Archives for category: Bereavement

The American writer and essayist David Foster Wallace committed suicide seven years ago, on September 12, 2008. I have just read his wife’s – Karen Green – grief memoir Bough Down, a beautiful and moving collage of poetry, prose and images.

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Green found her husband following his suicide:

‘I worry I broke your kneecaps when I cut you down. I keep hearing that sound…’

‘The policeman asks, Why did I cut you down. The question abides in the present tense. Because I thought and still think maybe.’

Bough Down is a wonderfully strange read, sometimes challenging to follow Green’s train of thought. But perhaps that is how it should be. The experience of grief, and of love, are ultimately subjective and individual, uniquely lived by those affected.

‘It’s hard to remember tender things tenderly.’

‘I have few desires and fewer aims. I dream of standing on the shore and not seeing his ear whorls in every shell.’

Pine, to wither away from longing or grief.’

Green addresses Foster Wallace throughout, Bough Down unfolding as a love soliloquy:

‘I could love another face, but why?’

The depths of Green’s distress are compounded by the nature of his death:

‘I call the doctor: I am suffering, it’s embarrassing, and I need I need I need…The doctor says if you were so quote perfect for me unquote you’d probably still be around, no offense.’

This is a gem of a book, raw, honest, challenging, sad and beautiful.

‘Ultimately, the loss becomes immortal and hole is more familiar than tooth. The tongue worries the phantom root, the mind scans the heart’s chambers to verify its emptiness. There is the thing itself and then there is the predicament of the cavity.’

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CQ

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The Spanish-Argentinian writer’s most recent novel has three narrators, 10 year old Lito, his mother Elena and his father Mario. Mario is dying, and the three contemporaneous voices tell the story of this experience from their own personal perspectives, the stories sometimes running in parallel, sometimes tangential. This is a wonderful book, which somehow manages to capture in just 160 or so pages the individuality and the heterogeneity of our approaches to life, heightened here in the face of dying and death.

We are first introduced to Lito as he embarks on a road trip with his dad. Mario wanted to do this trip with his son, at least once, just like his own father had once done with him. Mario is clearly already very ill, and just about manages to complete the journey. There are no deep and meaningful father-son chats during the trip. The opposite in fact, as Mario has deliberately chosen not to tell Lito that he is dying, or even that he is seriously ill. Later, when Mario has been admitted to hospital for the last time, Lito is sent to his grandparents. From here, Mario, at this point very near death, questions whether keeping his son in the dark has been the right thing to do:

‘you’re at your grandparents’ and you don’t know why, we’ve sent you there until the end of the holidays, I’m meant to be travelling, we talk every day, I try to sound cheerful, am I deceiving you, son?, yes, I’m deceiving you, am I doing the right thing?, I’ve no idea, so let’s assume I am, I prefer you not to see me like this…’

Instinctively, one feels that the lies were a mistake, but it perhaps easy for someone outside the tragedy within which the family find themselves to make a cold-blooded judgement call. Lies beget more lies, which become increasingly complex and entangled the longer they are allowed to continue. After his father’s death, which Lito has been told was the result of a road traffic accident, Elena reports:

‘He asks me how such a big truck could get crushed. I tell him sometimes big things break more. He asks me why Pedro [his father’s truck] looks the same as before, if he had such a big accident. I tell him his uncle did a really good job fixing him up in the workshop.’

Mostly, Lito’s voice is simply that of a 10 year old child, caught in the reality of his own day to day life, which is, at least until the moment of his father’s death, uncomplicated by anxieties for the future, and still in possession of a naivety that allows life to continue unquestioned despite the fact that the worlds of those around him are collapsing.

