Harold J Wilson


A letter from Susannah following the recent departure of our good friend Jay.


Jay’s 77th birthday dream, 14th May 2011: “There is a monastery with monks clothed in saffron robes. The ‘head’ monk steps forward and makes an expansive gesture: he sweeps one arm in a wide circle between landscape and sky saying “this is all there is” (also implying “This is all you need”). He then bows down to the ground and licks the earth with his tongue before rising again. A second saffron-robed monk steps forward and repeats the ritual. I in turn step forward to perform this ritual which ends with my bowing to the ground and licking the earth with my tongue. I rise and brush the dirt off my tongue……” [End of dream].

Jay often woke with a vivid recollection of dream journeys. The above was recited on the weekend of his 77th birthday. We had been celebrating with  gusto and intense dinner conversations at the San Francisco home of our friends Raheela and Eberhard. Replete with traditional and lovingly prepared Punjabi food that Jay had almost reverently devoured, we’d slept deeply. On the Sunday morning each of us shared our oddly significant dreams. I who am usually too busy with ‘must do’ lists when I awake to remember even fragments had also been gifted a transcendental dream. Raheela helped me clarify something important in it because, for the first time ever, my dream had included an Urdu phrase: “nazir ati”.  I knew that literally this translated ‘sight comes to me’ or ‘I can see.’ But it was not the form of the verb “to see” I would ever use in my broken attempts to speak the language. My Urdu is so wooden that when I want to say ‘I see’ I would normally say ‘main daikti hoon’ the active form which is nearer to ‘I look at’. In my dream I was frightened but addressed this comment to a nattily dressed black skull-headed figure of death which had risen from the back seat of a driverless black phantom car drawing in alongside me as I parked my white car.  Immediately I woke, I associated the dream with Emily Dickinson’s poem “Because I could not stop for death/He kindly stopped for me;/The carriage held but just himself and Immortality”. So the dream was both dreadful; and, yet did it perhaps suggest I might gain some wisdom or insight from what I imagined referred to James Lister’s death that week?  Raheela’s dream was joyous: she was flying among the moon and the stars.

Exactly one week later, a day after the anniversary of my sister Christine’s death 12 years earlier in SF, Jay died suddenly, unexpectedly in Albuquerque, New Mexico, at the home of his friend Lorenzo Lacavara.

He had flown there from San Francisco, en route to see his sister Betsy in Houston and his sons in Washington DC.  I was due to fly back home to the UK on the Sunday after our three weeks in the San Francisco Bay area.  We’d been staying with Judy Downing, the widow of my first cousin, “Bing.”  In recent years, Judy had accompanied us to Egypt, Istanbul and this past March to Syria.  While with her we’d spent time laughing and reminiscing over her marvelous photos of these trips.  As well, Jay had had time with his younger sister, Julia in Palo Alto, his cousin Barbara in the East Bay, my elderly Harris cousins. He’d driven along the Highway One coast to Santa Cruz where my brother and nephew live.  We’d enjoyed re-connecting with the soft hills, luxuriant gardens, bay views and seascapes where the sparkle of blue in the sun is intensified by white capped waves.

But on that Saturday 21st May Jay was reveling in the unique beauty of probably his most loved vantage point in the still un-spoilt vast American landscape: the high plateau desert outside Albuquerque. Lorenzo and Jay go back to the 70’s in Philadelphia; and they’ve regarded one another as brothers, often “talking on Google” at peculiar nocturnal hours given the disjunct in time between Oxford and the US South West.  Jay’s eclectically (or disorderly) garden study gives pride of place to a photo of the sky rising behind Lorenzo’s self-built home. What Jay never told me is that the house is located at an altitude of 7,000 feet above sea level. Jay’s blood pressure has been a major health problem.  And after two connecting flights the day before, I suspect his old ticker just packed in.  Or - as Lorenzo dryly noted - since 21st May had been predicted by some as the ‘last judgment day’, the day of ‘THE RAPTURE’ and the end of the world, Jay simply aimed to beat the traffic. He had come down to breakfast that morning exclaiming with wonder as he stepped out onto the porch: “just look at that sky – such deep blue. And so clear!” An hour later,  having gone up to his room because he felt a bit tired from the altitude …… and no doubt from guzzling a large dinner and a breakfast of his second [gustatory] favorite ethnic cuisine – southwest Mexican – he was found on the floor by his bed.

I would say that for Jay this was definitely a rapturous ending. For those of us who love him however there is the permission to weep. “Jesus wept” when he learned that his friend Lazarus, a great distance away, had died. There is the constriction of disbelief in our hearts “For we are strangers before Thee, and are sojourners, as were our forefathers.”*

Jay and I heard whilst we were in Santa Cruz that our friend and “British brother” had died the previous week.  We’d been sharing the year of James’ painful struggle with cancer. One day after returning from an overnight in James’ London flat Jay said to me, (as I have the duty of James’ executor) “By the way I have purloined a pair of James’ socks. He once asked you what I might like him to leave for me in his legacy “wish list”. I would like his socks: they are the softest, best fitting, socks I’ve ever worn.” On the Friday morning before he left me at Judy’s house, he was wearing the red socks and pointedly reminded me that I mustn’t forget to get the rest of these socks for him. I suspect, being taken up in those socks, he and James are well-met already.

I was with the beautiful Renee, a newly discovered cousin on my father’s side, when I received the telephone call every wife, mother or…dreads. Renee and Jay’s younger sister Julia were my angels, as was my delightful financial advisor, Cynthia and Jay’s two sons via phone.  They helped me make all the necessary arrangements for Jay’s body to be flown home to England so I could return to Oxford  in good time to attend  James Lister’s Funeral, then plan Jay’s Requiem Mass for the 9th June at 11:00 am.  it will be in St. Mary Magdalen’s where he’s celebrated Sunday evening Mass for 10 years.  Anthony and Laurence, Julie and Betsy and Chris Collins, Jay’s nephew, will fly over as will my darling Roshaneh Zafar from Lahore. I believe the joyous music and beauty of Christ’s Resurrected Spirit will be for us en-clayed ones a reflection of the face Jay’s Angel finally sets upon him.  Pray for/with him, and for/with me that Light Perpetual Shines upon Him. It would be wonderful if you were here, for “dying each other’s life, [we live] each other’s death;** we become the communion of saints.

*I Chronicles 19:15 (quoted in Obama’s Dreams From My Father which Jay had been reading).
**This fragment is a threefold quote from poets Jay returned to often:  Charles Williams reading W.B. Yeats takes that poet’s reference to this  phrase from Heraclitus.