In a time of sorrow there is comfort in ritual, in doing the familiar.
Our friend from New Jersey, Rachel, has often seemed to be out on our walks with us. As we’ve filmed them or photographed them to show to her during times when, as she’s said ‘My world is so much smaller now. I spend so much of my time dealing with all things cancer, so I need to hear about the kinds of experiences that don’t involve doctors, hospitals, tests, treatment or otherwise.’ So we have shown her Liverpool and the Wirral and further afield, as we have regularly gone out walking and camping over the last year. Last week, in fact, as well as the photographs you saw in my walk report, we made a film for Rachel, to cheer her up when, as we confidently expected, she emerged from yet another hospital experience. Well, obviously, she never got to see that one, as she died in hospital this last Monday from metastatic breast cancer.
So today, with Sarah being over in New Jersey, I decided to continue with our tradition of ‘seeming’ to have Rach with us, by taking her on a walk I don’t think we’d ever shown her.
This walk is called ‘The Docker’s Steps’ (we’ll get to why) and takes place entirely within Liverpool.
As I set off, the day was slate grey and steel cold. I like it being cold in the winter, that’s how it’s supposed to be. Down our road, across and along Smithdown, turning into Ullet, and past the park.
Then along Ullet, Croxteth, right into Kingsley, to get to my beloved Granby. This is one of Liverpool’s most deprived areas, which has slid into dereliction over the last twenty years, ’til now there are just four of the original streets left. Sixty or so people live in them, and 130 of the houses are bricked up and empty. Over this last year, along with those people and other willing outsiders, I have put my heart and soul into helping the Granby Four Streets to have a future. And we’re now increasingly confident that it does.
Then across Princes Avenue, to the Welsh Streets, built by Welsh builders and all having Welsh names. Street after empty street, with a very uncertain future.
Then right into Admiral Street, and down the hill our next destination looms.
In the Cathedral I sit for a while and watch Rach’s candle burning. As you may know, I’m not a religous person, but there is something so elemental in the lighting of a candle, that for the first time since she’s died, I feel some peace. And look tenderly on the candle like it actually is the light of Rachel I’m seeing there. Comforted, I walk on.
These are a precious piece of Liverpool working class history that have miraculously survived, though the docks they helped the dockers to get to, from their houses at the top of the cliff, are long gone. Until very late in the day, all Liverpool dock work was done as daily, casual labour. With men queuing at the dock gates each morning to see if they’d be taken on to work that day. So every time I walk down here I hear the footsteps of my ancestors. Who fought relentlessly for justice and fair pay. And at the bottom of the steps there is this wonderful mural about the history of my people, the Liverpool working class.
And so we reach the River. Fiercely cold down here today, with a very high tide. Too cold to sit and drink the tea I’ve brought with me, and contemplate things as I’d planned.
At Greendays I tell our friends Carole and Ronnie, who run the place, about Rachel dying. They have heard a lot about her over the last year and are deeply shocked, and deeply tender with me. They send their love across the ocean to Sarah, and I walk on, full of vegetarian comfort.
A long walk, maybe seven or eight miles with the Cathedral detour added into it. But a deeply satisfying ritual. And back home now, writing this, it’s the sense of ritual that most strikes me about my day. Someone you love dying throws your life into chaos. And since Monday I’ve literally not been able to think straight. So, time passing and a ritual was what I needed. As I write, it’s been four sleeps since Rachel died, and some peace started to return today. Because of lighting the candle, because of friendship, and because of the ritual of walking around places I love. The grief is nowhere near over, but one foot in front of another, I am walking on.
Mostly my walk was silent. But in Greendays there was music. Bob Dylan when I arrived. But then, I think understanding me, Carole put on the glorious, formal grace of Leonard Cohen. ‘Oh the sisters of mercy they are not departed or gone…’ I’m off to listen to some more.