Sunday, January 18, 2004

On Life 

I've been wondering about posting this piece; it's hardly typical blog material (but then, what is?) It's about my father's death four years ago at the age of 88 and my reaction to it. I can't say why I'm posting it; the thought that I might do so occurred to me and I couldn't seem to shake it. There are many reasons why it seemed not to be a good idea, yet still I felt compelled to do so. Whether it's for me or for you I can't say; four years ago is long enough that I've long since adjusted to my new world order, long ago worked out anything remaining from that time.

With that preamble, you may decide to skip this post. I wont mind - well, I wont know will I? But let me just say this. The subject matter may be a death, but the theme is life. Oh, one more thing, if you do choose to read on. This is a description of an experience that took place in the context of a life lived according to Christian beliefs, but it isn't intended as a religious piece - at least, not in the sense of having an intended religious purpose.

This was originally longer, but I cut the first page or so as it added little other than padding. So I need to set the scene for you.

On the day prior to the events described here, my father had collapsed at his home early in the morning. My parents lived quite close to me so I had gone straight there; he was conscious when I arrived but lying on the floor unable to move. I followed the ambulance to the hospital with my mother, and stayed there for most of the day. By the evening, there was no change to his condition - he was conscious, able to sit up, but after all the tests the doctors had carried out needed sleep. We left, uncertain what tomorrow would bring. My mother stayed overnight with my sister, a little further away.

Early the next day, I had a phone call from the hospital. The voice carrying both gentleness and urgency:
"Mr Borrows? I think it would be a good time to get the family together here."
Living nearest, I was the first to get there. It's a short drive, no more than 15 minutes on the empty roads of a quiet Sunday morning. Most of my consciousness was switched into standby, the question of what I would soon face hanging there, unanswered and unanswerable. All thoughts and emotions held in stasis, suspended in freeze-frame. Deliberate focus on the detailed mechanics of driving; it was something to occupy my mind.

It hit me when I got out of the car. All the way there, the question had been in the future; the close future, but the future nonetheless. Not yet; not quite yet. Now it was moving closer, this moment so long dreaded; moving too fast. Stepping out of the car was like coming out of the doors of a movie theatre at the end of the show. Up until then I could have hidden behind the unreality of a player in a story; now the lights were up, this was the real world, and I was alone in it. Cliche it may be, but the hundred yards walk from the car park to the hospital entrance was the hardest hundred yards I've ever walked. Propelled forwards by the overwhelming need to know; terrified of moving forward because of the fear of what I'd find, and to be brutally honest, the fear of the unknown of how I would react. I'd never seen death close up. It may sound self-centred, but in a mind that had for the moment relinquished any attempt at controlling itself, the unknown of what that event would do to me felt more frightening than the thought of event itself.

Through the doors, and the immediacy gripped me further, but that helped to squeeze out some of the fear. There were people here; a small sense of normality returned; the world contained more than me and my fear. And the driver of that fear became less; a hospital has routines and a sense of order; there was some kind of process under way and all I had to do was to play my part in it - if I could handle the script.

I knew what I feared the most; I was afraid of watching him die, afraid of my own grief, afraid of the strangeness of it all. We're a close family, but the closeness has always been unspoken. Strong emotions were things that may have been felt but were rarely shown. It was as though they were considered undesirable, something to be avoided if at all possible, almost as if there was something improper or indecent about them. Certainly strong emotions were not something to be expressed.

It was quiet in the hospital. Peaceful even; quite unlike the usual bustle. A few nurses were moving around, but there was no feeling of urgency, just a quiet routine Sunday morning. Maybe the moment wouldn't come after all? Not just yet?

Nervously, reluctantly: "Hello, I'm Andy Borrows."
Her eyes carried the message before her lips started to move:
"I'm so sorry... Your father passed away a few minutes ago".
Spoken gently, compassionately; her voice matched her eyes.
"He'd had quite a troubled night."
The unspoken meaning: It was a relief for him to go.
"Okay... Thank you."
Thank you? But what else was there to say?
Eyes fill with tears.
"Are you all right? Would you like to sit down?"
"I'll be okay."
"You can sit with him if you like."
I hadn't expected that. It was an offer, something to do; the suggestion took away the need to think what I should do or say next.
"Yes, please."
"Would you like a cup of tea?"
I don't drink tea. "Yes, that would be nice."
Something else to do, something to occupy my mind; the thought of cradling a warm cup in my hands felt comforting.