In Mario’s chapters, he speaks directly to his son, as if writing letters to be read posthumously. Yet, despite this direct address, Mario already seems detached, not quite present. Perhaps the lack of punctuation in his chapters contribute to this, with the text flowing as a stream of consciousness away from him, as his strength and life progressively ebb from reach. Much of what he touches on seems too painful to stay with. Speaking of the lie that hangs around the story he and Elena have concocted for Lito about his illness:

‘…I’d give anything to know what’s going to happen to this lie, what you’ll think of me when you discover it, you’ll have a few photos of me…but I have no way of seeing you, I mean will you be a nice guy or a rogue…’

Reflections on suffering and the aftermath of being given his prognosis are particularly moving:

‘…the worst of it is that I’ve learnt nothing from all of this, what I feel is bitterness, before…I though suffering was of some use…a bit of suffering in exchange for a conclusion…crap, it’s all crap…’

‘…from the moment they diagnose you, the world immediately splits in two, the camp of the living and the camp of those who are soon going to die, everyone starts treating you like you’re no longer a member of their club, you belong to the other club now, as soon as I realized this I didn’t want to say anything to anyone, I didn’t want pity…’

‘…I don’t want to touch anything that’s part of my body, everything in my body is my enemy now, this is what it is to be dead.’

For me, the most captivating voice was that of Elena. She raises many issues around the witnessing of dying, and the complexity of emotions, which can be contradictory and inconsistent, that can accompany this experience. Elena’s chapters are a rich source of references to authors who has written around the subject, as she questions what is happening to Mario and to all their lives in the face of his dying.

Quoting John Banville, Elena speaks of the effect of Mario’s diagnosis:

“It was as if a secret had been imparted to us dirty, so nasty, that we could hardly bear to remain in another’s company yet were unable to break free”

“From that day forward all would be dissembling. There would be no other way to live with death”

Elena also speaks of the divisiveness of serious illness, how it has distanced herself from Mario, at times even alienating each from the other:

‘It drives me crazy when Mario assumes that controlling attitude of his. As though illness depended on our level of composure. Mario is brave, his brothers keep repeated like parrots. If he were as brave as all that, he would weep with me each time we speak.’

‘When I go into the room, dressed in clothes he likes, my hair styled for him, I can sense resentment in his eyes. As though my liveliness offended him.’

So much of the loss around death and dying can happen before physical death itself:

‘By avoiding the subject of his death, Mario delegates it to me, he kills me a little.’

‘By caring for our sick person, we are protecting their present. A present in the name of the past. What am I protecting of myself? This is where the future comes in…For Mario it is inconceivable. He can’t even speculate about it. The future: not its prediction but the simple possibility of it. In other words, its true liberty. That is what the illness kills off before killing off the sick.’

‘For us carers, the future widens like an all-engulfing crater. In the centre is already someone missing. Illness as a meteorite.’

Inevitably, the aftermath rests with Elena:

‘If death interrupts all dialogues, it is only natural to write posthumous letters. Letters to the one who isn’t there. Because he isn’t. So that he is. Maybe that is what all writing is.’

As Elena looks at photos of Mario when he was well, she questions the truth of what we remember:

‘Looking at you again when you were beautiful, I wonder whether I am celebrating or denying you. Whether I am recalling you as you actually were or forgetting you when you were sick. Reflecting about it today…the biggest injustice about your illness was the feeling that this man was no longer you, that you were gone. But you weren’t: he, this, was my man. Your worn-out body. The last of you.’

A gem of a book, which haunts and lingers…

 

CQ

 

Although long aware of the Irish author Niall Williams, I had never read any of his novels. The arrival of his current book History of the Rain prompted me to explore his earlier work.

I started with Only Say the Word, and loved it, finishing it in less that 24 hours. It feels as if every book this year reminds of another author’s work, coincidentally also Williams, John, and his novel Stoner, which I have previously spoken about here [https://sufferingandthearts.wordpress.com/2013/12/16/stoner/]. Only Say the Word and Stoner are very different, but they do share a common theme of following one man’s life, and the influences and events that impacted on the life in question. In addition, both John Williams and Niall Williams are masters of a style of prose that seduces the reader willingly and complicitly into the life of the protagonist.

Niall William’s narrative tells the story of Jim, opening with the words:

‘I do not know what to write. There have been so many words written already. So many endings and beginnings. I have lost my faith.’

We are immediately introduced to the acute cause of Jim’s sadness, which is the loss of his wife Kate, mother of his young children:

‘And so I sit here, and feel your absence and wonder how to begin to live without you.’

As Jim commits his story to the blank page, his life up to now is revealed. We learn of his childhood in Ireland, with his devout mother who seemed to exist in a haze of sadness, his kind but distant father, his genius and troubled brother, and his baby sister Louise. It is a relatively calm and untroubled childhood, until:

‘And in that same passing of time, the same even measurement in which one moment seems identical to the next but is not, our life is struck and falls apart.’

