For the River
October in Scotland. Sometimes it could be as warm as summer, other times as bitter as winter. You just never knew.
The week up north was meant to be our last hurrah. All together again for seven nights of drinking and partying, just like we'd always done. Except this time was different. This time we knew it would be Stuart's last.
His cancer had come back the previous summer. He was given a year. This time there was nothing that could be done. No more operations, no more treatments, no more medical trials, no more radiation. Just death. The only outcome the doctors could be certain of.
He'd taken it with his usual stoicism. It was never discussed when we were all together - it was business as usual. We'd drink, and eat, and play music until the small hours. Then be on our way with a farewell until the next time.
The next time. Always a bit harder than the last. We could see his body giving up on him. His appetite had gone, and not just for food, he wasn't drinking either. But the most telling part, and the hardest to take, was that he'd stopped laughing. No more jokes. No more tales. The light was going out.
Perhaps sensing the inevitable, we'd booked some neighbouring cottages in the highlands and filled our cars with food and drink. The journey north seemed to take forever as we headed out of Edinburgh in convoy. It had started raining the day before, and showed no signs of stopping. The windscreen wipers worked relentlessly, pushing the deluge this way and that, but the road ahead was barely visible. With nothing to see outside, no scenic distractions of the forests or hills and valleys we were surely passing, we were all lost in our thoughts. We didn't yet know there would be an empty seat on our return.
Stuart didn't make it out of his cottage that first night - probably just tired after the journey, we'd convinced ourselves. We drank anyway - overdoing it as you always do on the first night. In the morning we got the call. An ambulance had taken him away just before dawn. Bleary-eyed and hungover, we gathered to digest the news. He was on a life support machine. It was pushing air into him, then sucking the spent air out. It hissed and wheezed and rattled. The machine had become an essential part of his being. He was a heartbeat at the end of the national grid. What once gave him television and music and heat and light was now pumping life into him, a breath at a time. He was given hours to live.
That day, the rain never stopped. It ran down the gullies at the side of the road to the cottages and turned fields into lakes. The sheep gathered under trees, sodden and miserable. We were surrounded by hills but hadn't set eyes on them. They'd stayed under the blanket of grey, as if sensing what we sensed. Today was not a day for sunshine. Today was only for waiting.
When the news came we gathered and cried.
That night we drank in his memory. Forced jollity mixed with more tears and the inevitable platitudes: He was at peace; No more suffering; Maybe it was for the best; We all knew it was coming. Nothing really helped, but we did this because this is what people did. The hours passed, the empty bottles piled up, and after a while we started playing music. His favourite songs filled the air and for a moment we thought we could hear him, singing along, out of tune. We laughed at this while rubbing our eyes, gritty and salty now. We were all cried out.
Outside the cottage something unexpected happened. The rain stopped. Stepping outside, whiskies and wines in hand, we saw the stars above - the whole cosmos, like nothing we'd ever seen in the city. Infinite and wonderful. We stared up at the light of a billion stars. Some had expired millions of years ago, but their light still shone - a memory of what was once there, journeying back to us through time. Someone said something about us all being made of stardust. At times like this, it really meant something. None of us were religious in the traditional sense, but we shared a belief that atoms and energy were indestructible, and that life carried on - not in a paradise in the clouds, but at some essential, atomic level, beyond our understanding. Stuart would be part of that soon.
We stood and stared upwards. Swaying now, the drink taking hold. The river was all we could hear. It rushed past the cottages carrying three days of rain to the loch, the white peaks and froth flashing in the moonlight. We could see whole branches of trees tumble past in the torrent. We walked together to its banks, wary of the height of the water and the danger.
This water was eternal. It shot past us in an instant, but would soon settle in the loch. Eventually it would make its way out to sea, where in the heat of the sun it would vapourise and form clouds and be blown over the land to fall again as rain. No matter where it landed, gravity would pull it downwards through the earth, eventually to a river, maybe this river, and it would do it all again.
So we stood together on the bank, the whole universe above us, the indestructible water below us, and we raised our glasses and drank to our friend. A dram for each of us, and one for the river.
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