Friday 15 November 2019

Miriam O'Callaghan: What we talk about in talking of death

Consumed by giving someone the best possible death - dignified and beautiful - we can forget that after it all, they'll actually be dead, says Miriam O'Callaghan

THIS IS THE END, BEAUTIFUL FRIEND: ‘Death can be a journey to forgiveness, acceptance, awareness, even bliss’. Watchers observe a total solar eclipse in the Australian outback in 2002
THIS IS THE END, BEAUTIFUL FRIEND: ‘Death can be a journey to forgiveness, acceptance, awareness, even bliss’. Watchers observe a total solar eclipse in the Australian outback in 2002

Miriam O'Callaghan

'Are you the doctor or the undertaker?"

It's almost midnight on a Tuesday before Christmas 2013 and we have sent for both. One for either parent.

"Eh… I'm… I'm the undertaker," says the man in the navy overcoat, who, to his horror and credit, bursts out laughing. "Madam, I'm so sorry… it's just that… you know…"

We do. We open the door wider. Laugh ourselves. "Come in."

In the sorrow that sits like Armageddon over the house, it is my father's gift to us. In the house that night there are two dead people. Only one of them certified.

"Don't put 'surrounded by his family', says the Undocumented. "Your father hates that. The sense of being crushed, suffocated."

She always refers to him as "your father" as if we, his daughters, are too stupid to know who he is, or recognise the full value of him, his extravagant love for us.

By contrast, she has the full measure of him. And he of her. After 51-and-a-half years of happy marriage, they are the imperfect, perfect complement.

Inevitably, by the time the doctor arrives, it is too late. There are no tricks of medicine or magic. The 'Dead' cannot be raised, even if they have a pulse, and on paper, a new occupation: widow.

I won't write about the moments, the circumstances, of my father's death. To do so would be to intrude on a man for whom privacy and dignity were precious; who fought to keep them to what, we hope, is the end of the beginning.

Though a news, history and current-affairs addict, he was repelled by, and disbelieving of, a society manic about disclosing and doing so boundlessly, endlessly, largely without differentiation. Cute cats, sales bargains, what-my-dog did and how someone-did-for-me all up there, out there, for all to see or comment on; the latter, frequently anonymously and without grace or limit.

Photos on phones? Grown women terrifying cats with bunches of flowers? Why would you take a snap of your dinner? And send it to the world? Didn't they ever see a bit of swede and a chop?

Writing about the doctor/undertaker is different though. That it happened, is not only something he would have loved, but I'm convinced, he sent us. Here's a clever man giving his wife and daughters a very human connection with those who would take care of him now. Here's a generous man gifting those he loves a way to speak about what is unspeakable, on that night, and all those to come.

According to the International Death Clock, we die at a rate of 1.8 persons a second. For some, death starts a long time before the heart stops. Yes, it can be a journey to forgiveness, acceptance, awareness, even bliss.

Equally, even in terms of palliative care, the war between the elixir of life and the pharmacology of death can be one of attrition and atrocity. Perhaps you are already engaged, reading this, behind the lines, in a family room, the car, the kitchen, your replacements positioning the heavy artillery of hyoscine, Haldol, morphine sulphate. Maybe all week, your heart is pounding, stopping at the patient chart in a corridor. Date of birth - the cause of cakes to be made and presents to be bought and wine to be drunk - opening a bracket that any day, any minute, any second now, will close. And forever.

That's what's killing about dying; that we get so consumed by giving someone the best possible death - dignified, peaceful, painless, beautiful - insane as it sounds, we can forget that at the end of it all, they will actually be dead. And will remain so.

At that last exhalation, their time with us will be over, their term decided. They will be gone from us and will never be coming back. Is this forgetting, the reality of death? Or is it the reality of death we can deal with?

I believe that just as we have midwives for birth, so too, should we have them for death. Someone who knows the signs, the way, has their papers, moves easily between the territories of the living and the dead. I suspect many who have had the gift, the privilege of accompanying people into death, would sign up immediately for such midwifery training, make themselves useful.

My maternal grandmother was much sought-after to sit with the dying. She had the gift. And she did it and had it at a time when Ireland, in particular, suffered from a spiritual certainty, that was actually 'religious' control. When it was a mortal sin to arrive at Mass after the gospel. When women who lived perfectly good lives fretted about 'the sins of their youth', marooned on their beds in an ocean of guilt, candles and prayers for the dying. When those who took their lives were denied burial in consecrated ground. When, if the priest didn't make it 'on time', or a bread van did for you in the back-of-beyond, acts of contrition were whispered into ears by unworthy, but handy, proxies.

She sat with dying mothers of dead children. Mothers who would have swapped bales of the cloths of heaven for a manky thread off the edge of limbo and the chance to spend a split second or all eternity - whichever the greater - with their son, their daughter. Death, unadorned, dividing them in life. Rome, its brocaded men, dividing them in death. Until, bingo! In 2007, limbo was abolished. Only it wasn't.

Apparently, the "salvation" of babies newly born or stillborn is still debatable, even if there is now more "hope" they will enjoy "the beatific vision". Whatever about the hope, the horror it inflicted on mothers - and fathers - for centuries is absolute. It can never be undone, can never be absolved. The man-made eternal separation of a child and its parents, presented as divine, is a tear to the psyche. Detestable above other evils. Displeasing to any god.

My father believed in a kind, loving, merciful god. Not the lad with a head teeming with sins and slights that he transfers to a spiteful ledger, but the one with the sacred heart, the cop-on, the extendable ladder.

"Delighted to see you. Come up quick. Peter, mind him there. Only back on his feet. Give him a hand."

But his brother Barry beats Peter to it. "It's alright. Come on, Small Fella. In the name of Jesus, what kept you?"

In death, as in life, one brother perfectly outrageous. The other, delightedly, appalled.

They say that at the moment of birth, two people are born - a child and a mother. But dying is its own labour, death its own birth, whether it be to 'eternal life' or what feels like existence for those with leave to remain. In Italian, to give birth is dare alla luce - to give to the light. But is this not what we do also in death? Pass those we love into the care of those who loved them before us?

In death, do we not give our beloveds to old love? New light?

Sunday Independent

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