Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Zombies (and why we're scared of them)

Grief is one of those words that has been re-appropriated in modern times; the cutting, pernicious and spiteful edge that real grief delivers has been replaced by trivialising the word to the point where 'having some grief' is almost an invitation to witness a farcical and comedic series of mishaps or bad luck. The young have made the word 'grief' as anodyne as possible, not unlike the way Charles Schultz turned 'Good Grief' into an exclamation of exasperation.

Grief really shouldn't be trivialised and this is not just an old curmudgeon giving you all some ... grief. We sometimes forget how personal and debilitating grief actually is. We can sympathise and empathise with someone else's grief, but like the perception of time, colour, smell and touch, grief is specifically manufactured for the individual and we all deal with it in different, unique, ways.

I deal with human grief considerably better than animal grief. On discovery my brother had cancer and could die, I became the same stoic, rock of the family I became when both our parents died and he and my other brother fell apart. Every single time I've lost or have discovered I was going to lose one of my beloved pets, I have been inconsolable with emotions that seemingly have their roots with the kind of crying you associate with a baby - that hopeless, is-there-nothing-I-can-do-to-stop-this incandescent bundle. Grief returns us to a time when we were most vulnerable and in need of protection the most and it also simultaneously presents us with a situation that, however much has been considered, in the cold light of reality, is still emotionally too large for the brain to deal with in a rational manner. This isn't text book psychology, this is how I perceive grief and how I see it in others.

And this is why the concept of 'the walking dead' bothers so many of us and why zombies have replaced vampires as this decade's de rigueur monster. What on earth could possibly be worse than meeting your dead mother, father, brother, sister, bff or neighbour and all they want to do is eat you? How about if they're decomposing at the same time*.

* A brief aside - The Walking Dead, all the George Romero films, in fact any zombie related thing have never, except peripherally in one isolated case, dealt with one thing that is as clear as the, ahem, nose on your face and that is the smell. Surely the smell would be everywhere and yet no one ever says, 'bloody hell, it's the middle of a deep south summer, all those zombies are rotting like billy-o and it smells like my dog swallowed an abattoir which has given him wind'...

The idea of zombies or the walking dead resonates with us because unlike vampires, werewolves, monsters and demons, we all have a point of reference with a human because we are one. Even if you believe in the existence of ghosts, demons or even Godzilla-like creatures, you've never actually seen undisputed proof of their existence (and if you reckon you have then you are insane so this doesn't really apply to you), but you see proof of people every moment you can see another one or a mirror and we all know that everyone will die, one day, so a zombie really isn't such a stretch to the imagination - I mean Christians have been touting Jesus as uber-zombie for 2000 years and we accept that without a hint of irony or a smirk.

The thing is... what if? What if you really did meet someone or something that you knew, without a shadow of doubt, was dead and had been dead for a while? Hollywood deals with these 'come-backs' in fantasy films not just in zombified ways; you have ghosts, resurrections, reincarnations, reanimations and insanity bringing the dead back and I'd stick my neck out and bet my life on the presumption that every single wishful thinking, my dead boy/dad/mum/girl/bf/entire community/blah-blah-blah story ever filmed, or written, was done so purely from the imagination of the writer(s) with no point of actual reference. The reason I'm so confident about it is because I should think very few people in the history of the planet has actually been in a situation where they think they're seeing a 'dead' entity in front of them.

I'm sure there have been cases where someone has been declared dead and haven't been; and I'm sure that every so often someone who didn't know that someone they knew had a twin might have that existential nightmare; but I also don't think it happens a lot or if it does it's been romanticised because the reality is just too harsh... The chances of it happening must be ludicrous.

I read a fantastic explanation of grief via a Tweet or Facebook. It explained grief like the tides and waves and how the first few days of grief are like a tsunami, but after time, the grief will just eventually lap at your feet; you'll see it, recognise it, remember it, feel it, but you will be able to work through it. it won't knock you off your feet; it won't change the way you feel whenever it hits you; it will get easier to deal with but impossible to ignore. And then, every so often, the tsunami will hit you again, but you've braced yourself and the aftershock is less intense or maybe even non-existent.

And it is important to remember or understand that grief is a pain; a pain of consciousness inflicted the same way as you'd bruise a muscle or bang an elbow and like a physical injury it takes time to heal. We can all remember what a broken bone, a cut hand, tonsils removed, etc felt like - but maybe never as intensely as living it again.

