Moving On

I once called at my mother’s house to find her on hands and knees deep into the small cupboard under the stairs.

‘Hello Mum! What are you doing under there?’ I called.

Wriggling her rump out of the dingy den, she said,

‘I’m making sure there’s enough drink for my wake.’

That was seven years ago. Aware of her age and still grieving after Dad’s death a year earlier, she probably felt it timely to check the wine and whisky. She’s now 94, and her inner strength has been a great source of inspiration for all of us. No doubt she still checks the booze stock and, more than once, has taken me through her formal documents, explaining meticulously what I’d need to do.

The only phrase missing in her explanation was ‘When I die.’ Okay, in the circumstances it wasn’t essential since it was obvious what she was referring to. But isn’t it also because talking to someone about death, yours or other people’s, is very hard?

It’s particularly so across generations. The younger you are, the further you are from dying and the more distractions you have. Death is not on the agenda. In The Prince of Mist by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, a 72 year old lighthouse keeper tells his grandson how growing old and dying is perceived during three broad periods of life.

“During the first it doesn’t even occur to us that one day we will grow old. We don’t think that time passes or that from the day we are born we’re all walking towards a common end. After the first years of youth comes the second period, in which a person becomes aware of the fragility of life and what begins like a simple niggling doubt rises inside you like a flood of uncertainties that will stay with you for the rest of your days. Finally, towards the end of life, we reach the period of acceptance and, consequently, of resignation. A time of waiting.

This is where readers in their ‘first period’ might choose to skip the rest of my article – fair enough! Indeed, the lighthouse keeper’s story would probably have been lost on his grandson.

Yet dying is the only certain thing about life. Something we can all be confident will happen. All right, there’s the famous quotation,

“ … in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”

In fact, celebrities and large corporations have proved that taxation is far from certain. I prefer my ex-father-in-law’s assertion that the only two certain things in life are 1) Death and 2) If you take your scissors to be sharpened by a scissor grinder they’ll always come back blunter than before.

When Mum calmly declared she was preparing for her wake, perhaps she was hinting at a wish to talk about it. But the discussion was one-way. Because I’m a generation behind and leading a busy life, my instinctive reaction was to close the conversation down.

‘Oh, you’ll be with us a long time yet, mum!’

Whilst it might have been harsh to have said, ‘Good idea – won’t be long now, will it?’ or ‘Don’t worry – leave some cash handy and I’ll pop down the offy if we run short,’ my actual response was little better in the sense that it only left me feeling more comfortable. It wasn’t particularly helpful to her. With hindsight I could have asked how she felt and helped count the bottles. But I didn’t. And even now I feel a tinge of guilt writing about the episode – despite the fact that dying is normal, natural, certain, and a common end for all of us.

What is it about the word ‘die’? In spite of its certainty it somehow poses a threat – as if saying the word will hasten the event. Instead we choose euphemistic terms like passed away, no longer with us or demise. Softer in tone, these words seem to help us cope.

Sometimes humour replaces euphemism. Popping your clogs or meeting your maker are harmless terms if used generically. I particularly liked a recent comment by Peter McParland, scorer of the two goals that gave Aston Villa their last FA Cup Final win in 1957. In a recent TV interview about this year’s final between Arsenal and Aston Villa, the sprightly 81year old said,

‘It’d be great to see them do it again before I move on.’

Move on! Sweet!

I accept that in our culture some topics are filed in the drawer labelled ‘unmentionables’. Many prefer to hold their counsel on matters of income, religion and which Party they vote for. Sadly, some also find conversations about cancer or mental health too awkward to handle.

But why death when it’s so inescapable? To me, dying is as important as being born in the sense that respect for life should not have diminished. With the exception of sudden unexpected death, and say dementia or severe illness where people might not be best placed to articulate thoughts, the emotional impact could be softened by more open discussion between those in their last years and those to be left behind. A kind of ‘living’ celebration rather than a funereal one.

I’ve just read a wonderful book by Caitlin Doughty called Smoke Gets In Your Eyes. A qualified US mortician, she offers a compassionate, respectful, yet hilarious account of her thirteen years experience with dead people and their loved ones. Her well-considered views help me realise that I too am well into the third period – the ‘period of acceptance’. For some time I’ve held no fear of death; only a niggling concern for those I leave behind. I keep my Will in order, and from time to time, when a natural opportunity arises, I try to be open about my feelings with relatives or close friends. Some are happy to join in, others treat death as an ‘unmentionable’, pausing diplomatically before saying,

‘Er, did I tell you we were going to Corfu this year?’

