Saturday, 7 November 2015
Matters of life, death and the Death Cafe.
Death is a bastard. It is cruel and uncompromising. Even when it is kind of expected... when someone has been ill for a long time, for example, and is visibly fading... when the scythe falls, it is just as shocking as that awful knock at the door, when you open it to find the grim-faced police officer standing there and you know, just know, that something terrible has happened.
That happened to me once. Out of the blue, my mother died in her sleep alone in her house in Liverpool. I wasn't unprepared. I had had one of my psychic turns and knew something was up and I'd rung the gardener who had a key, my sister being away in France on holiday, and asked him to go round. I was in bed with terrible flu at the time, but I hauled my shivering body onto a train - on a Sunday, with engineering works that doubled the usual 2 1/2 hour journey - and arrived to find that she had indeed died and that the police had taken her to the police morgue and I wasn't allowed to see her, even though I battered on their door every day for a week, by which time I had laryngitis to add to my woes.
It wasn't until I had arrived back home a good week later that I got the knock on the door. I shall never forget the relieved smile on the wpc's face when I told her I already knew. Though why the Liverpool police had sent someone when I had already been in there with the death certificate from Mum's GP, I really don't know. I suppose the order had been given out before I had even got on a train. But as to why it had taken a week...
They talk about matters of life and death. I am OK with the former but shit at the latter. Faced with the death of someone close, I can't control my emotions. Like my mother before me, I get all Mediterranean, weep and wail and tear my hair and collapse onto the bed, unable to summon the stiff upper lip. My dad was the complete opposite. I was a teenager hovering in the hallway wondering if it was a boyfriend on the phone for me when my dad got there first. I heard him say, "Oh, When? Oh well."
He replaced the receiver, gave a small sigh, turned to me and said, "Your grandmother's dead." No tears, no emotion. As I gaped, he said, "No point in getting upset. Life must go on," and that was that. Subject closed. When I mentioned it to my mother later, she said, "It's his cold Scandinavian blood. They are very practical, the Swedes. They don't show their emotions." A complete lie, of course. My Scandinavian friends are just as emotional as anyone else. It was just him. The only time I ever saw him lose his cool was when I got pregnant without being married. But that's another story.
A few months ago, I attended a Death Cafe, I don't know if you've heard of them, but here is a link if you're interested: http://deathcafe.com/
Basically, a group of people, meet in a public place - in my case it was a room above Cafe Rouge in Hampstead - and talk about death, sitting around tables, each of which is headed by a 'facilitator', who asks questions, prompts people and generally guides the discussion and offers information on things such as green burials. I had to brace myself to go along with a friend who was keen to attend. It meant that, for a couple of hours, I would have to overcome my phobia about anything to do with death.
As a kid, I couldn't bare seeing a dead animal; a sheep's skeleton on the Welsh moors, a fledgling fallen from its nest, lying stiff on the patio. If that song about 'your thigh bone's connected to your knee bone' came on the radio, I would clap my hands over my ears and yell "La-la-la" until it was finished. My worst nightmares were about dying myself, or finding corpses. I couldn't even watch medical programmes, I was so squeamish.
At the meeting, the first thing we were asked is why we had come. To my horror, two of the women at my table said they had terminal illnesses. I immediately felt like a fraud. I didn't know why I was there. I had come along to accompany a friend, but I couldn't say that. In the end, I told the truth, that I was afraid of death and anything to do with the dying process, and that I had lost people I loved and found it hard to deal with my feelings. There. It was out in the open. And once I'd voiced it, I realised it was something I was going to have to work at, work with, because at my age I am bound to lose more and more people. I am going to have to break through my own taboo.
I do think Death Cafes are a good idea. It's easy to speak about almost anything but death. It seems the longer our life-span as a species, the worse we are at dealing with our inevitable end. Death is the worm in the apple of life. In previous centuries, when people often didn't live beyond forty and women died giving birth to their eleventh baby having already lost at least five, death was a fact of life; it was all around, an almost daily occurrence. But now, with so many pleasurable things to entertain us and so many more years to enjoy them in, we selfishly want to cling to life at all costs.
Death has replaced sex as an obscenity. We feel doctors and hospitals should be punished for letting our loved ones die, even when their quality of life is next to nil. We do not go gentle into that good night (thank you, Dylan Thomas, for writing out your anti-death rage). In fact, we discuss it so little that when it comes to dealing with the practicalities surrounding the death of someone close, we can find ourselves at a loss, as we have no experience of it. And that is where the Death Cafe comes in, with its ability to educate and inform and provide a safe space in which to discuss the kinds of practicalities that were once common knowledge.
Today, we had a call from the husband of a friend, to say his wife, who I love to bits, suffered a massive stroke this morning and is in a coma. As she already weighs less than 5 stone, due to another minor stroke that affected the part of the brain that controls appetite, they don't hold out any hope. My eyes are filling as I write this. My partner intends to go to the hospital tomorrow, some distance away. He has his satnav out and is planning the route. I know he's going to ask me if I want to come. But I don't. I want to remember her laughing and dancing in our garden this time last year, cracking jokes and swigging white wine spritzers.
I remember my mother in our garden in Liverpool, dancing and singing. I remember her stunning blue eyes, her wavy hair. I don't want to remember her as she lay in the funeral parlour looking nothing like she did in life. I remember my dad making his awful puns as we sat eating the Sunday roast. I remember the lively, happy times.
I think I need to learn to separate the body from the spirit. To think of the life that was in that person rather than the body that the life has left; the energy they gave out, and the love. I need to stop thinking of a corpse as creepy. It is just a covering that a person discards when their soul is set free, like discarding an old coat. Flad's little furry coat is buried in the garden. It's not him, just the outer garment that encased his spirit. Life, energy, love... the beautiful eyes, the dance... they are to be remembered and celebrated. And if I cry, if I wail, if I get drunk, if I miss them so much that it hurts, it's my way of showing how much I loved that person, that animal, that bundle of energy and personality wrapped up in skin.