Tragedy happens, from which nobody truly recovers. Jim partly blamed himself, as children tend to do, and it was not a family where such feelings were expressed or acknowledged:

‘In our family we are each like boats slipped from the moorings, out in deep water, and utterly separate or tangled in our own nets of grief and loss. We live together in the house but are each alone.’

Jim copes by escaping, initially through books and reading, and later physically, when he leaves school.

We follow Jim’s life, and his attempt to make sense of it as he commits the telling of it to the page. Jim is a more accessible character than John William’s Stoner, yet that is not the point. Liking someone is not critical for empathy, which only demands an authentic emotional connection with the suffering of another. Jim (and in essence Niall Williams) goes a step further. By sharing his story, and in particular the redemptive possibilities of caring and of love, hope is ultimately acknowledged and embraced.

 

CQ

Jon Sanders follow up to the earlier Late September is also a quintessentially British and theatrical piece. Set in Kent, Back to the Garden features the reunion of actor friends one year on from the death of one of the group. His widow remains stuck in her grief, and the film delves into and around issues of loss, of the meaning of mortality, and how terrifying the finality of death can be.

For the grieving widow, she now realises how totally bound up in her marriage, and in their love, her own identity had been. Following her husband’s death, it is as if she has not only lost him, but has also lost her self.

Her friends gently probe and question her feelings and her experience of grief.

‘Are you still in love with a dead person?’, one asks. An intriguing question, and one that proved hard to definitively answer, despite the fact that love was clearly consistently central to their relationship.

‘Does time heal?’, asks another. No, but taking one day at a time helps.

‘Is death the annihilation of self?’ ‘Do we just, stop?’ Also unanswerable and unknowable, but the discussions around these and other questions were illuminating.

Similar to his earlier work, Sanders encouraged improvisation in this recent release. This approach heightens the natural feel to the film, and its authenticity, and serves to make the experience of watching and listening to Back to the Garden real, thought provoking, and lingering.

 

 

‘A true tale of love, death and DNA’

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I saw this affecting work last night at Jackson’s Lane Theatre, North London. The Penny Dreadful production is currently on a UK National tour. The play is a profoundly thought-provoking piece, which directly challenges us to consider issues around mortality, immortality, and the ultimate question of what happens to us when we die.

Do we cease to be at that point?

The Henrietta Lack story encourages a consideration of this question. Lacks died as a result of cervical cancer in 1951, at the age of 31. However, the cells from her aggressive cancer, known as HeLa and which contain all the DNA that constituted Lack’s genetic make-up, continue to survive and to replicate in laboratory conditions, producing the first ever ‘immortal cell line’. Despite the dubious ethical issues that surround the original procurement of Lack’s cells (her children were never told, and Lack’s cells were public property until 2013), research based on HeLa has been directly responsible for the development of treatments for conditions such as AIDs, cancer, cystic fibrosis and vaccines, and many more. HeLa cells have also provided the foundation for mapping the human genome.

How To Be Immortal interweaves three true stories: Henrietta Lack’s own story and that of Dr Gey and his wife who ‘discovered’ HeLa in 1951, the story that Lack’s daughter Deborah (1996) was born into (she was a baby when her mother died) but only discovered later in life, and the contemporary narrative of Rosa and Mick. Mick, similar Lack, also has a rare and aggressive type of cancer, from which he dies. The issue of research, using cells from his tumour – this time with consent – is presented to the distraught Rosa. She agrees, and the outcome leads to a healing of sorts. Deborah also seems to experience a coming-to-terms with her mother’s death, and with its aftermath

I applaud the blend of science and of the essence of humanness, particularly its essential vulnerability, that How To Be Immortal successfully balances to create a living performance that raises questions it does not necessarily set out to answer. It is our job, the audience, to consider what has been presented to us:

Who and what are we, and does our ‘make-up’ extend beyond our DNA?

When we die, what do we leave behind? A contribution to some genetic pool, or memories, that may only remain until the death of the last remembering person?

