Thinking about death isn’t maudlin – it’s a fact of life


My father was in a coma for about a week before he died. The hospital had moved him into a private room and, during the days preceding his death, people came to visit. They usually stayed for a while, to shoot the breeze, bid him a slow farewell, and betimes, quite often in fact, the mood in there was warm and convivial.

Occasionally, when there was a semblance of bar-room chat, he would lift a cupped hand to his mouth, as if sipping a wet pint. I thought he was joining in the talk, although I’ve heard since that that is not an unusual gesture for the comatose.

There was a box of surgical gloves in the room, and during our vigil my sister and brother blew up some like balloons, and drew faces on them with felt-tip pens. Happy, surprised faces, each topped by a mohawk of aerated rubber fingers. Some of the inflated gloves they tied to the iron bedstead, mischievous sprites floating above his death bed, little latex cartoon angels bobbing about in the wide winter sunlight from his window, waiting for him to relinquish the temporal and come out to play in more vivid pastures.

There was a sagacious, humorous nun with broad hands and a tolerant demeanour who used to visit, sit with him, talk to him. And he would turn towards her, eyes closed, and listen, or so it seemed.

“He doesn’t have a religious bone in his body,” I told her.

“No matter,” she would reply calmly. “In our Father’s mansion there are many rooms.”

Last week, well over a decade after his death, I was in the same hospital, just for the day, lying in one of those efficient metal-framed beds on the floor below, looking out of the same wide windows on to the same green lawn, the trees now dressed in leaf.

Lying there, trapped behind the glass, on that hot afternoon, I was thinking that his was a great death. A little theatrical maybe, the way he lay there in those lilac-coloured Wildean pyjamas I had bought him, knowing that he was too ill to object to the shade. It was a time not without humour and good spirit: his weathered, sceptical cronies climbing the stairs under the gaze of the great big plaster Jesus, the lovely, wry nun, the night nurse who gave me cigarettes on the porch while they turned him. Even his last journey from the tall, damp, rented seaside flat he lived in. He sat into the passenger seat to go to the hospital with a small glass of Paddy in his hand, was driven sedately, so as not to spill his final beverage, past the naked eucalyptus trees, down the slow, familiar hill, Dublin Bay clear and grey beneath him.

I have known people in the throes of serious illness acknowledge that although they are sad to have to leave the party, their worry is not so much for themselves as for the rest, for the friends and family who will circle their absence long after their departure.

I came across something the other day that really resonated with me. I was reading about the death of the author Iain Banks, who, when diagnosed with terminal cancer, asked his partner to do him the honour of becoming his widow. There was a quotation from the writer Christopher Hitchens, also recently deceased, who said:‘ “I am not battling cancer, cancer is battling me.” It reminded me that not everyone wants to be a warrior.

Since my father’s leave-taking, in that hospital, there have been other deaths and illnesses,other dedicated, overworked, unassailably generous nurses and carers, other lost eyes in shrunken faces and to me his was a lucky, privileged parting.

Anyway, despite my maudlin reverie (actually I don’t believe thinking about death is maudlin; it’s like thinking about food or sex or politics or art – it is life), I met an invigorating, hearty companion on the day ward who helped kill the long hours between admission and procedure.

She had faced a life-threatening illness years ago and survived. With great gusto, charm, energy and good humour she was living out the adage “treat each day as if it is your last”. She was fully embracing her life. Wife, mother, worker, grandmother, travel lover, a woman not averse to the odd glass of wine and even an occasional fag, she exuded warmth and vivacity.

I hope she’s well; I didn’t see her at the end of our day. I was last on the surgeon’s list, and still floating through a Rohypnol haze when the day ward emptied.

It was good to leave the warm ward, leave the dry ghosts, to walk outside on that summer evening in the last of the corn-coloured sun, grateful that the shot across the bow sank with barely a ripple.

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