Like many, I first learned about grief through the loss of a pet. Our dear old tabby had seen me through childhood and puberty. When it came to putting her down, the vet gave her a dose that wasn’t big enough for her (gargantuan) size, so we were sent home to wait for the injection to do its morbid business. My mum had to dash off so I was left alone with a dying cat on my lap. I stroked her, whispered thanks, and sang. When she finally died, the calm of my vigil disappeared and I howled for hours, beating my chest and screaming to an uncaring God, ‘Why?’
Years later, stroking the hair of my 101-year-old grandmother, it felt familiar. The staying with it. The holding. The not turning my back. That dear old tabby had taught me a lot: how to transition from someone you love being here, to being not.
Working on A Thousand Paper Birds, I wanted to write about grief and gratitude simultaneously. The book is based in Kew Gardens where hundreds of commemorative benches remember those who ‘once loved these gardens’. There are sisters ‘who spent many years painting the bluebells’, an ‘American who often walked these paths’ and one that is simply called ‘Mum’s Bench’. The more I noticed these inscriptions, the more I appreciated the transient pleasures – how the dead, too, once celebrated the gleam of sunlight on water, or spent a dawdling hour, contemplating the shapes in the clouds.
I also stumbled upon an interview with an old origami master. Yoshizawa had spent his existence ‘trying to express, with paper, the joy of life and the last thought before a man dies.’ It reminded me of a day when there had been a sudden downpour. My terminally-ill neighbour had walked out with his umbrella and stood in the middle of the road, just taking it all in. How do you say goodbye to that last rainfall? The first crocus? Your child’s face? A Thousand Paper Birds tries to stretch that final moment. If I could press pause between my penultimate heartbeat and my last, what would my thoughts be?
As a writer, you can suspend that moment. There is a vivid intensity when close to death – a true appreciation of the sun on your skin, the light shining on a garden fence. That heightened state is impossible to maintain, but oh, how glorious it is, that gratitude. But then comes death, and the wailing, beating grief – the knowledge that when, at last, you stop crying, life will be irreparably changed. As I say in Paper Birds, ‘The entire world has been rearranged.’
As we face into the vast, gaping mystery of death, we look for signs: a rainbow above a grave, or a robin, perched on a twig, bringing us a message from some place beyond us. As for ghosts, I’m not a great believer. Rationally, they make no sense. But once I was staying in a huge house built in 1856 to celebrate a friend’s birthday. During the evening I went upstairs to reapply lipstick. A woman ahead of me was walking down the corridor in full Victorian dress, carrying a candlestick. She was just going about her business, turning a corner, putting the house to bed. The only difference was that there was something granular about the quality of her presence. It didn’t feel like a haunting, but two timeframes crossing. Perhaps, for her too, I appeared as a ghost, smacking my freshly-painted lips together. As if all moments that have ever occurred are still happening and time is a giant piece of paper, folding and unfolding. In that second, two centuries placed on different corners touched, connected, then separated again. An origami dance.
This blurring of boundaries interests me: the blurring of the boundary between life and death, and the blurring effect of grief on the person left behind – the way you no longer know where you begin or end. Skinless in this unfamiliar world, we feel assailed by the bizarre fact that the world continues, that the sun persists in rising. It takes time to return to the rhythm of living again. As we slowly and painfully heal, the question is how far do we let another person into our lives? How far will we let someone else seep in?
The theme of transformation unites the book – from the evolution of the paper in Chloe’s hands to the characters’ progress from life to death, from grief to life. We are constantly shape-shifting. Shedding. And this is where Kew Gardens comes in: the cycles and the seasons, the constant rebirth and letting go, the yielding. From an early age, I learnt from the book, The Secret Garden, that nature has the power to transform. If you enter a garden and truly let it in, you can leave changed.
I believe that one of literature’s task is to remind us, in the everyday busyness of our lives, that this, right here, is a miracle – to not take the beauty in each other for granted; to wonder, slack-jawed, at the starlit sky; to love, as ferociously as we can; and to cherish this wild, fragile planet. A Thousand Paper Birds may explore grief, but in essence it is a love letter to life.