This year, I have periodically returned to a pretty depressing topic to write about: grief and death. I know that this isn’t the most cheerful of things to trot out in a blog post, and that there are many other more lifetastic topics that I could luxuriate in or canter through. I’ll do that soon, but I don’t want to at the minute. Last week, my husband lost a close family member. I’m not going to write about that; it’s still grief-blindingly raw and dizzying for his parents, and for him. It’s not my grief; I’m on the periphery, so it’s not mine to write about, but the after-death routine we’re currently going through has an apprehensive familiarity. Perhaps it’s this that makes me feel I ought to write. Perhaps I feel compelled to write about death because I’m more aware of death’s encroaching shadow as someone who has, so unfairly, lost both parents in the last few years. Or perhaps it’s because friends and colleagues have lost loved ones this year. Perhaps it was the unexpected death of one of my school friends a few months ago. Anyway, I want to explore my experience of death through my writing. I’m very aware that this sounds incredibly self-indulgent. I don’t mean it to be, and I do hope that this post helps someone, somewhere. So I am going to tentatively explore my own experience, and I’m going to metaphorically cough, spit and bleed death all over this laptop. I’m going to try to write about it as unflinchingly as I can; hard, true, bell-like.
Let’s face it: death is horrible, no matter how much we hope it is quiet and serene and all white sheets and a hummed In Paradisum. Even if loved ones are there at the moment of death, even if they died ‘peacefully’, even if “they didn’t suffer” (are we sure?), even if “they passed away quickly; it’s what they would have wanted” (are we really, really sure?), death rends and claws away people we love, leaving their outline etched in the sobbing air. A death that’s quick can be grief-windingly quick, where death wrenches away a loved one so fast that their breath is still, just, part of this world; their body still deceptively warm as those of us left behind gasp for our own breath, punch-drunk, after life’s lightning-fast concrete slab of an uppercut. I’ve only experienced that once, a few months ago, after I’d found out about the completely unexpected death of a school friend from sepsis. I wasn’t even really friends with her any more; it was an occasional, sunny, Facebooky friendship from years back. I felt pinballed. I didn’t know what to do with those feelings.
The deaths of my parents weren’t quick. They were anything but. The inexorable journey towards dusty death, for both of them, started quite a few years before they actually took their last, painful breaths. Dad was diagnosed with liver cancer two years before he died, and he cursed and swore his way towards death, literally kicking and screaming. He was having none of it. Mum had an incredibly unlucky neuro-combo of Parkinson’s disease, MS and epilepsy, with the added complication of Parkinson’s-associated dementia, and in her own gentle way patiently and stoically lived a death many times before it finally came. And when death did come for Mum, it was nearly nine months after her last hammer-blow of a fall that smashed her skull like an egg, and smashed her mind too: dementia was the final victor. The deaths of them both were life-changing for my sister and me. I didn’t realise it at the time. It was horrific, of course, and I missed them dreadfully, and still do. But it’s only now (Dad died in 2012; Mum died in 2015) that I can write about their deaths, precisely because I’ve lived through their deaths. And I’ve lived, and am still living, the aftermath: surges of grief can be overwhelming. Sometimes, and thankfully more often now, it’s a gentle nudge of grief. But I feel like I’m still, and always will be, navigating a grief map. And it’s a bloody pointless map, too, cos it doesn’t take you anywhere other than along a circuitous route of sadness and upset, with the occasional respite of a happy memory. Nothing will bring them back, and that gnawing futile fury at the unfairness of losing our parents too young is something my sister and I cart around with us, daily. I know there are people that love us. I know I have a mother-in-law and a father-in-law who are wonderful. But we don’t have our parents. And to any of you reading this who still have your parents: I’m jealous. I want mine back.
My parents lived death a long time before death eventually came. And although my sister and I did all we could to make things as comfortable for them as we possible, it was terrible. And I’m not using hyperbole here: it was terrible, and sometimes unbearable, for a long time. In this post, I’m going to write about death and my father. My mother’s death was different to Dad’s, but still useful, I think, to explore at a later date.
