Lessons in Dying
Do they do lessons in dying? If not, I can’t help feeling that someone should, after all it’s a life skill that we all need. I may be wrong. I don’t read many blogs (well, none outside this one really) and I’ve never written or guested on one before so there could be a huge subculture that exists out there just talking about death, but I doubt it.
I’m a fully paid up member of genus “British Male” and I think I’m genetically bred not to talk about it. Instead I have sport, more specifically football, of which one manager once said “Some people believe football is a matter of life and death, I am very disappointed with that attitude. I can assure you it is much, much more important than that.” I can see why we don’t do it, after all when you’re having a great night out no one wants to talk about last orders or the time of the last bus home. But it seems really self defeating and unhealthy.
Just over a month ago I lost my Dad to Alzheimer’s. It shouldn’t have been a shock. Like Tay Sachs, no one has found a cure and the best we can do is to make the exit as painless and dignified as possible. I’d known the day was going to come for years but I didn’t talk about it in the hope that it wouldn’t happen. Is this a Western or a specifically male approach to death I wonder? Because yes, Alzheimer’s is a shitty way to go and yes, you see the person you love gradually disappear but then I can’t say that’s worse or better than someone being shot protesting for a change in government in Syria or having cancer or being hit by a drunk driver or anything. What I do know is that I really desperately wanted a way to fight it, to beat this “unnatural” state where someone was stealing my Dad, but there wasn’t one. So I locked it off in a bit of my brain marked “Open later/never”. And when he died, the shock and pain was on a scale I really hadn’t expected. Six weeks on, mere days from my 35th birthday, I still have these waves of sadness and so, in a break from 35 years of learned habits and many generations of British resolve I’m going to talk about it and tell you what it was like to be there.
It was normal, it was natural, it was sad and it was strangely peaceful. Mum and I were at Dad’s bedside and had been for 24 hours because he’d been diagnosed with bronchial pneumonia. We’d been dozing for only a few minutes and simultaneously woke up to a deep silence. We both knew what it meant but there was a moment of just not wanting to break the quiet. We kissed Dad, still warm (and I’m thinking as I type that that’s maybe too much information but then that’s the whole point), we went to tell the nursing staff, I wondered whether I should close his eyes like they do in films (I didn’t, a nurse did), we hugged and cried, as much in relief for him finally being free from pain as in sadness, and then about an hour later I took a taxi to the station and came home. And then, 4 hours later, in the comfort of my own flat with no one around to see my embarrassment (after all, I’m a man – grrrr!) I cried like a 6 year old.
“I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow, if you have been opened by life’s betrayals or have become shriveled and closed from fear of further pain! I want to know if you can sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it or fade it, or fix it.”
The Invitation, Oriah Mountain Dreamer
I first read The Invitation about 7 years ago at a friend’s wedding. I don’t know the author. I’ve read nothing else by her. I don’t know what inspired her to write, what drew the words from her pen, what events touched, moved or inspired her. I thought it was interesting, beautiful, clever, thought provoking. But this bit? This bit I did not get. Why would you not want to fix pain? What possible scenario could you have, I naively imagined, where you were so powerless that all you could do was sit there? Why give up like that? Man up! Do something! Anything. Please. Someone?
Finally, by Dad’s bedside, I got it. You can’t trade pain. You can’t switch it to some surrogate pain outsourcing company. You can’t offshore it to a cheaper third party. It’s not a commodity. It’s yours. And you can choose to dwell in it, and drown in it, or you can fight it and wear yourself and everyone else out fighting ghosts, or you can sit with it without moving to hide it or fade it or fix it. You can acknowledge it, and not make it wrong. And when you don’t make it wrong, and unnatural, it loses some of its power. I’m getting there.
So back to death.
What would happen if we talked about it? Well, probably less stress for a start. Maybe we wouldn’t spend so much of our lives and money on trying to cheat it, or at least cover up the hair loss/wrinkles etc that whisper that it’s getting closer. Maybe we wouldn’t try and kill ourselves having a good time and trying to forget that it’s round the corner. Maybe we’d be more alive. I’ve never been anywhere with more lust for life than I saw in Mozambique in 1998: 4 years out of civil war, malaria, cholera, landmines, bad roads and more ways to die than I could imagine, which seemed to fuel a will to live that left me speechless. Maybe the person in the shop who asked Em about why Ronan was so sleepy would have then been able to talk to her about it and make that interaction positive for both of them. And maybe we’d all live like we were part of something bigger, rather than like the world revolved around us.
Yesterday I had a first date and within 20 minutes said the words “I lost my Dad last month”. Contrary to my initial fears around tossing out that particular verbal grenade (the dating etiquette literature is strangely mute on the subject of discussing recent parental death), the sky didn’t fall in, she didn’t run off in shock or assume that because I was talking about my emotions I must be gay and we had a good time. It came up naturally in conversation, we talked about it, we moved on. It was quite “un British”.
Tonight I watched Hero, which in my opinion is the most beautiful film ever made, an opinion I will defend to the death or until someone shows me a more beautiful film. In it people die, and other people are sad, but they don’t make the deaths anything other than natural and part of the way the world works. I’m guessing that’s an Eastern thing – I know there will be people reading this critiquing my slipshod use of East and West when it’s way more complex than that: forgive me/get over it 😉 What I mean is that the more I see of cultures outside of the “developed”, Western world, the more I think they’ve got a more developed way of dealing with death.
So what’s the answer? A dying syllabus in schools? Death coaches? No need, just talk about it. Acknowledge it. That’s the thing I’ve come to love about this blog and the thing that’s been so helpful to me over the last few weeks. It’s utterly uncompromising. Ronan is dying. Emily and Rick are hurting. All the other Tay-Sachs parents we hear about are hurting, and every human being who reads their words feels some of that pain. No one is apologizing for it, or making it something that it’s not. No one is boasting that their pain is the most, the biggest, the hardest to bear. There is no saccharine, wide-eyed Disney ending on the way. No one has “the answer”. Everyone is doing what they feel they need to do. It just is. And that is the healthiest, most natural thing in the world and I feel immensely privileged and humble to be allowed to share in it.