of course, underlying it all, there was the booze. Every so often I would realise that I hadn’t seen him for a while. Then he would reappear, looking a little rough around the edges, and give me a disarming grin. He never made any secret of his difficulties. In fact his honesty was one of the things I found attractive about him. He was also tall, good looking and intelligent. But for all that there was a vulnerability about him, he felt like an innocent abroad. It was as if there was a part of him – the part that came to have the final word – that didn’t really belong here.
In his last two or three years he started another relationship and his new partner, Di, did everything she possibly could to help him. They sold the house and moved first to Perth, then to Glasgow where she encouraged him to attend an AA meeting every night. There are three hundred AA groups in Glasgow, she told me at the funeral. ‘It’s a great place to keep off the booze.’ She paused. ‘It’s a great place to get on it again, too.’
In a final impulsive act he bought a ruined cottage, sight unseen, off the Internet, on the Isle of Scalpay, Harris. He spent a few weeks there in the late autumn, not drinking, getting to know the locals, and starting work on the renovation. ‘I had never seen him so much at peace,’ Di said. Then came the January darkness.
It was a humanist funeral, and the main part of the service consisted of an address by the celebrant, who had interviewed those close to him, and put their remarks together into a series of stories. Although she had never met him she spoke with warmth and humour, yet without shying away from the realities of his life. This is what we leave behind, I thought, listening to her – stories. Long after the details of a life have faded, we remember the incidents, the small, often inconsequential moments that touched us. Far more than any urn, these stories become the vessels that preserve the essence of the person.
As I left the service I found myself thinking of The Bridge of San Luis Rey by Thornton Wilder, the great American humanist novelist and playwright of the early twentieth century. It’s one of my all-time favourite books, and worth reading for the final paragraph alone:
‘But soon we shall die and all memory … will have left the earth, and we ourselves shall be loved for a while and forgotten. But the love will have been enough; all those impulses of love return to the love that made them. Even memory is not necessary for love. There is a land of the living and a land of the dead, and the bridge is love, the only survival, the only meaning.’
Judging by the tears at the funeral, Ian was well loved.