I was shown to a small side ward, just four beds, three empty and curtains around the fourth. Morning sunshine filled the room giving it an incongruous but welcome feeling of warmth and brightness; a radio played quietly in the background. Not enough to intrude, but enough to keep the silence at bay. No more fear now; no more unknowns just yet. The rest of the family would be here soon, but reality had contracted down to the present moment only; my view of the future didn't extend more than a few seconds ahead. Now became very immediate; now filled my consciousness; what might come to be in five minutes time was far, far distant, as was what had been five minutes before. Now was all that existed. Now contained enough to fill the mind completely leaving no space for past or future.

The nurse pulled the curtains aside slightly. Two chairs by the bed, waiting. Everything looked so neat and tidy - organised, under control, prepared. Sheets turned neatly back, blankets smoothed, my father's frail body barely noticeable underneath them. Arms by his sides, his head rested on the pillow, eyes closed, mouth slightly open. That last seemed a little shocking at first, although I felt I didn't know why it should. If he had been mouthing his last words, I knew they would have been a prayer.

I sat.
"I'll put your tea here."
"Thank you."
"Would you like just to sit with him for a while?"
"Yes, until the others come."

I can't say just how much I value those moments. Much passed through my mind - the thoughts and feelings and tears came and stayed and passed as they wished; time and sequence had little meaning at that point. Existence for a while became just a flow of present consciousness. Times past replayed themselves; underlying was a theme of questioning, of searching - were there any regrets? Any things I might have said but didn't, any things I had said but wished I hadn't? As this all washed over and through me I knew there had been no barriers between us; no regrets. He had always held strong Christian beliefs and stayed totally true to them every single hour of every single day; a completely authentic life. My own world view may have been less strict, less orthodox, but in what mattered, we were in accord.

I could look on his face more easily now. The body that had once been his was clearly an empty shell now; although his face showed no sign of any final struggle - except perhaps for that slightly disturbing open mouth - now that his spirit had departed his body, the emptiness of that shell was obvious and complete. We use the word lifeless loosely sometimes, but it's stark meaning here was in no doubt. Sleep is teeming with life by comparison. This face had once held life, but life had now left it, leaving behind nothing but a wax effigy.

But it was only a few minutes since life, his life, had departed. His Christian beliefs were an absolute certainty for him; he would have seen his impending death as a crossing over into a new and better existence . He would have felt pain at the separation from his family, which he knew to be temporary only, but joy - yes, true joy - at the prospect of what lay ahead.

Thoughts such as these played themselves in my mind; I just sat and watched and listened to them. An idea surfaced, coming from a part of my mind that must have been watching all this from the sidelines: if time has any meaning at all in the afterlife, then right now his spirit is meeting it's Maker, as I sit here in this room. For him, that represented the final pinnacle of life, the moment that every other moment of his life had been working expectantly towards. Fulfilment as complete as it is possible to be.

As I sat there, awash in these thoughts of our past together, in notions of the future as he would have understood it, in awareness of the present moment, I had a powerful sense of what I can only describe as an echo of his spirit there in the room. He had been there not very long before; he had now departed - I knew that - but it was as though something of him still lingered, like a perfume still present in the air after the wearer has left. Or, incongruously, I thought of the Cheshire Cat in Alice in Wonderland, whose grin stays behind hanging in the air after its body has faded away.

Up until that moment I had believed in the idea of life after death as an axiom - true, but unproven and unprovable. But at that point it seemed as though I had experienced this truth first hand; here in front of me was a lifeless shell, yet I felt the presence of his life.

I sat a little longer, at peace now. In a little while other family members arrived and I left the room to meet them. Brief words, tearful embraces, more cups of tea. The early morning's spell was broken; activity around was now more purposeful.

Those few moments are precious to me. An opportunity to say goodbye, gently to close the last chapter of that book. And I had the briefest glimpse - a faint reflection, no more - of something beyond the purely physical. In his death, my father's final gift to me was an experience of the absolute certainty that our lives go on after our bodies have ceased to function. The story continues.

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