As the paper poppies are unclipped and lost in a drawer for another year, and politicians and TV presenters are bare-lapelled once more, I feel a familiar sense of hollowness following this Remembrance Day. Two things are niggling at me. My ability to "remember," in anything other than an entirely superficial way, is woefully poor; and the generation that lived through World War II are the very same people who are, right now, living through a loneliness and isolation I can't even imagine.
In fact, it's the failure of my imagination that I want to address first. As the radio played the peaceful 'wind-in-leaves' sound effect at 11am on the 11th, I dutifully put down the baby and cast my thoughts to all the lives lost during the two World Wars. But the truth is, I had no idea what to think about it. I visualised the proud marching veterans you always see on TV at this time of year; I do feel awe and gratitude and respect for them, of course, but where to go from there? So I tried to remember some school-learned Wilfred Owen to conjure a bit of empathy for what they went through; unfortunately it seems my poetry knowledge has gone the same way as my A-Level French, another dead end. How is it even possible to feel a meaningful empathy for people who lived through a tragedy of an enormity I simply can't comprehend?
So, I decided to start small. With my husband, and business trips. Of course! Over the past couple of years he has been on quite a few. Sometimes for a couple of days, never for more than a week, but I always hate it. I miss the relief from relentless childcare when he comes home from work, I miss the adult company in the evenings, I miss the sounding board for ideas and moans and observations, I miss being his sounding board, I miss his warmth in bed at night. I complain about his absence to the silent walls of my house right up until he's back again, and I can go back to not appreciating him being there. The idea of him going for more than a week is not one I like to contemplate; the idea of him being gone for a month, a year, six years? The loneliness alone would be unbearable.
Then I try to imagine that while he's away on this multi-year trip, leaving me to deal with every other aspect of our lives alone, people are shooting at him, with guns - real guns. Gosh. In our easy, peacetime life I have the luxury of panicking if he even drives above 30mph, when I bought him a gliding "experience" for his birthday I think I may have held my breath for the entire, hour-long flight. I don't think I could hold my breath for six years. How did those wives and girlfriends even manage to breathe in and out knowing their partners were as likely as not to die? How did the sisters, cousins, aunts manage to even get out of bed?
The next natural leap in my step-by-step, self-help, empathy exercise is to try to imagine the mothers and fathers. But those real-life guns pointing at my girls? I can't even go there. And if I can't go there, I clearly don't have much chance of appreciating the experiences of the men who were actually fighting. Who lived through hell, for years, probably in wet socks. I'm not trying to trivialize anything here, but, as with an absent husband, small physical discomforts are within the bounds of my understanding, anything beyond that simply is not. And perhaps being able to imagine that one trivial detail is better than failing to imagine the rest? That is where Wilfred Owen was often helpful, and Band of Brothers for that matter. But perhaps not. Perhaps respect and awe in the face of something I don't understand, and can't imagine, is better, and enough.
Yet I don't think it is, not nearly enough. These girlfriends and sisters, and men facing a whole lot worse than wet socks; if they were in their late teens or early 20s during World War II, they are now in their 90s. The ones that survived. We might remember the dead at this time of year as a way of keeping this part of our history with us, but many of those who suffered and survived are actually with us, right now. And tragically a lot of them are still lonely. Age UK say 1 million older people haven't spoken to a friend, neighbour or family member in at least a month, with an estimated 5 million considering their TV to be their main form of companionship. So I turn back to those odd lonely days without my husband once more, and try to imagine not talking to friends then either, or anyone else, for over a month. And that being normal.
So as my poppy goes back in the drawer to gather dust, I think I might just sign up for that charity's befriending service. I'm sure there are plenty of people out there right now who could more than help me with my imagination failure about the war. They could probably teach me a thing or two about loneliness too, and how such a little can go a long way to lightening the burden of it. Then maybe next time Remembrance Day comes round, finding meaningful empathy won't be quite such a challenge as it is now.