Absent Friends: Remembering Mick Karn

On a cold, rainy day in January, at a service attended by close friends and family, I said goodbye to one of my oldest friends, someone I had known for almost all of my adult life.

Almost two months have passed since Mick Karn lost his battle with cancer, and it still doesn’t feel real to me. Mick doesn’t feel gone, and in many ways he never will be gone. He has left an amazing body of work, which has ensured his place in history, and everyone whose lives he touched will never forget him.

Not a day goes by without some reference to him. Perhaps I’ll recall something he did or said, or perhaps some situation will occur that will make me wonder what Mick would have made of it. All these memories invariably involve laughter, and while this makes the memories sweeter, it also makes the loss deeper. Before he moved back to Cyprus for a few years, his home was the setting for regular get-togethers where he would cook the most amazing food, yet another of his talents. As a host he was always generous, warm, interesting and funny. Even now, despite the loss, the pain, the emptiness, whenever friends reminisce about Mick there is always laughter.

Strange things have been happening too.

First came the feathers.

I arrived home to find a large black feather on my doorstep. Stuck by its beauty, I picked it up and took it inside with me. Within moments I took the call telling me that Mick had died a few minutes ago.

Most of you will no doubt have heard of the White Feather Phenomenon. It is said that the recently bereaved will see white feathers in pertinent places, which is meant to be regarded as a sign that the deceased loved one is sending a message of comfort.

Since Mick died, we have seen many white feathers. One occasion particularly stands out. We were driving home after a day out, and had been listening to Mick’s albums during the journey. On arriving home we found a particularly large white feather on the ground. I bent to pick it up and my husband Richard said, ‘They’re everywhere.’ I looked up to see what seemed like hundreds of tiny white feathers falling from the empty sky and settling on the ground like snowflakes. An image formed in a childlike corner of my mind of Mick looking down on us, shaking these feathers from his vast angel wings. Even now, I am still moved by this magical event, as unreal as it felt then and still feels now. Later we remarked that if anyone could make such an extravagant manifestation, it could only be Mick.

More recently, I noticed a very strong scent like a particular incense Mick liked. When Richard came back into the room, I remarked that the neighbours were using Mick’s incense. Richard couldn’t smell it, though I still could, and he said that he had been thinking of Mick at that moment. There was no incense, but the scent remained, perceived only by me.

Certain kinds of phenomena, whether real or imagined, are always experienced when someone close dies, but the magnitude of what we have witnessed is so indicative of Mick, who loved bright colours, made surreal music, and created grotesquely beautiful sculptures. All of his work had a strange, unsettling and beautiful quality, like dreams made solid. Perhaps that is why I and so many of his friends feel as if we are living in some kind of surreal dream, torn between feeling that nothing matters any more, and the need to cling to existence more desperately than ever.

Personally, I have been fluctuating between feeling so fragile I can’t imagine lasting another day, then conversely, gripped by the idea that if life is nothing more than a dream, perhaps I am somehow indestructible and not subject to the laws of nature.

Then again, this is probably nothing more than the knock-on effect of a constant stream of bereavements and difficult times. In the last few years there has been too much loss. Friends and family members have died, many before their time, and others have suffered serious illness. All of this has led to an overwhelming sense of unreality in me.

Nowadays, when someone dies, so much of them remains. Modern technology has enabled us to record their voice, their moving image, so it is as if they are always with us.

And they are. The dead never leave us, because we never let them. We bind them to us, drag them with us as we live out the rest of our days without the warmth of their living bodies. They are free, but we are not. Perhaps that’s the way it should be. Just because someone is not physically present doesn’t mean that their presence cannot still be felt.

A friend of mine once told me that her mother had always said that she would live forever, and she did: she lived for her forever.

For anyone struggling to come to terms with the loss of a loved one, know that the simple fact of their having lived at all means that they will live forever. They live in you, in everyone whose lives they touched, and in each new generation who might hear of them, perhaps discover their work, or some other aspect of their life, and then pass it on, until the torch passed from hand to hand becomes an eternal flame of remembrance.