As Aeneas prepares to leave Dido she is heartbroken. Rather than live without his love, Dido decides to take her life. In her swan song she asks,
Remember me, remember me, but ah!
Forget my fate.
But such simple words ask for an impossible request: remember me in good times, but don’t remember my death and the pain it caused you. If only it were possible to make such a division between life and death. Dido’s lament lasts for approximately seven minutes on the stage. As she dies, the opera draws to an end, the curtains eventually close. People clap, flowers are thrown, performers take their bows and eventually their leave of the stage.
But Death, alas! I cannot shun,
Death must come when he is gone.
Death we cannot shun. It will come. Sadly, dying isn’t as simple as the songs would have you believe. “Remember me, but forget my fate,” is a lie we command to our loved ones, and a lie we tell ourselves. My Father was diagnosed with cancer seventeen months before he died. I find it hard to remember him, but to also forget his fate. Just as Jupiter commands Aeneas to leave Carthage for a new unknown land, so to was I commanded to find a new unknown land, unknown life without my Father.
The Skies are clouded. Hark how thunder
rend’s the mountain oaks asunder.
Onkos is ancient Greek for burden. It was also used in ancient Greek theatre as the name of a tragic mask with a conical-shaped headdress that represented the psychic load the wearer must bear. It was also one of the first words used by ancient Greeks to describe tumours and other masses that grew in the body. The tragic mask, heavy in load, is something we wear without question. Onkos was such an enormous part of me in those last seventeen months of my Father’s life, as I tried to carry my own tragic mask whilst helping my Father endure his.
When I am laid, am laid in earth, may my wrongs create
No trouble, no trouble in, thy breast.
My Father struggled with the immense pain he would eventually leave in his wake. He told me one day, “I want to stay, but my body won’t let me.” And so, we pretended for many months that the inevitable would not come, and that our tragedy was a mask we could take off once the curtains closed.
To Earth and Heaven I will complain.
To Earth and Heaven why do I call,
Earth and Heaven conspire my Fall.
Asking to stop time, to prevent fate, is an exercise in futility that I have performed with due diligence. As time goes by, I contemplate Dido’s request. And for a time, all I could do was remember my Father’s fate. Hours of sleepless nights. Emergency rooms. Chemotherapy. Picc lines. Infections. Tears. Surgery. Funeral plans. Doctors’ visits. Oncologists’ requests. In between these nightmarish recollections, there are moments of clarity where I see my Father in health and in happiness whistling in the kitchen making coffee. Despite how hard I try, I cannot forget his fate, because it became a part of him. It also became a part of me, and a part of our friendship as Father and daughter. To forget his fate is to forget the last goodbyes, the last hugs. It is a burden I wish I were free from, yet cannot give up. It is a sorrow that crushes me with a heavy weight, yet one I carry without question.
Banish sorrow, banish care,
Grief should ne’re approach the fair.
(All quotes are taken from the libretto of Purcell’s opera “Dido and Aeneas”.)