Death, the final act and all the significance that it entails. How to ascribe beauty in the sublimation of raw youth or celebrate the life of some septuagenarian in heroic reminisce, attribute some meaning, some relevance to the passing carnage of a life poorly spent in ignorant rambling or give praise to the man of substance whose presence can never be filled. But what do I know of that…clearly nothing aside from blank rhetoric. Consequently, what can I carry in the way of apprehension or fear as I find myself the passenger in a speeding vehicle on a foray towards a dying man. Blind in my way, setting out on a summer’s morning, rare sunlight slanting early glow into my eyes. Dim as the early morning stupor and lingering effects of a night’s pointless drinking renders me monosyllabic once more. Serving its purpose I suppose, as the journey is one of contemplation and reflection…a last visit to an old friend.
Death travels in mysterious ways and forms, sometimes brief and chaotic, sometimes over years of brutal pain and decay. No one knows the day or the hour simply that it is the only certainty we can ever truly accept in life. Perhaps there is some beautiful symmetry in this idea but there is little beauty in the act itself, this passing- despite whatever patriotic dogma has been rammed into one’s consciousness. Three weeks previous, the old man, in his late seventies, had visited our home. He had driven the thirty odd miles alone and met us in his customary ebullience, cheerful as ever. A man whose vitality and drive suggested a model of health in old age, his face a healthy glow as he swilled another cup of tea, trading a series of wise cracks. Merely days later, a diagnosis resulting from a routine inspection gave the old man mere weeks to live. God giveth, God taketh away.
But what of death…its omnipresence renders it something we can direct disposable sympathy towards or even ignore. Media impressions of it drain it of any personal touch. Bodies pile up on screens, depicted in sensationalised gore infused print and visualised in graphic freeze-frame, but these corpses remain elusive, anonymous. So we become detached, can we truly grieve for these paper victims? Harrowing reports of the old man over the intervening weeks suggesting a massive spiral downwards in health had hardly registered with me. Illness is easier out of picture, terminal illness doubly so. How can one envisage a rapidly disintegrating old man without some context?
My own cousin, on whose invitation I have undertaken this venture, holds the wheel capably for the duration of the trip. Indeed his ties to old man are far closer than mine, his maternal grandfather no less. His furrowed brow suggests an unsettled countenance, his eyes screwed narrowly on the road. Sitting tensely as the countryside flashes past my passenger side window in a mash of shaded green, all the more oblivious for it. The motor’s persistent hum broken only by infrequently terse interjections and forced responses; a silenced pregnant with a sinking realisation of the trip’s significance. A vigil of sorts.
On the outskirts of a town, a building stands amidst wildly untended fields and the remnants of a once peaceful copse of Ash trees, the exterior suggesting a sanitised, cold and almost forbidding welcome awaiting us. The Hospice; so this is where one goes to die, when society cannot possibly facilitate you any longer, when nothing remains only the gaping void, the bridge between mortality and the uncertainty of the afterlife. Upon these blue titled floors, amidst this piped muzak and pristine whiteness they come to pass.
An attendant directs us down a long and anonymous corridor, passing many adjacent doors. Some are ajar, the faces inside look distant. Death hangs tangibly on the faint air conditioned breeze cloying with bastard humidity. Ahead, some familiar family faces appear, waiting outside the room, locked in silent contemplation or polite hushed conversation, greeting us with assumed and respectful solemnity, a nodded acclamation and a cursory yet heartfelt lamentation on the affairs. The room door is closed, neither of us seem eager to throw it open and enter but as one exits, an invitation emerges from within and forces us forward into the darkness. A dim illumination frames the room, casting the figures present in sickly jaundiced light, the drawn curtains allowing only the faintest glow of the glaring sun outside. The bed provides a centrepiece of sorts, drawing the focus of the sitting and standing residents. Heads bowed in grave repentance or merely uncomfortable reverence. The sincerity of the situation is striking. The family members look on gently; tear stained faces and loving caresses. The air is thick with emotion, pervasive and probing. Overwhelming even, as my cousin staggers back towards the door in visible shock. Words could not have prepared him for the extent of the spectral apparition that now greets his unbelieving eyes.
I must admit too, that any mental picture of the old man’s physical state was grossly underestimated. Hardly could I believe that the same figure who had jokingly lampooned my shaggy mane of hair not one month hence was now the one who confronted me. A ghastly pallor, the life drained from his face.
A face now merely a mask, the same features present but somehow dulled, drained. He lies now, under obvious sedation, breathing slowly; each exhalation dragged excruciating from his emaciated frame-all the while punctured intermittently by a frightening growl, the life force giving way to a sickening death rattle.
While I stand helplessly by, his eyes open wide and manic. Searching the room in some sort of frantic rapture, his hands outstretched and mouth agape as if crying out for some elusive answer to a question that had entered his thoughts in a moment of rare lucidity, before being calmed by a reassuring brush of his brow from one the gathered family. His fears assuaged once more his head drops back to the pillow lifelessly. I approach the bedside uncomfortably and clutch the old man’s hand for the last time before I bid him a hurried but poignant farewell and leave the room in a strange sense of bewilderment.
Outside, the others remain locked in solemn pose. My cousin himself lost in some vicious moment of realisation, propped against the corridor wall. Finding the moment to catch his eye, I think we share a brief and inexorable understanding of the situation…something that words could not express. He clasps a firm hand on my shoulder and suggests we make an exit. Making our way once more through the corridor, the vacant lifeless faces caught in bleak snapshot from the rooms seem newly imbued with a sense of utter hopelessness in my mind. A duty nurse passes us whistling softly carrying a plate of liquid nourishment into a room to our left, greeting the patient with familiar jocularity. Her tuneful expression strikes me as a strange counterpoint to the gravity of the situation. How can one learn to adjust to the constant exposure to such hopelessness with such rationalism? Surely it’s vocational; any career in such an environment could only lead to either abundant aggression or apathy.
I’m immediately aware of the abundant relief I feel exiting the building, palpable delight as I breathe the life outside greedily into my lungs. It’s a relief tinged with the brutal passing uncertainty that I may have to face such ignominy in years to come, a sentiment that I must banish quickly to the back of my mind. How can this be so? How can some lives drift out so aimlessly in these rooms while the world revolves along endlessly. Is it truly humane to sustain such an existence? Maybe so, maybe not. It seems the morality in such cases cannot be easily defined. Just like that, we dispose of the sentiment, jettisoning any trace of mawkishness at the door of the Hospice. Our journey home is one of forced triviality, an abrupt change from the earlier chapter.
Now it seems the silence only seeks to probe our consciousness, asking questions that neither of us want to contemplate. I am happy in the knowledge that I maintained a mutual respect to the end, but troubled by the circumstances leading me away from the obvious facts of the situation. Naturally the old man’s pained existence did not extend beyond another two days. He passed in the early morning in relative painlessness, surrounded by the ones he loved. The ones who waited daily at his bedside, and shared his waking moments throughout his earthly term. How much more could one want in death…irrespective of the life spent. Resolution and love in the final moments, I feel reassured for him in that.
I can’t help but reflect on what significance might be involved here but I am at a loss to pin any relevance on the matter. I am more confused than enlightened. What was it all about…this life, this death and this passing moment. Locked forever in the endless struggle but to what end? Is it not merely enough to say this man lived and died? All the while life marches on in defiance.
John Wid © thesourcewritersgroup