WOMEN sit, or move to and fro—some old, some young;
The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young.
WOMEN sit, or move to and fro—some old, some young;
The young are beautiful—but the old are more beautiful than the young.
If I should go before the rest of you
Break not a flower nor inscribe a stone
Nor when I’m gone speak in a Sunday voice
But be the usual selves that I have known
Weep if you must
Parting is hell
But life goes on
So sing as well.
I work all day, and get half-drunk at night.
Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare.
In time the curtain-edges will grow light.
Till then I see what’s really always there:
Unresting death, a whole day nearer now,
Making all thought impossible but how
And where and when I shall myself die.
Arid interrogation: yet the dread
Of dying, and being dead,
Flashes afresh to hold and horrify.
The mind blanks at the glare. Not in remorse
—The good not done, the love not given, time
Torn off unused—nor wretchedly because
An only life can take so long to climb
Clear of its wrong beginnings, and may never;
But at the total emptiness for ever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
This is a special way of being afraid
No trick dispels. Religion used to try,
That vast moth-eaten musical brocade
Created to pretend we never die,
And specious stuff that says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear—no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to love or link with,
The anaesthetic from which none come round.
And so it stays just on the edge of vision,
A small unfocused blur, a standing chill
That slows each impulse down to indecision.
Most things may never happen: this one will,
And realisation of it rages out
In furnace-fear when we are caught without
People or drink. Courage is no good:
It means not scaring others. Being brave
Lets no one off the grave.
Death is no different whined at than withstood.
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can’t escape,
Yet can’t accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
When Nietzsche said the thing about the bridge he was philosophising in the same vein as Sinatra when Sinatra sang “I did it my way” although Nietzsche said it first, and perhaps more eloquently but Sinatra had a better tune and he said it in Vegas, but I’m quibbling, the core message is the same: you have to find your way to live, to do life your way. There has to be a time when you start to make your decisions and your mistakes and you take responsibility for them equally. Only you know how to get your life right, how to do your journey the way you are supposed to and it cant be an extension of someone else’s life, it cant be their second life, their chance to have another bash at it by telling you what to do and yet, even when we know this and we sing the song and we say we are doing it our own way it is not possible to always consistently do it our way. We have to compromise, we have to consider others and we are policed and regulated by other people every day. Not just the laws and rules that govern but the social expectations, the views other people have of how we should be doing it, the way the current system(which many of us accept is making us ill) controls us socially and culturally and so we never truly have the freedom to build our own bridge, we’re dependent on other people for much of the planning permission and the materials.
When I talk with people who are dying there tend to be two camps, there are the people who take the approach of “I’ve lived and I’ve made mistakes and I didn’t always get it right but it’s done”, then there are the people who say “if I had my time again” or “If I’d known then what I know now”.
In both groups people talk about having “worried” what other people thought of them and this affected their decision making, how can it not when we are communal animals, we live amongst our own and have to adopt customs and rules which ensure we cooperate with the group, but there are rules and expectations and instructions from those around us which seem petty and conformist and controlling beyond the bigger picture of governing society. Rules about who we marry or what music we listen to or where we travel to or the job we do or the area we live in or what clothes we wear or whether or not we wear red lipstick. These are all things which people who are dying have told me they wish they had had the courage to break free from and make their own decisions on rather than taking the route of doing what was expected or insisted on by the people they cared about.
The tyranny of other people, the need for approval and the reflection of us in their eyes traps us in a way we don’t readily think of but was nailed by John Paul Satre in his 1944 play No Exit in which he opined “hell is other people”. We want to be liked, we want to be accepted and to find what in modern parlance we term our “tribe” but at the same time we wan to be ourselves and to live a life in which we feel free to be authentically us, whatever that is, sometimes its just to break out of the straightjacket of expectations and convention and to surprise ourselves and those who think they know us.