When Murray died in the summer, it knocked both me and the wife for six. Beloved pets die, but for us most of them have had good innings. To lose the most sweetest of good natured boys to cancer at just 8 was, considering the year we'd had already, just an unbelievably cruel and bitter blow. I once would have said 'it can't get much worse' but experience has told me it often does - all that happens is your experience of the new low becomes the norm and therefore you are always able to sink lower.

The summer and so far this autumn have felt largely wasted and one failed job application after another has eventually turned me into some kind of zombie. My experience of outside life was taking dogs for a walk and going shopping on a Thursday. On a Wednesday evening I'd go out, pub quizzing, and putting on the brave face and return to my existence of walking and feeling dead inside (Oh and only being able to afford to go pub quizzing by virtue of all the money we've won as premier pub quiz team).

I stopped talking about how I felt to everyone, because I'd had my moment of weakness and now it was better to return to the shadows and bide my time until something changed. Doug the Destroyer has helped - despite vowing never to get a puppy again, he has been a revelation for the house and not just by cheering me and the wife up, but by reinvigorating the girls and helping them forget and move on - he has brought so much with him and to us that some of me started to hate myself even more because, irrationally, Murray had to die for Doug to have become part of our family.

The year is hurtling towards its conclusion; despite appearances my anxieties and fears have returned in a big way and I think, sometimes, us hopelessly depressed romantics, we hope to see a sign, especially if we don't see a definite change, because a sign is as good as a change, it is the motivator we sometimes need. Except for walking my four dogs and Max, the neighbour's dog and sitting staring at the computer there have been no highlights in my days since August; in fact I've been so inactive, I hadn't looked at the story I wrote back in the spring since August 2nd and then I couldn't reconcile something so stormed away from it in a huff. If procrastination is the thief of time, it is my own personal zombie because it saps my everything, not just my time.

Then something unique happened and the circumstances by which it happened were also too good to be ignored. I was sitting here procrastinating some more when I decided I'd take the five dogs to a place I hadn't been to since before Murray's passing. Hunsbury Country Park is big enough to accommodate a lurcher puppy and now I felt I had adequate control over Doug, I packed my four and Max into the dog-mobile and we went for an adventure.

For fifteen minutes we just walked through the trees. I had an eye open for any mushrooms and the last vestiges of the warm Indian summer were clinging on. Doug then spotted some people up ahead and as he is still in the 'go-up-to-everyone-and-say-hello' stage he did just that. I always have mixed feelings about meeting people - dog walkers - when I'm out, because I know I talk a lot, and especially when I haven't had any other human company apart from the wife and Talk Sport for a few days. I spotted the people up front had two dogs, by this time all of mine had gone to investigate.

What followed still feels slightly surreal and like it didn't play out in real time, more like it was edited by Norman Collier (and if you don't get that reference search You Tube for him and you'll understand). I think I said hello to the two women and apologised for Doug's manners - but I seem to think they were utterly smitten by him, as most people are and then I assured them that the other, noisy, dogs were just that - noisy and that's when everything went a bit weird. Actually, who am I kidding; a bit weird? No, what followed was Weird City; Weirdarama; Welcome to Wishful Thinking Heaven; Whoop Whoop Whoop, Nurse fetch me a fucking straight jacket and make it snappy Mrs Crocodile.

I noticed they had a collie x, I commented that I had just lost a dog not too dissimilar to their one and I think they thought for a second that I was inquiring as to whether their dog could possibly have been the dog I lost. Then he looked at me and I felt my heart leap into my throat and a billion stars exploded behind my eyes; fighting back the tears was probably the most difficult thing I have ever had to do. looking at me, in the eyes, for a brief moment was my boy Murray, who had died in my arms back in May. I think I uttered the words, "Jesus they could be twins" and grabbed my phone/camera, asking, but really telling, them that I was going to take a photo or two of their dog to show my wife.

I think the older of the two women was getting slightly concerned and then the dog crossed my path again, and looked at me again and ... it's like part of you... wilts. You would think that even though you know without a doubt and in your heart of hearts that things do not come back from the dead that seeing something that could confuse and confound you so much would have an uplifting effect, but it really felt slightly like parts of me just ... sagged. Then, because you've grown more solid and your feet are well anchored, you see the grief tsunami again and fucking hell it's as big as the day he died, but you know that you are not going to let it affect you, not in front of strangers.

