The blackbird sings to him, "Brother, brother,
If this be the last song you shall sing,
Sing well, for you may not sing another;
Julian Grenfell, Into Battle (1915)
For two weeks now, the Ashokan Farewell has drifted through my mind in random moments. You’ve heard the music: a Scottish lament composed in 1982 by Jay Ungar, it featured throughout the Ken Burns Civil War documentary, a haunting violin capturing the grief of lost manhood more expressively than the words it accompanied.
Until I heard that music in the Great Hall of the British Medical Association building in Tavistock Square, not far from the hospital where I gave birth to two children, the sorrow I felt on the death of Dr. Ian Noble had been largely defined by sympathy for his parents and surviving brother. Joan and Rod Noble had been our first landlords in London and quickly became our dear friends as well. Kinder and more generous hosts could not be imagined. No sooner had the moving van departed than they’d held a cocktail party for us at their gracious Kensington home, inviting young neighborhood couples who in turn became friends of ours throughout our five-year stay in London.
I remember that first cocktail party clearly, because the ring of the doorbell was answered by two handsome ginger-haired boys, aged 12 and 15, whose intelligence and self-possession in adult company astonished both me and my husband. As the years passed, we followed their passages into manhood with delight: the younger and more madcap Jamie went on to the University of Edinburgh and a career in finance, while determined Ian left Eton for the University of Sheffield and became a doctor. In between, we heard noises about boisterous gap years and charity trips abroad. Both boys combined an appetite for adventure with a keen sense of awareness and duty toward those lacking the extraordinary good luck of an affluent London upbringing with loving and supportive parents.
Charmed lives, indeed.
So when I first saw the news – a link posted on my Facebook feed, all very postmodern – my brain couldn’t quite comprehend the information. Doctor, 26, is knocked off scooter and killed a mile from his hospital, the headline ran, and I had to read the article twice to grasp its implications. Ian dead? It was not possible, not conceivable that a young man of such promise, belonging to such magnificent parents, could be killed in the space of a single careless instant by an idiotic motorist on his way to work.
As parents, we all carry that fear, shadowing the backs of our hearts. For all our care and adoration, for all our plans and hard work and agonized decisions, some unknown variable lurks out there in the wide world that can crumble that carefully-built fortress in an instant: a virus, a psychopath, a single mutant cell, a careless motorist. We tell ourselves that the odds are long. We take comfort in statistics. We pray never to hear that phone call in the middle of the night, in the middle of the afternoon; in the middle of a sailing holiday in Croatia, delivered in garbled sentences by a nurse in the very hospital where our son is supposed to be healing the injured instead of succumbing to injury.
That Rod and Joan should have to bear that everlasting burden seemed too unjust to imagine.
At the memorial ceremony at the end of October, I learned enough about Ian’s personality and potential to make my heart break. Stories of terms spent in Nepalese hospitals, of a seat on the British Medical Association board of directors, of rallying friends for impromptu trips to the Lakes, all revealed the passion and enthusiasm I’d only glimpsed in the bright young teenager of our London years. Ian, I realized, was a modern hero, of the sort our society seems rarely to produce any more.
Only then, as the first plaintive strains of the violin wavered in the air, did I really begin to mourn; not just for the agony of Ian’s parents, but for Ian himself, for this reckless and appalling waste of an irreplaceable life. I am not generally given to crying in public, but the tears slipped in long tracks down my face to the sound of the Ashokan Farewell, because Ian was gone and the days that knew his living self were already past.
At the end of the service, when the family filed past, I hardly recognized them. Those faces I had only known with broad welcoming smiles were now shattered, destroyed. Later that evening, I went to visit them at their home, sat on the same green velvet sofa on which I’d laughed and sipped champagne so many times before. Impossibly, they were still the same impeccable hosts. They gave me wine, dinner. Afterward, we walked the familiar steps through the cool autumn twilight to join their surviving son, Jamie, and his and Ian’s many friends at the Churchill Arms. The pub rattled with laughter and energy, with the onward march of young adulthood: a less somber farewell, perhaps, than the one in Tavistock Square, but one that Ian would have approved.
But Day shall clasp him with strong hands,
And Night shall fold him in soft wings.
Dr. Noble’s family and his partner, Dr Annabel Scott, have established a bursary (scholarship) in his memory to provide financial support to outstanding medical students at the University of Sheffield. To learn more or to make a donation, please visit https://onlinepayments.shef.ac.uk/donations