Years ago I worked in a service supporting people with dementia, in the day centre we had various groups and sessions, our work was based on the research of Tom Kitwood and his model of person centred care. One of the groups I supported in was a beauty group, it was simple stuff, basic hairdressing and manicures but it was enjoyable for the woman who attended. We had a selection of nail varnishes and some of them were nice, safe, run of the mill colours, pale pinks and corals, but randomly thrown in the mix was a bottle of sassy bright red, racing car red, a sexy vampish colour that had probably been donated by one of the staff. An elderly woman I worked with, who was what I thought of as very conventional in her navy blue slacks and cream fine knit sweater with short grey, permed hair came to the group one particular week and when I laid out the selection of nail varnishes like a pink colour chart she bypassed the safe colours and picked the red. Nails filed and painted she kept admiring them when she picked up her cup for a drink or when she held her cutlery at lunchtime or just occasionally in that way we do when weve had our nails done, just holding out a hand and checking it out and feeling a little bit pleased about it. Sad thing was, when it was time for home her middle aged daughter arrived to collect her, when she saw her mums nails she seemed shocked and angry, she took me to one side and said “please clean my mothers hands, shes not the kind of woman who wears red nail polish”.
I cleaned the nail varnish off and it was never mentioned again but the experience stayed with me all these years, whilst dementia is a cruel illness which takes away many of the aspects of who a person is it also liberates some people from the restrictions of who they are or who they are expected to be. There are all kinds of emotions and judgements tied up in a woman choosing a nail varnish she wouldn’t have usually worn and what this meant to her and what it meant to her daughter and what her daughter thought it might mean to the world. The small compromises we make for the sake of other people and for the way we want to be and be seen in the world still constitute choices, we are still selecting and rejecting so I’m left wondering are we still doing it our way even when we make a choice to do it someone else’s way?
When my son was much younger than he is now I asked him what would happen to my belongings when I died, my son, who has always had a dry and very caustic sense of humour replied “it will involve a skip and a mallet”. My house was, is, filled with a mish-mash of charity shop finds, old unwanted and pre-loved ornaments, trinkets and pictures, these things were found in charity shops after they were evicted from family homes, they were unwanted and so in my mind they were unloved and I’m a sucker for a social outcast or reject.
There is a lot of clutter in my home, a lot of charity shop gems and a great number of books, I think I hoard books, we didn’t have many books when I was a child, my father had a leather bound set of Dennis Wheatley books he kept on glass shelves that we were not permitted to touch, other than that we were not a book owning family but we are a book reading family. I cannot bear to part with my books and in places in my home they are taking over, I’m not sure my collecting would meet the DSM standard for hoarding but its not healthy and I struggle to throw things away, I have a war-time, frugal mindset instilled by my grandma in which I try to avoid throwing anything away which might have a useful life. And so this means my home is full, it is full of things which matter only to me and the task of clearing it out when I die will fall to my son. I could grow very sentimental about this but in reality, I don’t want to face the task of clearing out my home so why would my son want to do it.
I have a sense that some of the things I own are imbued with power, or potency and so are “magical” in some way. I don’t want to throw some things away because I would miss them, other things I might “need”, some things I think it would be bad luck, bad karma to throw away. Some things I couldn’t bear to part with, photographs of people I love, cards from people who love me, knick-knacks with sentimental value, I don’t own anything of any material value. The things around me represent me, they represent my inner being, be it my soul or my mind, the kitsch, cluttered, eclectic, useless assembly of things tell visitors who I am but they also remind me who I am. In the same way the ancient Egyptians buried symbolic items with the Pharos or my Romani ancestors burned and destroyed the belongings of the deceased , we all understand the symbolism, the potency of the “things” we surround ourselves with, I am not unusual in equating “me” with my things, indeed this is part of all cultures in varying ways, the things we own define us but today this is the witchcraft of capitalism, our current system tells us that we are judged in accordance with what we own, owning the right things, be they the right new things and the right old or antique or vintage things.
The sense that some things have a potency beyond their financial value is evident in our collecting our children’s milk teeth or locks of hair or, in the case of my nan, keeping her gallstones in a jar after they were removed. My Nan kept the chunk of my hair that was cut off when I had my first “proper” hair cut at a hairdressers when I was 7years old, the pony tail was tied in an elastic band and stored in a drawer in one of her cupboards, it was still there when we cleared out her home some thirty years later following her death, I don’t think this was an item she would have remembered she had but at the same time I also don’t think she had forgotten she had it either. My Nan keeping my ponytail reminded me of the Victorian custom of memento mori, and particularly the taking of locks of hair from a deceased loved one to make mourning jewellery, a way in which to keep the person close, to remember death and loss and to signify ones grief and love to the world.