Unanswerable questions, perhaps, but worthy of reflection…

I had my first experience of a Death Cafe event last night. Conceived approximately three years ago, the cafes are spaces where people come to ‘drink tea, eat cake and discuss death’ (http://deathcafe.com/). The aim of the movement is to facilitate an openness and awareness of death, thereby enhancing the quality of our lived and finite lives.

Although it was more supper and wine on the menu last night than tea and cake, the event lived up to and exceeded any expectations I might have had. It may seem odd to those who rarely dwell on the inescapable and shared fact of our immortality, but being in an environment where people openly shared their thoughts and fears, and non-fears, on the ultimate taboo subject was enlightening and refreshing. And not in the least bit depressing…

Over the past few days, I have read some interesting and diverse pieces on death and dying.

Firstly, a systematic review by Lehto and Stein on death anxiety (http://deepblue.lib.umich.edu/bitstream/handle/2027.42/66464/?sequence=1). Death anxiety in this context is ‘a term used to conceptualize the apprehension generated by death awareness.’ An all-pervasive anxiety, I suspect, which seems to have been heightened by the technologically advanced and led world we currently live in, where anything is or should be possible, including immortality, or at the very least an indefinite postponement of death.

The aim of the study was to identify factors that contribute to or are significantly associated with death anxiety. Lack of robust data on the topic limited the power of the review to draw definitive conclusions, but, unsurprisingly, important antecendents of death anxiety appear to include ‘stressful environments and the experience of unpredictable circumstances’, as well as personal experience of a life-threatening illness/event, and with death and dying. At my table last night, we pretty much all reported such life experiences to some extent, although the apparent levels of anxiety appeared to vary within the group. A complex issue.

I also came across the writer Jenny Diski’s recent musings on death and dying (http://www.berfrois.com/2013/12/jenny-diski-on-night-and-more/). In an amusing piece titled ‘Dirty Dying’, Diski considers her personal relationship with thinking about death:

‘I’ve never understood about boredom…But how can anyone be bored when there’s always death to think about? Every day. Every hour. Don’t you? All the rest is just evading or glossing the real subject of our lives.’

While currently re-reading Anatole Broyard’s Intoxicated By My Illness, I encountered this thought-provoking reflection from a 30 year old man dying from leukemia:

‘I don’t think people are afraid of death. What they are afraid of is the incompleteness of their lives.’

Which brings me to what I most enjoyed, and which both reassured and liberated me, during and subsequent to  last night’s Death Cafe event: there was no evasion, no avoidance, but instead, for those moments there existed the real possibility of talking about death in a welcoming and open environment, where people chatted, shared and laughed about lives that include death as a (mostly) welcome and also essential component of how we live. That is not to say that everyone present was accepting and comfortable about the prospect of their own death and dying and that of their loved ones. At times, there was an almost palpable sadness and grief. But that was ok, and it was also ok to talk about such feelings. Accepting death does not preclude grief and the profound sense of loss that one experiences for those who are no longer physically present in one’s life.

I end with Pablo Neruda and his succinct conclusion on the topic in the poem A Dog Has Died:

‘There are no good-byes for my dog who has died,

and we don’t now and never did lie to each other.

So now he’s gone and I buried him.

and that’s all there is to it.’

CQ

I found much to connect with in David Sedaris’s recent reflective piece in The New Yorker, ‘Now We Are Five’ (http://www.newyorker.com/reporting/2013/10/28/131028fa_fact_sedaris).
Sedaris’s sister, Tiffany, died in May this year, at the age of 49. She committed suicide, and although Sedaris had not communicated with her for 8 years, her death provoked a profound sense of loss.
‘A person expects his parents to die. But a sibling? I felt I’d lost the identity I’d enjoyed since 1968, when my younger brother was born.’
Until May, Sedaris belonged to a family of six siblings. Now, there are five.
‘”And you can’t really say, ‘There used to be six,'” I told my sister Lisa. “It just makes people uncomfortable.”‘

My sister died in January this year. Amidst the multi-faceted and infinite aspects of felt loss, I was unexpectedly struck by how diminished our sibling group has now become. The experience of going from five of us to ‘just four’, felt much greater than the loss of an individual. We seemed to have lost something indefinable that had hitherto made us the family that we had been.

‘Each of us had pulled away from the family at some point in our lives–we’d had to in order to forge our own identities, to go from being a Sedaris to being our own specific Sedaris.’