I said something again about needing photos to show my wife and something about him dying in May because the people I was talking to both relaxed and became sympathetic. The similarity was so uncanny I needed to ask them where they got him and then the surreality of the moment began to make sense. The dog in front of me was Oscar and the reason he looked so much like my Murray was because they were brothers. it took us less than two minutes to establish we'd both got our dogs from Lisa on Kingsway in Wellingborough and by some fluke I had managed to meet him miles from where either of us usually go for a walk. I would have thought we'd have bumped into them at least once while we still had our boy. That would have made things a little easier, but fate doesn't do things in any sensible way.

He was fantastic. He was Murray to a tee and I suppose Murray was Oscar - but with their own familial characteristics. But I had seen enough, if I saw any more I would have struggled to keep it together and while I have now become friends with Oscar's mum, Julia, I didn't want her to see me blubbing like a baby and if I didn't get away from them that would be have been the next thing to happen.

The following six hours or so were pretty horrendous. The new tsunami ripped through my foundations and battered me around like a piƱata and for both the wife and I, for a little while, we had been returned to the nightmare of grieving.

Yet... Julia sent me a message and said she really was sad to hear that we'd been upset meeting Oscar and she'd understand it if we didn't want to see him again and this reminded me of something that happened a few years ago when I first stopped smoking. I used to have the most vivid dreams and in many respects it was the dreams that fuelled the no-smoking attempt because years of smoking fags and pot meant my dreams had pretty much still happened but I was never really conscious of them.

I had several dreams where my folks were in them. "Doesn't that upset you?" Asked a colleague at the time. "Hell, no. They're dead, I'm never going to see them again, so dreaming about them is as good as it gets." I also felt that the days that followed 'seeing' them were always the best. It put a spring in my step; it brought some confidence back to me. Hell, I'd sat in my (old) living room with them both and two of my beloved lost pets and we had a cup of tea and a good old conversation. How could anything possibly top that?

I don't know if the wife could meet Oscar. She needed to know because I needed her when she got home to help steady my supports against the still on-rushing waves, but I also know that I deal with death so much better than she does and I have been intrigued by how different my reaction and emotions were to how writers or Hollywood would like us to think how we'd react. The thing is if you asked 100 people how they think they'd react if someone they loved and lost walked back into their lives, despite you knowing they were dead and everyone would want to have that Hollywood factor, but really, the reality is considerably different. 

I think I could meet him again. I think meeting Oscar helped me get over that final grieving hurdle and it was a message from somewhere - maybe the universe - to tell me that everything will be fine. The day after the chance meeting I woke up feeling good - better than I had for a while. The days that followed yielded a new interview opportunity and even if I don't get the job, I felt completely reinvigorated again after it. I've started editing The Imagination Station again; the wife seems happier despite the future still looking bleaker than a wart hog's rectum and I think that's because I've been happier and spending time talking about positive or funny things rather than obsessing over politics or how fucking unlucky I feel. I've even started whistling when I'm cooking again and I appear to have had four good nights sleep in the last week, which is four more than I've had since May.

And here's the thing. You don't look at an aunt or an uncle if one of your parents are dead and grieve every time for your missing mother or father (and if that hasn't happened yet, trust me, you won't). My aunt/godmother is the spitting image of my mum and I love looking at her face, so there shouldn't be any problem with Oscar. If a mutual friend of Julia and mine (and we have a few) had seen the similarity and arranged for us to meet before Murray had died, we would still have been freaked out by the similarities, but it would probably have made us want to let the two of them get to know each other again. In fact, once you set aside the emotional side of this, there is nothing unusual or even remarkable, just coincidental.

I know, from experience, I'm never going to stop missing or loving all my long-lost loved ones. I also know that Oscar isn't Murray; except he is as close as physically possible and that is bloody weird and not a little unsettling; but I'd like my dogs to become friends with him. I want to become friends with him. I want to see if dogs really are that clever and empathic. I want to have Oscar in our lives, even if it is just in fleeting glimpses, because in him my boy is still going strong and will do for a few more years yet. Besides, you'd not stop seeing aunts, uncles, cousins or siblings - would you?