Grief Is A Faltering Donkey
At the bottom of one of her leather saddle packs, as I prepared to hand Kaïsha back to her master-carer, Monsieur Christophe, I found an Advice Sheet for handling donkeys. Unread, of course.
I am too busy for instructions.
God gave this gay man brothers who are engineers, and friends who are IT experts, so that instruction leaflets may never darken my door, or rain on my Fabulous.
I much rather the excitement of a crisis averted, than a step-by-step solution, diagramed A through K, written in 17 languages, on folded rice paper.
The leaflet’s very first piece of advice was remarkably simple, and indeed has been a core theme which I have tackled as I walk these 220kms, with a donkey by my side.
‘Un âne n’aime pas rester seul’. A donkey does not wish to remain alone.
Figuring out how to work alongside a donkey requires thinking like a donkey. It is not an obvious thing, to see behaviour through the prism of their logic, and not ours.
Most of our human frustrations with donkeys, because of what we erroneously label ‘stubbornness’, are diffused by understanding their relationship to others.
Donkeys want to stick together. They want to wait for stragglers to catch-up. They become distressed at the act of leaving someone behind.
And this foundational desire is mediated through their quasi-magical ears, which give them advance knowledge of when someone else must be waited upon.
Most of my struggles with Kaicha’s refusal to move have been resolved some minutes later, when a walker appears in the distance, behind us; or when a stationary party we come upon agrees to move again. Only when that walker moves with us will Kaïsha willingly proceed.
The act of being in nature for days, in the company of another animal, both like myself and unlike myself, lands me in a zone of pared vulnerability which I do not often experience.
It is, above all, the lack of technological stimulus which creates the space for raw reflection. No earbuds, no podcasts, no music, no media. Only the stomp, stomp, stomp of Kaïshakial progress.
My late mother, who passed over a year ago, is keenly in my thoughts.
I feel a child in her presence, acting out a children’s donkey story which we narrate together. Her values, my words.
This journey, or ‘périple’ as the French so elegantly put it, has produced so many things I wanted to share with her, back home in the breakfast room; her Ship’s Bridge from which she has held our fleet together.
The loss of someone fundamental is a complex and evolving experience. It requires an accommodation to facts which are beyond understanding, and also undeniable.
For months now, I have had a recurring dream in which my mother is present and talking with me. I have loved these dreams. They feel like treasured, stolen moments. On my lips, as I awaken, is some version of the same words: ‘Come back Mama. I want you back’.
During these days walking through the Cévennes with Kaïsha, I had a fresh dream.
I saw Mum enter a room, busy doing normal things. I speak to her, but she does not hear me; she gazes towards me, but her eyes do not meet mine. She does not see me.
For the first time, my dream has me observing, not engaging, with her.
It is a painful realisation – and one which wakes me up.
‘Mama’, I say, longingly. ‘Oh, Mama’.
By such narrative shifts are the complex plot lines of The Book Of Loss written.
A few days ago, Kaïsha and I were walking through a soft forest, and I began singing ‘Little Donkey’, the children’s Christmas carol. Gotta keep on travelling onwards, with your precious load. My tune penetrated the air until it was gently absorbed by the forest’s green leaves.
That moment of grace had come after a period of protracted ‘asal hassle’, where my donkey-in-chief simply would not move.
We had come upon a lovely young couple starting up their lunch under a chestnut tree, in the dappled light. I stopped to talk. It was all very friendly and warm.
When I went to leave, Kaïsha would not agree. She advanced two metres, then stopped. One more metre, then faltered again.
With great sweat and effort, I tried to make her move, past those lovely people and their picnic.
But she did not want to leave them. Every metre was etched with her distress.
Until finally, in her own time, we found flow, and walked again.