My maternal family are of Romani descent and one of the traditional customs after death which is not often enacted today is that all belongings which can be reduced to ash must be burned and all belongings which cant be burned must be smashed and broken, partly this is so the deceased can have their possessions in the next life but partly it is designed to prevent “marime” or contamination from whatever ailed the deceased. This is a complex custom and one which results in there being nothing to hand on from generation to generation, this lack of tangible inheritance may well be the reason for the longing deep within my psyche to seek out things without a home and cherish them creating my own version of a cabinet of curiosities, I have no inheritance from my family but I have created one for my son curated from the discarded belongings of other people and its small wonder he is less than excited about having to fit it all into his home after I am gone. The things I own will doubtless be returned to charity shops and will begin the cycle again but I like the idea of that, I’ve collected the things which stir my soul and appeal to my eye and my spirit, my mismatched collection of tat would not appeal in its entirety to anyone else and so it seems only right that its scattered and separated because it is uniquely mine and when I’m gone the purpose for which it was assembled will also be gone.
When someone is the same age as me and dying, their situation has a heartache inducing fascination for me, a kind of ghost visiting from another realm telling me about time running out and asking me what I’m doing with my life. This has been the case no matter what age I have been, its not about the actual age I am, its about the reality of spending time with a person of my age who is dying and, more importantly, knows they are dying. I am curious about the experience, the emotional response and the emotional journey, the reflections and the regret and the making peace with the situation or, conversely, fighting the situation and screaming in rage at god or the universe or whatever you believe has put you in the situation you find yourself in.
This is different to my spending time with people who are younger than me and are dying, this causes a sadness which combines a maternal feeling of love and a sense of injustice. When I’m working with older people I tend to feel a little more comfortable with their dying the older they are. I know that there is a natural order to the life cycle and its one on which old people die after having had a long life, young people have a life ahead of them and people with young children shouldn’t die. That doesn’t mean I am unaffected by the death of anyone, young or old I am touched by the loss for them and for their family but each loss, each experience of death touches me in a different way, death is unique and so is our response to it.
Several years ago I worked with a woman who was my age. Her illness was complex and there was no further treatment available for her. She had children the same age as my own and she had a husband and a cat and she had an average, ordinary life very much like mine. She had some of the same interests and hobbies as me, we liked some of the same music and films and we had passed some of the same milestones in life, in another setting we might have struck up a friendship but, we were brought together in a situation in which she was dying and I was one of her palliative care team.
When she was given her prognosis it came as a shock to her and her family, they had hoped that there would be treatment options, there were none and so the count down to death began. She was give facts about the prognosis of her disease and the effect it would have on her physical being and on her quality of life.
When we talked about what she wanted for her final months she had a “bucket list”, it included all manner of things, big and small, mundane and ambitious, a recurring theme on the list was visiting places she had always wanted to travel to but she was now too ill to travel, too dependent on small machines keeping her pain free and alive and too ill for travel insurance and so half of the bucket list plans were wiped out in an instant. She hadn’t travelled before because life got in the way, there was always some other demand on the money she was saving or she couldn’t get the time off work or one of her parents or children were ill, all manner of reasons why she couldn’t do the things she wanted to do at some other stage in life and so she put them off, she opted to do them “later”. We all have these things on lists, whether an actual list pinned to the fridge or a list in our heads, we all have stuff we want to do, stuff we thinks/hope/say/expect we will get round to doing but we don’t.
I’m not writing this to advocate that you seize the day and live your dreams nor am I writing it to tell you that I have been prompted into action and am working through a bucket list. Nothing life affirming happened and that’s the bit I find most interesting, I’m working with someone of my age, she’s got unfinished business, an incomplete list, a list she will never be able to complete and I can identify massively with that and I feel very emotional about the unfulfilled aspect of it all and the belief that the clock is ticking but it doesn’t prompt me to action, it doesn’t prompt me to change, why would that be?
I can only conclude at this moment that the reason I’m not prompted is the same reason every one of us isn’t prompted to live their lives more fully: we are surrounded by death and we don’t necessarily think death is coming for us, we think we will have time, we think time runs out for other people, we don’t think its coming today and we think there’s some kind of rational or logical process to death in that it comes when the time is right but what we think is the right time isn’t necessarily the right time for other people or the world or the Grim Reaper or who ever comes for us.
