People, and our engagements with them, slowly aggregate in our minds and hearts over time.
On my 24th birthday – in 1991 – I was sat on a train to a new life in London with the majority of my belongings stuffed in a rucksack on the seat beside me. I had a new job beginning the following day, but my plans for finding accommodation had gone awry, and I knew I would have only a few hours on arrival to put a roof over my head and a pillow under it. That’s the confidence of youth for you. I sat and contemplated the task ahead and how the whole endeavour was such a radical departure. It is not often that Oxford physics graduates quit their PhD to work as a trainee manager in a Mayfair restaurant (and a rather down-at-heel one at that).
I fished around my bag and pulled out a small bundle of birthday cards. Lacking any suitable surface, I blu-tacked them to the inside of the train window. Mementoes of those I was leaving behind, geographically at least. I dare say I must have been looking somewhat reflective.
A girl opposite, a little younger, piped up “So is it your birthday then?”. She was pretty, and smiley, and knocked out of my reverie we got to chatting. She was heading for a new start in the big city too, as a trainee nurse. We talked of where we had come from and where we thought we hoped we were heading. As we bundled off the train at Euston we wished each other well, gave each other a spontaneous hug and then she was off. I stood and watched as she disappeared into the crowds until I couldn’t see her head bobbing along any more. Gone.
Every now and again – not often, granted – I wonder what became of her and her hopes. This most fleeting of connections still sits in me. It cannot be erased.
I recently read a book by a psychoanalyst called “The Examined Life”. It is essentially a collection of stories from the couch that illustrate not only truths about our humanity, but also open a door on the process of therapy itself. In the foreword the author states “…these pages are haunted by loss…” and so it proves. It is a tenet of psychotherapy that loss defines us so powerfully *almost* nothing else matters.
His closing story is of a patient he met only once, for the standard 50 minutes. He was a troubled young man, who was referred onto a colleague. Much much later he heard through other sources that this man had ultimately taken his own life. This young man, the brief time they had spent together, and the things they had discussed remained with him and on occasion when they sprang to mind he inevitably asked himself whether there was anything he could have said or done that may have changed the course of subsequent events. So, in a sweeping circle, not only were his patients haunted by loss, but his very connection to the patients that passed through his room in a professional context made indelible reciprocal marks on him, spinning new webs of connection and things – or people – relinquished.
I still wonder about that girl on the train. And every other soul who has made any kind of impression on me. You can never truly give people up, not completely.
It’s a wonder we ever leave the house. And yet we do.