Yes, I try. But I don’t always get my timing right. I recently met up with my other half after being away a few days. We had plenty of catching up to do, but so taken was I by the mortician’s story I’d been reading on the train that my opening gambit was,

‘I must tell you! I’ve bought a great new book!’

‘Oh yes. What’s it about?’

‘Death,’ I said.

‘Thanks for that,’ she said. ‘Please can we start this conversation again?’

 

Copyright © Paul Costello May 2015

 

Addendum  August 2015

Since writing this article I’ve read another book based on crematorium work, this time a funny, sad, yet ultimately optimistic novel called “A Trick I Learned from Dead Men” by Kitty Aldridge. I felt this section had the same tone as my piece. The main character, Lee Hart, is reflecting on the earlier, premature loss of his mother and the more recent sudden demise of his stepfather Lester:

“I sit in the room. I’m supposed to be hoovering, but. Here she died. Here Lester lay. Facts unfit for airing in the presence of prospective house buyers, under the rug they must be brushed, pronto.

Framed photographs. Us when we were young. I stare at us. Me and Ned with freckles, gaps in our teeth. Mum and Les leaning, laughing up at the camera, surprised, sun-kissed. We seem alive, more than we are now. Who are these people and what are they doing? And where have they gone? I lie on the bed.

I wonder if I lie here long enough whether I might slope off too. I close my eyes. I don’t mind, make a change. Buenos noches. Adios. Not that it’s easy of course. It isn’t. Death: the most natural thing in the world is unnaturally tough to do if you’re trying too hard. And certainly not if you are clocking it before it’s had a chance to clock you. A watched pot, etcetera. Stare death in the face and watch it paralyse. Death would rather take you by surprise, creep up sideways and bosh.”

 

Out of my Way! I’m Old!

Like a hatching chickI break out from my curled-up comfort. My head emerges first, before I unfurl my back, straighten limbs and tumble from the protective duvet. Like a dishevelled fledgling, I then take the first tentative steps.

There the likeness collapses. The baby bird will soon be hopping its Duracell way through the day, whereas I tackle my tottering with a line of tabs, each colour shoring up a different part of the body.

It’s a wonder

I ever come out of

the foetal position.

I sleep eight to ten hours a night, topped up with daytime naps. Friends worry; they think I should see a doctor. Some suggest it’s a waste of life. But this can’t be true if it’s something I really like doing. I’ve enjoyed this amount of sleep since I was a lad. I mean ENJOYED! I love the act of falling asleep – a surgeon’s ideal patient!

I’ve always asserted that sleeping and what some see as ‘doing nothing’ are life’s entitlements. Sitting on a park bench people-watching, or just thinking and snoozing are stimulating and rewarding pastimes, as is daytime television. Legitimate and deliciously self-indulgent.

When I recently retired, the most annoying question was:

‘What will you do now?’

Oh, COME ON! Spare the cliché. Okay, when I’m not doing nothing I’m obviously going to sleep more! In fact my avowed aim is gradually to sleep a greater proportion of each twenty four hours so that by the time my body finally pegs out I probably won’t notice. Seriously, that is a crass question. Although many retirees don’t have a plan, it’s never long before their hectic life spawns the other cliché:

‘I don’t know where I found the time before.’

For me, retirement means more of what I love – exploring, writing, singing, drinking tea, going to the pub, seeing friends and yes, sleeping and doing nothing. Perhaps doing something charitable. Definitely having a nice run out on the bus (free) or train (third-off), knowing that on the train I can now gloat when I see sweaty executives slaving over tablets and laptops and taking and making numerous calls about  sustaining and maintaining and finding a window, being needlessly noisy about bottom-line prices and blue-sky b****y thinking.

A friend of mine approaching 60 says he’ll never retire – loves his work too much. His wife who is retired is as driven as him. I get exhausted watching them overstretch themselves, and wonder if they’re really fulfilled. But that is no more my business than it is for others to comment on my idleness. Everyone is different. This is not a blueprint for retirement or growing old; it’s simply my take on it.

Being idle is great!

Every day, as I squeeze out of my foetal wrap, I think:

‘What shall I do today?’

Starting with:

‘When shall I get up?’

And later, in my dressing gown:

‘Is it worth getting dressed now that it’s dark?’