So too has it been for my family. We probably still do it, that pulling away, but there is always a coming back, even if unpredictable and transient.

The poet and physician Dannie Abse believes that ‘Men become mortal the night their fathers die.’ When the generation that appears to separate you from your own mortality is removed, it is a defining life moment, not merely in terms of the experience of losing a parent, but also in terms of what it means for the living and passing of one’s own life.

The death of a sibling is momentous for other reasons. Yes, it does indeed make you aware yet again of the fragility of life. It also challenges your sense of self and identity, especially that significant part of you that has always been bound up in ‘family’, much of which disappears along with the sibling you mourn.

CQ

This phrase is taken from Christopher Reid’s poem Exasperated Piety from his collection A Scattering, which was created as a tribute to his wife, who died as a result of cancer in 2005.

It is no coincidence that this came to mind today. This day a year ago, my sister was diagnosed with cancer, from which she died less than five months later. When I first saw her a few days after the diagnosis, we were both overwhelmed by our sadness and distress. I was also acutely aware that my sister had now entered a world that was instantly unshareable, and which progressively alienated her over the next months from those of us who remained in a world she had hitherto inhabited.

Susan Sontag describes illness as ‘the night-side of life, a more onerous citzenship. Everyone who is born holds dual citizenship, in the kingdom of the well and in the kingdom of the sick.’

Yet, although the gap between the kingdoms is narrow, those who are suddenly transported from the land of the well to that of the ill very quickly realise the meaning and the isolation that this entails. Christopher Hitchens described is as follows:

‘I see it as a very gentle and firm deportation, taking me from the country of the well across the stark frontier that marks off the land of the malady.’

I will never know what my sister’s experience was. She chose not to talk about it. I became increasingly aware, and guilty, of the gap between our worlds, one that seemed to widen every moment of every day of those few short months.

A Hospital Odyssey is an epic poetic and mythical journey through illness by Gwyneth Lewis, which focuses on Maris’s experience following her husband’s cancer diagnosis. Maris journeys alone to the Otherworld, separated from Hardy, and explores an imaginary and surreal illness landscape.

The voice throughout is that of Maris:

‘I want to capture what it is to care

for someone you love who’s very ill,

how quickly you age as you see them suffer,

you’d do anything to make them well,

but you can’t.’

‘What do you say when someone you love

is dying and there’s nothing you can do

to stop it happening, and you’re alive

and well, nowhere near through

adoring , and you can’t follow?’

CQ

I saw this tonight, and really enjoyed it. Even though the subject matter – illness, death, difficult relationships, loss – may appear ‘heavy’, I am glad I experienced it.

Melanie Spencer’s play is not perfect – it felt slightly too long and would have benefitted from deleting some scenes – but it effectively deals with very tricky life events imaginatively, sensitively, and with an appropriate, and important, dose of humour.

Daisy is almost 16. She is off school in her GCSE year, as she has recently been diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus (systemic lupus erythematosus). She lives with her dad, Peter. Her mum died from cancer just 18 months earlier.

Much of the play focuses on the relationship between Daisy and her dad, which is mostly fractious and involves much shouting (and non-listening) and storming out scenes. Peter still grieves for his wife. Daisy feels not understood by her dad.

Daisy’s best friend Alice loyally visits her pal regularly at home, updating her on school work and on school gossip. Theirs is an affecting and touching relationship, which holds much that feels real and raw, and full of teenage-appropriate angst.

As Daisy embarks on a course of low dose chemotherapy treatment, her dad calls on his wife’s sister Diana for help. Struggling to make ends meet, he cannot take the time off from work to accompany Daisy on her hospital visits. Diana, who appears to have had some mental health issues, is initially reluctant, but rises to the occasion, and ultimately thrives on this new challenge, and purpose, in her life.

There are many issues here, including serious illness, death of a parent/spouse, grieving, loss, mental illness, and not least, the challenges that teenagers face, which are so greatly enhanced by the arrival of serious illness.

I particularly loved the ending. It was open-ended enough to allow you to consider and to personally reflect on much of the stuff you had experienced, but also poignant and touching, and importantly spotlighted on teenagers, whose story it ultimately is…

CQ

The poet, novelist, playwright and doctor Dannie Abse kept a diary for a year following the death of his wife Joan as a result of a car accident in 2005.

