Why I wrote ‘Falling for Icarus’

‘I think it may have spread to her brain,’ says the consultant. ‘The end could come very quickly.’ My mother is in the next room, whisked away by a nurse so the doctor can speak to me alone. He says her tissue sample is malignant. Metastatic cancer. ‘One month,’ he tells me. ‘Five weeks at the outside.’

On the drive back to our village I put my hand on her leg. It feels bone thin. Only last month we walked together around the churchyard, her hand in the crook of my arm. My mother squeezes my hand. ‘At least we have the gift of this time together,’ she says.

My wife and I take her in to our home. I stop work. We put her photographs on the dresser, set her armchair in the corner, buy her a new year diary. The visiting nurse (‘a bit of a Tartar’) teaches her to walk by talking to her reluctant limbs. ‘Come on left leg. Come on right.’ The Zimmerframe digs runnels in the carpet. Morphine constipates her. Every night for a week my wife dreams of cooking different remedial meals with sackfuls of garlic and ginger. We watch my mother’s fine memory fade, replaced by dozens of Post-It notes stuck on every wall and tabletop. Her copper-plate handwriting becomes illegible. She puts my father’s love letters into date order. We divide the nights into ninety minute shifts. The Tartar says, ‘I don’t know if I’ll see you ­ when I’ll see you ­ again.’ Five months after the diagnosis my mother dies in a pale green English bedroom. My sister cries, ‘Open the window’ — to let her soul fly free.

Nothing prepares us for the hammer blow of the loss of a loved one. No amount of forewarning, understanding or even prayer can lessen the initial brute impact of grief. A hole big enough to carry a coffin through is wrenched in our heart. My mother’s death turned me inward, splintering my confidence and crippling my imagination. I was incapable of making the smallest decision: what to eat for supper, when to go to bed. I had to turn myself outside in to cope.

In this country the newly bereaved may be given a leaflet by a kindly nurse. A minister might call round a day or two later. No one can tell you that mourning lasts a year, or many years, that the survivor will never be the same again. Maybe voices hide behind silence because death will mark us all sooner or later. There is little structure or support for this most fundamental severance. Other societies enshrine grief in ritual: in sitting shiva, in the annual lighting of candles of remembrance, in the recognition of this exceptional time. We wear no weeds. We’re simply expected to soldier on. I could have propped up the bar of the White Hart, blubbed on friends’ shoulders, wept over Eastenders. I could have picked up the book I’d begun to write half a year before. But such displacement did not feel right for me.

In my then dislocated life there was one clear, unexpected certainty. In the moment of death I too wanted to fly. Perhaps to go with my mother. Perhaps because of the swallows which had arrived earlier that last month and we had watched sweeping up to their nests under the eaves. Whatever the source, this sudden, mad compulsion obsessed me. At the most vulnerable point of my life, with the umbilical cord finally cut, I had to follow my intuition.

I decided to build an aircraft, not from a kit ­ that seemed a bit like cheating ­ but from scratch, so as to depend on myself alone, rebuilding myself piece by piece as I built the aeroplane, giving shape to formless mourning. But where to do it? As a newly-cast orphan, I sensed that I had to reach back to beginnings. Not just to Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, where the Wright Brothers had flown, but instead back to that twilight where history and legend met. The earliest record of man’s dream of flight, of rising above our earthly bondage, is in the legend of Daedalus and Icarus, which is set in Crete. Icarus flew too close to the sun, the wax melted and he fell into the sea. But Daedalus, his father, flapped on across the Aegean to a new life.

My wife and I moved for six months to a huddled, intimate Cretan village tucked away in a fold of hills, beneath the snow-capped peaks of the White Mountains. There we built a simple flying machine with the materials at hand and the enthusiastic support of the villagers. Cretans have a raw, unpredictable, admirable energy for life and we were welcomed in to their homes and lives. No one asked me if I could fly an aircraft. As one neighbour said, ‘It is not our problem if he kills himself. He has a vision and we must help him achieve it.’ The islanders had no inclination for temperance believing, like the ancient Greeks, that excess was divine. When a man is shaken by birth, love or death then the Greeks assume a god stands beside him. So yes, the villagers thought I was mad, but they understood that madness is part of life.

In the dark under the bright Cretan sun I groped my way forward. I worked on automatic, the mechanics of construction allowing me to rebuild my confidence. The satisfaction of making the beautiful, feather-light machine slowly helped to channel my grief. Of greater significance were the Cretans themselves. Their kindness, rootedness and zest for today (along with plenty of wine) began to restore my faith in life. They uplifted my spirit much more than did my single flight.

But most important of all was the writing of the book. Up until that point the death of my mother had seemed like a story written by someone else. My true reinvention came by drawing together and assimilating the raw material of this experience. Only then could I see the arc of one aching, anxious chapter in my life. The aircraft had been a kind of enabling device, a necessary part of my mourning. Writing was the real soaring, the attainable form of flight. It enabled me to articulate an unending loss, to begin to make sense of the chaos. That closure has brought me back down to earth.

Today when I look back on the actual flight I feel a gut-wrenching horror for what might have been, a finite life smeared along the tarmac. I’d needed to push myself to a physical limit to parallel my emotions in extremis. I hadn’t much cared if I lived, but I’d never actually wanted to die.

Individual grief is unique, like a face or a fingerprint. As a writer I needed to shape something from these events and ­ through intuition, through instinct ­ had created my own ritual. No matter how unlikely the project may seem now, its pursuit was not out of character. Every one of us must deal with loss in our own way and time, not by hiding our emotions through alcohol and denial (though they are often part of the process), but by integrating grief into life. That acceptance gives us the chance to enact a deeply creative process which can lift us from the ashes of devastated certainties.

This morning my wife and I watched our toddler running in the garden, chasing the dog’s tail. We laughed together in joy for his vitality and beauty, for this gift of time together. Not an hour later the swallows returned to our corner of Dorset, sweeping up under the eaves as they did that sad, black springtime. It is death which animates life, by limiting it. By facing the dark side and recognising that we grow through loss we can ­ with luck and a fair tail wind — fly free.

On Death and Daedalus was published in The Times in May 2004.