Sean Moncrieff: A visit to a hospice leaves me grateful to the people I love for being themselves

We are not built to last but parts of us do live on

Fallen leaves. Photograph: Getty

Fallen leaves. Photograph: Getty

 

The great thing about children’s birthday parties is that you get to have a snoop in other peoples’ homes: invariably, those homes are lovely. The walls are pristine, the wooden floors are shiny and there’s always a Dermot Bannon-style glass box bolted on to the back of the house that’s large enough to accommodate a tennis court.

Upstairs, the walls could be dripping with damp and the floors covered with rat-traps. But no one sees that. Once the abandoned shoes and piles of unironed clothes are hidden, the house looks Finished.

Finished is the Nirvana-like state new home owners usually aim for. But like herd immunity from Covid, it exists more in hope than actuality. That freshly painted wall is lovely until it becomes defaced by a jam handprint. We had some internal doors put in that were lovely and Finished until this month, when one of them started to do a weird expand-contract thing. Every time it opened, it left a scrape on our unshiny wooden floor. Homes are never finished. Like everything else, they are cursed with impermanence.

Cashing leaves

The reason why the door started acting up was September: the one month in the Irish calendar that is notorious for being unable to make up its mind. Technically in autumn, September can decide to act like it’s the middle of June or the middle of March. It can give us blistering sun or torrential rain, usually within the same hour. It’s impossible to dress for. Met Éireann must hate September.

But perhaps September is an expression of an annual attempt to resist the impermanence of nature around our homes. For those of us who have gardens, we can spend the spring and summer planting and pruning and watering and cutting the lawn with a nail scissors, only to have the whole thing fall apart anyway.

Herself puts in Herculean efforts to make the garden look Finished, but inevitably, come October, it’s covered in a thick carpet of fallen leaves that it’s up to me to chase around the place in the swirling wind. They hide from me in corners and behind bins. I usually don’t find them all until the following spring.

You could view all this as the humdrum, pain-in-the-backside aspects of domestic life, or go a bit philosophical about it. Because, as Echo & The Bunnymen or any Sally Rooney novel will tell you, nothing lasts for ever. People don’t last.

No words

Recently my sister and I went to visit someone we have known all our lives; someone who had been seriously ill and was now in a hospice. Such visits can be fraught, more for the visitors than the visited. You don’t know how to act, or what to say. You worry about how they will look: you don’t want to burst into tears and make matters worse for everyone. You’d like to come up with some words that fit the situation. But when confronted with the ultimate impermanence, the one we’ll all have to face eventually, you realise that there aren’t any.

Yet when we arrived, it was like he had considered this already. Or more precisely, resolved not to spend whatever time he had left being defined by his disease, but to spend it doing what he knew best: being himself.

We met the person we’d always known, and the disease all but disappeared. We talked about families, work, politics, mad things that happened in the past. He gave us a book he wrote and a school book that had belonged to our mother. Because of all the yakking, the time shot by, and our visit probably ran longer than was planned. Afterwards, driving back to Dublin, I was overcome with an odd sense of gratitude: to him, for being the person he is; to all the people I love for being the people they are. We may be impermanent beings, but so many parts of us live on.

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