In his first diary entry, some 4 months after Joan’s death, Abse writes:

‘The past survives however much one tries to drive it down and away from one’s consciousness.’

The diary presents itself as both a living record of loss, loneliness and grief, and also a reflection on the past, a looking back. Most entries start with the current date and end with a ‘Then’ section, which relives a memory from Abse’s earlier life, and often one that also includes Joan.

Abse shares the mundane realities that confront the bereaved, as letters continue to arrive addressed to his now dead wife. He includes a poem by Peter Porter, written after Porter’s own wife’s death:

‘A card comes to tell you

you should report

to have your eyes tested.

But your eyes melted in the fire…

and the only tears, which soon dried,

fell in the chapel.

Other things still come –

invoices, subscriptions, renewals,

shiny plastic cards promising credit –

not much for a life spent

in the service of reality…’

Abse is not self-indulgent or maudlin in his grief, and is not seeking our sympathy. The diary was not originally intended for publication, evolving more as a tool for coping with loss, a response to an inner voice saying ‘Physician, heal thyself.’ Thus, the diary became a ‘prescription for self-regeneration.’ However, as the diary progresses he acknowledges that he did presuppose another reader.

Abse tells it like it is. One diary entry just contains the short sentence ‘I cry, therefore I am.’ On another occasion, when asked by a friend how he was coping, he tells us that ‘I confessed, perhaps melodramatically, that for intermittent hours each day I feel like an exile in the Land of Desolation.’

He cries frequently, often waking up with tears in his eyes. A new experience for him, since Joan’s death Abse does not find it difficult to unsettle ‘the too prompt tearducts of my eyes.’

The diary is not all about grief, but more about a life that continues within that loss. Abse speaks of Freud, of current events such as the Iraq war, as well as past events in his own life as a doctor and as a poet. He also includes his own poetry, and speaks of other writers, such as Elias Canetti and the poet Owen Shears.

Abse muses on his own life as a poet:

‘I’ve often thought of poetry as a vocation, even a destiny, rather than a career but sometimes I wish that on certain occasions in my life I had not retreated from the limelight.’

During the year of diary writing, Abse’s older brother dies:

‘I weep for Wilfred. Yet it is hard to mourn for more than one person at a time.’

And Joan’s loss is immense. He remembers the grief he experienced when his parents died, yet it was incomparable to his profound sense of loss following his wife’s death:

‘But I have been so dependent on Joan. Absolutely. Mentally, emotionally, physically.’

Six months after the accident:

‘…as I remember this or think that, my eyes leak like a tap with a half-perished washer. I am, I feel, leading a posthumous life.’

Yet, he can also see that ‘I’m OK. I’m coping. I’m limping along.’ while at the same time accepting that ‘I miss Joan.’

He acknowledges that his grief is not an illness, ‘I’m not clinically depressed. Merely unhappy.’

Eventually, Abse finds his way back into poetry, both writing and reading again in public.

‘Authors, poets, are supposed to be imaginative people but I didn’t, couldn’t picture my life without Joan. Everything is so other. The very silence has changed. It is the very silence of the abyss.’

One of these poetry readings ends with the short poem Valediction:

‘In this exile people call old age

I live between nostalgia and rage.

This is the land of fools and fear.

Thanks be. I’m lucky to be here.’

As he approaches the end of the year since Joan’s death, and the end of his diary entries, Abse wonders whether he will miss the writing ‘not only for my health’s sake’, but also because ‘For doing so has allowed me sometimes the pleasure of escaping into a benign Past. The Past, indeed, can sometimes be a sanctuary.’

‘There is no happy ending’, yet Abse does not leave one feeling desolate. I was touched by his openness, as well as by a realism that allowed for many emotions to sit alongside each other. Abse’s life following Joan’s death reads as one that embraced his unmeasurable loss, and one that allowed grief to accompany rather than to destroy.

The diary ends with Abse’s poem Lachrymae:

‘She is everywhere and nowhere

now that I am less than one…’

‘…Now, solemn, I watch

the spellbound moon again,

its unfocused clone drowned

in Hampstead’s rush-dark pond

where a lone swan sings

without a sound.’

CQ