But, if we are doing it right we should have an incomplete list, not because we haven’t had chance to do things but because we want to do so very much that we don’t have time to cram it all in and we have a list of incomplete things because we have plans and hold onto at least a gram of optimism and because we are engaged in the world, filling life with the big and the small: running down hills, riding a bike, admiring art, reading books, eating cake, falling in love, finding the perfect t-shirt, dancing to The Damned, laying in the grass looking up at the sky, holding a tiny hand, laughing until you cry, forgiving, being warmed by the sun and drenched by the rain, wandering round the supermarket, shopping for records, talking about the new things in the world and looking at old buildings and watching cheesy American comedies and knowing that these things are at the core of living every day right up until we die.
There was once an elderly lady who had lived for over 90 years, she was palliative and was going to stay in a home, a care home. She was only going for a short time while her family travelled to another city to go to a wedding. The lady was too ill to travel to go to the wedding and she told her family to go without her, she wanted them to celebrate the wedding and to bring photographs back to show her. She told her family she would be ok for the few days while they went away. Because the lady was poorly and she was palliative doctors had already talked with her about Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) and after discussion the lady was happy that a DNACPR was in place, the A4 size piece of paper with a solid red border told medical staff that in the event that the lady needed CPR she did not want it, she did not want to be resuscitated, the lady knew that she was palliative, she wanted the right to say what treatment she had and wanted the right to chose how she died, she made a decision that her final moments would not be spent with medical staff trying to resuscitate her, she knew that the CPR might cause injury and she had decided that she wanted to be allowed to die and the doctors agreed. The piece of paper went everywhere with the lady, because she was frail and had heart problems it was important that the piece of paper went with her so there was no mistake about her wish not to be resuscitated. The document was a legal one and had to be respected by everyone. The DNACPR had a red border so it stood out from other pieces of white paper.
When the lady went to the care home for her short stay her family carefully packed the DNACPR with her belongings because they knew how important it was and they knew it was crucial that the document stayed with the lady during the journey and once she arrived at the home, just in case.
The family went to the wedding, after they had been gone for a day the lady became poorly, she had a heart attack. The staff at the home were good and caring and kind and they called an ambulance, when the paramedics arrived they asked about the lady and her wishes regarding treatment and about DNACPR.
The staff at the home were always very busy, they all worked hard and a lot of the time there weren’t quite enough staff to do all of the work that was needed and sometimes jobs were put on a “to do” list but by the end of the shift the jobs didn’t always get done and not everyone could remember all of the jobs for all of the people they cared for every day, they were just ordinary human people who sometimes forgot things. When the lady arrived at the home the DNACPR was given to the staff to put in the lady’s file so that it was safe and wasn’t forgotten about and so everyone knew where it was “just in case”. Something went wrong, maybe the phone rang at the exact moment of the piece of paper being given to the staff or maybe someone came to the door and caused a distraction or maybe there was an emergency to deal with and the piece of paper with the red border was put on the desk for just a moment and in the confusion and the busyness was then forgotten about, the DNACPR didn’t go into the file, no one knows why, the DNACPR vanished, no one knows where it went but it didn’t go into the lady’s file and so when she had a heart attack and the paramedics came and asked about the DNACPR no one could find it to show to the paramedics and so the paramedics had no legal reason to not carry out CPR, there was no evidence to stop the CPR and so the paramedics did their best and tried to save the lady’s life. The lady couldn’t tell them not to and the staff couldn’t find the DNACPR to show the paramedics and so the paramedics tried to save the lady’s life, even though that’s not what the lady wanted. The lady couldn’t be saved, she died.
Sometimes for the want of a piece of paper it goes wrong, no one did a deliberately bad or cruel thing, no one lost the form on purpose, everyone did their utmost and everyone wanted it to be the right thing.
When I read that story I think about the Dylan Thomas poem “The hand that signed the paper” and about the line “hands have no tears to flow”, it was a hand that put down the DNACPR, it was a hand that moved it, hands frantically searching for the DNACPR but also hands trying to carry out life saving tasks, our hands can be incredibly expressive and convey so much including kindness and compassion. These are services staffed by people, ordinary people like you and me and which one of us can say we never made mistakes at work? I think about the unguarded piece of paper which will probably turn up in a drawer or the wrong file or just under a pile of other paperwork, the mythical, magical, illusive and powerful piece of paper with the red border.