Dad’s satsuma-tumour (the oncologist said it was as big as a satsuma) was nestled in his liver. It was too big to operate on, and Dad had emphysema that had ravaged his lungs, so even if they had been able to operate, he wouldn’t have survived the operation because his lungs were so weak. Dad’s liver tumour meant he could have qualified for traditional chemotherapy, but again, the state of his lungs – like two limp, hole-riddled birthday balloons – meant that it would have caused more pain and risked his life. My sister managed to get Dad on an oral chemotherapy trial; the oncologists were reluctantly happy to give it a go. We knew, although didn’t really want to admit, that this was just scrambling Dad a few more months if we were lucky, rather than saving his life.
Dad was a proud, proud man. And he was a smart, stylish man. He was a man with a head of silver hair, and with a very precise parting that was pretty much in the same place as it had been 70+ years earlier when he had won the Christchurch Bonny Baby competition, 1939. Dad liked to dress elegantly. He ironed his clothes with precision and polished his shoes – always on newspaper, always with very specific polishing accoutrements – to perfection. Dad even did this when emphysema made its home in his lungs; when even just picking up a pencil from the floor made him out of breath. Amazingly, Dad had lived with emphysema since 1992, when he finally conquered his 70+ a day cigarette habit, to the huge surprise of us all. By 2010, the emphysema had progressed, as we knew it would, and his breathing had become rapid and shallow and frightening. And when Dad was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer in that year, and was cruelly shoved by the Fates onto the death travellator, it meant that, eventually, he couldn’t leave his bed. It meant that his hair, his wonderful head of hair, wasn’t how it should have been. We did what we could, and Dad’s carers did what they could, but it wasn’t ‘just so’, as Dad liked it. Encroaching death didn’t care that Dad was a proud man; it flayed him of dignity. Again, we did what we could to alleviate the upset, and to try and make him feel as smart as he could, but when you have to tell your daughters that your bed is urine-soaked because you couldn’t wait for the carer to come with a bed pan, that’s hard. When you simply cannot control the constant, rib-snapping coughing, and, spluttering through breaths, regularly hoik up sticky green phlegm into a tin bowl next to your bed, that’s hard. When you want to hug your wife but have to vomit acidic stomach juices into the same phlegm bowl because the chemo is making you feel so wretched, that’s hard. Dad became a tiny, concentrated version of himself. A membraned skeleton, spectre-thin, coughing, and vomiting, but still Dad. Dad won a final stand-off with pneumonia before he died, but there was very little of him left. He returned home from hospital, I could see, to die. Dad could manage short conversations, but was very tired. One of the last things he said to me on the evening before he died, in his flat-vowelled New Zealand accent, was “When is that bloody head teacher going to make you deputy?”. I loved Dad for this – but there was no point, then, explaining to him that I was nowhere near ready to be a DHT. Instead, I said I’d ask my head teacher. I didn’t, of course, but it made Dad feel better. I’m glad I did that.
And then Dad died. It was an angry, defiant death. I wrote about it here. Dad did not go gently. I love – I hate – that he did not go gently. Irrespective of how I feel about it, it was entirely in keeping with my Dad’s furious, flaming, recalcitrant, wonderful self.
I’m not sure where I’ve gone with this post. It was an attempt to look at death more closely. But grief is so personal that I can only explain how I feel and have felt, and I can only describe the death of my father through my own experience. Mum’s death was no less upsetting. I will write about that another time, and I’ve written about my grief for Mum here. What I’ll also write about is how, even in terminal illness and in death, things can be funny. They can. My sister and I take solace sometimes in what our parents laughed at about their illnesses. Our Mum and Dad were an exceptionally funny pair.
My parents were wonderful human beings. I’m glad I miss them as much as I do; their loss remains, imprinted on my sister and me in a good way, etched into the world. Etched into us.