Saturday, 12 September 2015

Art and death and farewells in Glencoe and Greenland

Twitter can be wonderful. I first met artist and writer Nancy Campbell via Twitter, last year in March. Nancy had favourited a snowdrops photo, and I discovered she had produced a beautiful book, in the form of art cards, How to Say 'I Love you' in Greenlandic. I immediately got the book for my stepdad (I may have traded a copy of my novel for Nancy's work, I can't recall - I've done this several times, used my novel as currency for art).

My stepdad spent many happy hours reading through the cards, enunciating the Greenlandic words - I can see and hear him now - correcting me when I got the pronunciation wrong. Childhood memories are important in dementia, and we didn't know the old songs/fairytales/poems that would stimulate him, so these cards played a special role.  When he died, I wrote a message on one of the cards, wrapped gold ribbon round it - a bit 'blingy', but it was all I could find - and placed it in his coffin. I wanted to put more things in - there is an instinct, I think, to put in many objects of comfort for the departing soul. Though that is, of course, more to comfort ourselves.

I was delighted when Nancy told me she'd applied for an art residency at Ilulissat's Emanuel Petersen Museum, which, before it was a museum, was my stepdad's childhood home. We could not have known that by the time she did the residency my beloved stepdad would have passed away. By sheer coincidence my mother had planned to scatter his ashes in Glencoe, the same week Nancy was in Ilulissat. Nancy kindly asked if there were any mementoes of my stepdad's we would like her to take to Greenland. We decided to send her his order of service with loving messages written on the back by various members of our Scottish/Scandinavian family. I asked Nancy to perform whatever ceremony she could, I suggested making a wee boat and floating it away, but was putting the event entirely in her hands. I knew she would know what to do.

Scattering my stepdad's ashes in Glencoe - or more accurately Glen Etive - was a peaceful and beautiful occasion. The sun shone and we played Local Hero soundtrack gently in the background - he loved this music - and my younger nephew played a sad folk song on the violin. Buachaille Etive Mor stood solid and strong in the background. There were deer,  and house martins diving all around. We put a few drops of whisky on the ground to send him on his way. I brought back some wild flowers and pink heather, the flowers died straight away, the heather has survived and is on my bookshelves.


Early on in their marriage, my mother had a local artist paint Buachaille Etive Mor for my stepdad as a gift. It was one of his favourite spots in the world. The painting hangs in their house and now when I look at the painting I know he is there, physically part of the landscape. Internet connection in Greenland and Glencoe is, unsurprisingly, fickle, so I did not know what Nancy had done on that day, but I did think about Greenland when we were in Glencoe and was curious.

Last week, Nancy sent me a beautifully detailed, long email of what she had done, I read it in tears, touched by her great thoughtfulness and creative gestures. She had placed my stepdad's memorial card on top of the harmonium in the museum for a couple of days, among the stunning Emanuel Petersen paintings. And she put sage leaves around him that she'd brought from her garden in Oxford. She said she liked the idea of sage helping spirits to rest. After the harmonium, for the final goodbye, Nancy chose to place his order of service in an Ilulissat hilltop graveyard, under a piece of gneiss she had chosen as an anchor. She placed him at the southern most tip of the graveyard, pointing towards Scotland. She told me that in Inuit culture, wide views of the sea are important for the location of burial sites. This is a photo of the cemetery taken by Nancy. There are harebells and blueberries growing, and mussel shells and plastic flowers on the graves.

                                                                     Ilulissat, photo by Nancy Campbell, 2015


Nancy and I have never met - though I hope we do, one day - and she did not know my stepdad, but by a quirk of fate, she became intimately involved in our bidding farewell to him. His twin brother, who lives in Copenhagen, hopes to scatter his remaining ashes in Ilulissat next year. Then the farewell will be complete.  I think of how our lives are threaded, my stepdad could never have known that the artist whose cards he enjoyed so much in the last year of his life would be taking him home to Greenland. And Nancy, when she favourited a photograph - garden snowdrops I'd taken on my very unsophisticated phone - could not have known where that would lead.

It is seven months now since my stepdad's passing, my own grief is more gentle, for sure, but it's without exaggeration when I say that he was my best friend. Now that he is gone I know this more than ever. I have yet to meet a kinder man. Thank you, Nancy, for what you did for him.


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