I remember going to see Les Deux Pigeons many years ago, a ballet re-choreographed by the great Frederick Ashton. As with all Ashton’s work, the choreography is beautiful and delicate, and the young dancers captured the movement of the birds perfectly. The tale draws on La Fontaine’s fable and tells a story of young lovers. The fable itself was inspired perhaps by Horace in his Epistles, and the fact that pigeons and doves mate for life:
And we nod in agreement like old familiar doves.
You guard the nest: I praise the streams and woods
And the mossy rocks of a beautiful countryside.
Driving home from my son’s today I saw the saddest of sights. High on the top of a street lamp were two pigeons… ring doves… playing out a tragedy equal to any written.
One was, quite obviously, dead; the lifeless form unmoving on the top of the lamp. Beside it perched its mate. In the brief seconds as I drove, I watched the little bird cuddle close, nudging her mate with her head.
Call me a wimp, if you like. I wept all the way home.
There was such pathos in her movements, such a need for her mate to wake up.
It was only a pigeon… but it was also a fellow creature to whom my heart went out.
I’ve lived with pigeons… their characters are distinct and whether or not we can measure and quantify their emotions scientifically, you only have to watch them long enough to be convinced they share many feelings we can recognise.
This little bird had lost her mate. You could see loss and grief in every line of the small, feathered form.
And there is not a thing that I, or anyone, can do.
There never is.
You cannot heal grief for another, no matter how hard you try. You cannot bear it for them. You can only witness it, even when your heart aches for them, even when empathy opens your own memory of loss. You can only hold their hand, offer the comfort of presence, perhaps the gift of laughter… but grief is a path that can only be walked alone, and it is a long road.
When my partner died fifteen years ago, the first year was raw. Every anniversary, everything I did or saw, every cup of coffee that was for one, not two, tore at the heart. But there were people there… friends who cared, and that mattered. People asked, or spoke of him. People remembered.
The second year the numbness blanketed the raw emotions. I moved through the days, as you do. The anniversaries were silent. I still made two cups of coffee every so often, and wept when I realised; I still saw something I wanted to share and realised I could not. But by then the grief was personal. Others had forgotten. Not the man, nor the loss… there was nothing negative in it…but time had passed, their lives had moved beyond the sadness and because you look fairly normal, they do not see what lies hidden in the heart. The second year was the hardest.
We do not grieve always as much for those who are much older than we are… those of whom we can say, ‘they had a good innings’. Unless we are close. Unless they are parent, sibling, close friend or life-mate. Then age has no meaning.
Nor does it matter in the slightest what beliefs we hold dear, or if we can rationalise attachment, or even what faith we keep close to our hearts. We can philosophise all we like. The heart simply hurts, mourning the loss.
That loss goes deep; it is more than a loved one who is no longer with us, it is a life cut from under out feet and for a time, we too are lost. Like the pigeon.
Time heals; whether we want it to or not. The grief of loss becomes the tenderness of memory and the joy of having loved. Even if it aches sometimes. The memory, the story of that love we have shared, is written on our lives; the giving of love shapes us… and there are worse things to be shaped by.
Pigeons have excellent memories.