BOOK REVIEW: ‘Candle in the Wind’ explores loss, grief and everything in between
By Ricky Thomas Nyakach
The spring before he was born, Stanley Kunitz’s father committed suicide in the park. It broke his mother. So one day, as a young boy, when Stanley comes from the attic with a portrait of a man with a brave moustache; his mother tears it into smithereens, and slaps him so hard, he could still feel the slap at the age of sixty. A father’s love is the warmth of his family – he makes you see how beautiful the world is. Nothing prepares one for the loss of a father and the parting is hell. It is a path that ends too soon and has no right time. Even for Kunitz, the loss of his father, gone before he was born, lived with him all his life.
Candle in the Wind by Austine Arnold is a beautifully written harrowing journey of grief. It is the journey of the loss of a grandfather, a father, a grandmother; in a short period of time; and the earlier deaths of a best friend and a mother-figure, Nya Pwoyo. Austine brilliantly introduces us to a dedicated Math teacher and Principal, a loving husband, and a committed father who fulfilled every duty he owed his family; and who as if to practice clairvoyance, made his son repeat a class and launched him on a collision course with greatness. While celebrating the life of his father, Austine invites us to his deeply personal journey surviving the death of his superhero. He asks ‘What can we do without Daddy?’ as he makes the tip that would be his last moments with Japuonj, to the reality that he is gone, and his fondest thoughts will live only in our hearts.
For a son who has lived his life desiring to make his father proud; nothing compares to a father’s affirmation. It is from our fathers that we learn the truths of life; and the need to be men of honor, men who keep their word. When a father keeps his word on buying his son a bike; he sets in motion the integrity of keeping one’s word in the son. The affirmation that this is my son transcends all, even in one’s deathbed. It speaks to a glorious fellowship between father and son, and shows that the young Okil is fit for future fights, like his grandfather would have wished.
Austine boldly shares with his readers his most vulnerable moments. The reader appreciates that the grieving process is not as uniform as oft imagined. There are days he would lock himself in and cry, there are days he would read, and there are days he would read and cry. Loss drove him to reading. To paint a picture of how people uniquely reacted to loss, he intelligently introduces us to Cheryl Strayed, whose escape route from the loss of her mom was sexual escapades.
Grief finds us at different times and in different places; and its effect and our reaction will not be the same. Yet this book reminds us that we can summon our energies to master our destiny. We learn to dance in the rain. The pain of loss, we are told, is all the love we haven’t spent. It is all the little memories, all the little things we wish we did, or wish we didn’t. It is the random chest-deep laughs from Japuonj, the genius of his household. It is the questions we could have asked. It is the time we could have spent. Yet we are consoled by the words of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, ‘dust thou art, and to dust thou shalt return was not spoken of the soul’; our loved ones, even those gone, are all around us.
Austine, in Candle in the Wind, opens up on personal and family battles following the death of his father – his True North – and the storm that would unravel in his life in the days that would ensue. He questions the essence of living after losing the person you feel like you truly owed everything and still hadn’t paid back a cent. He talks about living a fairly decent life, winning all through, that he finds himself unable to deal with any loss, let alone one of the magnitude of losing your bearing.
He talks about standing at the edge of life and death and almost jumping over the cliff in a bid to numb that pain. Austine, for a second there, as we find out in the book, researches about the different ways of committing suicide and thinks about them a lot, day and night, mostly at night, when he says his late father would come to him in his dreams and tell him he’s lonely on the other side and try to convince him to join him in the world yonder.
The young man also questions the validity of euthanasia/mercy killing and recalls a past heated discussion in a Medical Law class when he would advocate for it to be legalized so as to help those at their deathbeds end the pain and go out on their own terms, with their dignity intact.
However, as he looks upon his father on his hospital bed, slowly dying and wasting away, when medics would fit him with an Oxygen Mask but give his family the choice of having it removed because it would only add him a few more hours but he was certainly gone anyway, Austine finds that it’s not that easy to let someone go, after all. He backtracks on his earlier argument on euthanasia and instead now says there is “nothing like a dignified death. This issue grossly transcends the person dying, to the people he is living behind. If your brightest star was hooked to a hospital bed, dying; you clutched onto the last hours, minutes, seconds.”
Candle in the Wind – aptly named after an Elton John song by the same title – opens the reader up to a world of grief, and mostly attempts to debunk what has now been known as the stages of grief; Denial, Bargaining, Depression and Acceptance. He instead posits that grief cannot be defined or given a timeline, and that it is absolutely okay to take your time with it. Candle in the Wind is a book everyone should read; because death and loss are things we will all have to contend with at some point in our lives. As King Kaka says in the song ‘Promised Land,’ hiyo ndio njia yetu sisi sote!
[Austine Arnold, the author of the book ‘Candle in the Wind’, is a Nairobi-based lawyer interested in Public Governance and Youth Affairs. He can be reached on 0708815780 / 0758242612 for book enquiries.]