Such luxury! I’ve spent forty-five years earning my modest pensions, thirty as an employed slave, fifteen grafting for myself. I now have freedom to decide.

I shall do anything and nothing.

Because I can.

Given that I’m into the last third of my life, I have thirty or so years still to indulge this passion for freedom – that’s assuming I don’t go early. I’ve never been afraid of dying. Que sera, sera. Okay, I might have ideas about good or bad ways of going, but since it’s a hundred percent certain that I will, I’ve never felt inclined to spend my waking life worrying about it. That’s for others to do, and I offer you my condolences in advance – you’re all fab, and do sell this article to fund the celebrations! Hey, I really am a surgeon’s best friend – I not only love going to sleep, but if I happen to die on him it’s no great shakes! Perhaps I should make that clear on the disclaimer. What a way to go – gently into eternal sleep.

I doubt I’ll age with dignity.

My dad did, bless him. To his dying day he was the cee aitch in charm. Yet he wasn’t beyond a trick or two. I remember him saying how, when he wanted to cross the road, he’d wave his walking stick (which was for comfort not necessity) high in the air, and the traffic would grind to a halt with drivers acknowledging his oh so innocent smile.

My mum, mid-90s, is more ‘say it as you see it’. I heard somewhere that the first brain cells to die are those that help you respect social norms. Inhibitor cells, perhaps? Without these, in a room full of pink-haired people you’re allowed angrily to declare:

‘I don’t like pink hair!’

Or in a TV lounge, yell:

‘Why are all the Arsenal players black?’

What a great excuse! No-one can possibly take offence.

‘It’s just my inhibitor cells!’

If you can’t speak your mind at that age, when can you? See it as alternative humour; there’s far more offensive material on the comedy circuit.

I have these joys to come.

I too shall raise a stick to traffic. I too shall greet people with, ‘How lovely to see you again’, even though I can’t remember who the hell they are. I too shall berate the lawn man who doesn’t trim my edges neatly. And I too shall growl, ‘Out of my way!’ to innocent pedestrians as I mow them down on my mobility scooter before freewheeling home down the centre of the road with my legs in the air.

I shall say ‘pah’ to Michael Parkinson for asking me to fork out my funeral expenses up front when people could perfectly well club together after I’ve gone. ‘Yah boo’ to the stooges on McCarthy and Stone hoardings who promise ‘A Greater Life in Later Life’ if you buy one of their apartments. (Yeah right). ‘Grrr’ to Saga Magazine for overusing both Angela Rippon’s smile and the term ‘Golden Years’. And I shall yawn openly at bronzed elderlies who mechanically recite their tick list – Australia, New Zealand, Tibet, Argentina, Brazil, China and Borneo ‘done’ so far – or bang on about Glucosamine Sulphate and Condroitin, or have dinner at exactly 6.30 every day and lunch at 12.

Each day I shall decide what I’d like to do. If anything. Because I can. For the next thirty years I’ll feel as free as that young chick – as I slowly shrink, and stoop, and bend, back towards the foetal position where it all began.

Copyright © Paul Costello May 2014  www.paulcostello.me

Related blogs:  A Last BananaThe Commandments for Older People – Thou shalt …Warfarin Junkie;  Programme Notes from Les Miserables.

Related material: Chapter titled: Caught Napping, in my Bed and Breakfast memoir Utterly Undiscovered. www.fineleaf.co.uk

Latest Project:  Terms and Conditions Apply – a play by Paul Costello. A sharp-witted comedy about a 5-year coalition government, seen through the eyes of ordinary, suburban households and, in stark contrast, the rose-tinted spectacles of politicians. Director Bob Maynard. Ledbury Market Theatre 31st July to 2nd August.  www.themarkettheatre.com

 

Note:  Any promotional material that appears below this article has been placed independently and is unrelated. I have no views on its content.

 

 

 

 

A Last Banana

I never cried when dad died. Not when I got the call, not at the funeral.

I remember mum dabbing at her eyes during the service in an ‘I can cope’ way, and my sister, red-eyed, keeping busy to get through the day.

My brother cried hardest. As the cortege passed through the cemetery gates, out of the solemn silence of our stately limousine came a deep wail, a pocket of grief broken free, cloaking us all. I still picture his anguished face and how mum put her arm round him, saying, ‘It’s all right, dear’ – like mums always do.

