Sunday 14 December 2014

Death of a sister

Two days ago we buried Ginger. Good sweet Ginger, who had meant the world to those who knew her. Ginger, who left our lives – but not our hearts – too soon.

Since the first day we met her, my children and I, we never saw Ginger without her sister. The two of them were inseparable. They lived a contented, unassuming life in a little wooden cabin nestled among the sprawling unkempt gardens and the trees. Theirs was a life that seemed to know nothing of the anxieties that come from grand schemes and high ambitions. They had pieced their world together out of a thousand tiny kindnesses, small gestures, shared moments that would have looked like nothing at all to anyone who had not studied the intricate domestic choreography of those sisters.

There is a fellow in our neighbourhood who once had the effrontery to describe the sisters’ life as “dull” – which seemed to me as confused a notion as if he had reproached a German clock for dullness just because it always keeps the time. Certainly there was something staid, almost Victorian, about the manners and habits of those sisters. But the fact that a thing is small and precise, the fact that it follows a scrupulous routine, does not make it empty or contemptible. One can bluster about like the busiest person in the world and yet be fundamentally bored with life – that is the fate of so many of our contemporaries – or one can live richly and well with one’s sister in the confines of a small wood cabin, oblivious to all the world outside. Such was Ginger’s life: a small and uneventful life, perhaps, but a good life too.

And because the life of Ginger was free of all ambition and pretence, it was a hospitable life that always had room for friends and strangers and, most of all, for children. I would like to give you some picture of what Ginger came to mean to my children, but any account will fall far short of the thing itself. Little by little, in her own modest and matter-of-fact way, she welcomed my children into her gentle world. The sisters’ cabin, just a short walk from our own back door, soon became a regular destination. There I would find the children playing, eating, singing, or huddled in a circle chattering away with Ginger and her sister scarcely able to get a word in edgewise.

It sometimes happens that children trespass the boundaries of common courtesy; and there must have been occasions on which the sisters felt that their orderly world had come unhinged in the bustling presence of my three children – not to mention all the times when one of the children would show up, unannounced and unexpected, with a friend in tow. But I never saw anything in the demeanour of those sisters to suggest even a flicker of impatience. They were as indulgent with my children as if they had been their own. Ginger in particular became something of a confidant for my younger daughter. I recall times when, hurt or disappointed, my daughter went straight to Ginger’s place to tell her all about it even before she thought to tell her own parents. Not that Ginger ever spoke of such things to me. Whatever secrets my daughter might have shared with her were sealed up in the impeccable confidentiality of Ginger’s heart, just as they are sealed now forever in the colder confidentiality of the grave.

How suddenly Ginger’s illness came on, and how quickly her frail health went from bad to worse, are matters of which I will not speak here. We had driven her to the hospital – neither Ginger nor her sister drives a car, nor have they ever felt the need of one – and the look on the doctor’s face told us everything. At the very end, we nursed her in our own home. She died around midnight on the night of Thursday December 11th, after those who loved her had stroked her smooth brow and said their last goodbyes. 

Ginger was laid to rest near the the big maple tree. We read a psalm and said the prayers that are reserved for such occasions. We thanked God for the simple goodness of Ginger’s life, and prayed that, following her example, we might be good and true and simple in our own lives too. We looked forward to the final day when Ginger will rise with us and with all the ones we ever loved and lost. When there was nothing left to say we threw handfuls of earth into the grave. 

The other guinea pig, Ginger’s sister, peered out at the proceedings from my daughter’s protective embrace. Her whiskers twitched. Her soft fur, chestnut-brown, was wet with children’s tears.

When the solemnities had concluded we placed fresh flowers on the grave. We went into the back yard and raised the hinged roof on the wooden hutch and put Ginger’s sister back inside. She shot us a quizzical glance and went back to eating an old carrot. There was something sort of bereaved in the way she nibbled at it. For consolation we brought her lettuce, broccoli, cabbage, a sprig of parsley, an apple sliced in two. There is nothing like fresh veggie scraps for the wounded spirit.

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