I thought that I too should be crying, and wondered if I didn’t care enough or whether others might think that. But in my heart I knew that not crying was okay. During his last years dad and I had learnt to laugh together, not weep. I could see him fading, and was sure that he too was reconciled. It wasn’t talked about much except by innuendo, but mum knew, and I knew, and with quiet dignity we all accepted what was happening.

I wanted more and more to greet him with a kiss, especially when he became sedentary then bed bound. He seemed to value this affection, pressing stubbled kisses along my cheek. His face would light up when I came in the room, and we’d chat easily, as much as you can with illness around you. Parting was never sad; we trusted how things were.

At the hospice one day, I found dad propped up neatly in bed. I held his hand and we talked a little, on and off, whatever came to mind. Suddenly he grabbed a banana from the table and peeled it with great deliberation. With a look that said, ‘Watch this, son!’ he gobbled it up in a few bites, as if to buy more time. He was eating very little by then, so it didn’t fool me. He lapsed into a misty state soon after, but we stayed looking into each other’s eyes in a way that would have felt awkward in ordinary times.

Before I left, I held his hand and kissed him tight on the forehead. As I drew back, his face lost its taut complexion, opening into a warm smile like an unexpected ray of evening sun. In silence, he gripped my hand tight as if to stop me leaving, and when finally he released me and I waved from the doorway, he still wore the same tender expression. That was the last time I saw him.

The hospice staff loved my dad and talked about him as though he was their only resident. He’d have liked that – pleasing those around him. I took a white rose for their scented garden; they invited me to come and see where it was planted, but I never went.

With the passing of time, mum is less sad. Photos of dad, from young soldier to wise old man, comfort her where she eats and sleeps. She keeps the grave tidy and gets on with life. Dealing with his loss.

As we all do – each in our own way.

Copyright Paul Costello © March 2014

www.paulcostello.me

Bang to Rights


Bang to Rights

 

Egypt is setting down clear markers in its drive to democracy. According to Arab media, the newly elected parliament is proposing a law giving men the legal right to have sex with their wives up to six hours after they have died.

Now call me old-fashioned – but I’d always been led to believe sex was something to be enjoyed between two consenting people. Where is the consent in this? Even if the wife signed up to it beforehand, like in a pre-nuptial, there’d be no opportunity to change her mind. And unless it’s physically or spiritually possible for a dead person to be stimulated in the same way as a live one, I can’t see where her enjoyment would come from.

Admittedly there’ve been times when I’ve thought that the woman in my bed has not displayed much enthusiasm, and no doubt some have felt the same of me. But to know this in advance would seem about as exciting a prospect as getting Isla the Inflatable out of the bottom drawer. 

It also raises a number of technical questions. Would the dead woman still be the man’s wife? And why six hours? Is that the amount of time it would be pleasurable before say the body starts to emit gases or stiffen up. Perhaps it’s the longest a man’s interest is likely to last? With five point four minutes the average before a man reaches orgasm, rising by a power of three for the next two climaxes, add in progressively longer recovery periods and six hours should do nicely before calling it a day.

And when does the six hours start? Maybe the man could delay calling the doctor to squeeze out more time. Or what if the six hours is up and he hasn’t quite finished? Does the long arm of the law step in?

‘Right sir, that’ it. Time’s up. It’s not our fault you started with less than five point four minutes to go.’

What’s more worrying is that Egypt is not that far away – about the same flight time as say Tenerife or Cyprus. Imagine at 10.34 p.m. (apparently the average most popular time for intercourse) listening to your neighbours through the thin, papyrus walls of a Sharm El Sheikh hotel. As the man races to his finale, with the woman’s enjoyment conspicuous by her silence, wouldn’t it be tempting to think:

‘I wonder if she’s … ? Ah well it shouldn’t last more than another five hours or so.’

The Thomas Cook terms and conditions would have to state:

Balcony and sea view £2, Air conditioning £3, Aud-erism £5. Married couples please note that if wives die during the holiday, local laws apply.

I accept that every culture has its own ideas and values. There must be hundreds of rituals across the world, many involving a lack of female rights, that would make the six-hour rule look saintly. And at least this way the woman de facto suffers in silence. But assuming most women don’t die suddenly, wouldn’t it be a darn sight more enjoyable to go for so-called ‘farewell intercourse’ while she’s on her death bed but technically still alive. At least she might be able to help with proceedings; and she’d have the chance to say no if she didn’t want it, and to enjoy it if she did – a proper, shared goodbye.