My much-loved Uncle Herman died while I was still very young.
My mother – naturally – wanted to attend his funeral. And, with some considerable hesitation, took me along as well. What she hadn’t counted on was the open coffin.
So what did I see?
I saw my uncle – pretty much as I remembered him – lying asleep, and surrounded by beautiful flowers. There was nothing frightening or traumatic about it. I didn’t really understand what had happened to him, but that didn’t matter. The service went on, pretty much over my head, and that was that.
I think – looking back – that it was a moment that coloured my thinking about death for the rest of my life. Even though it was a long while before I completely digested it.
I’ve been present at two other deaths – those of my mother and my father.
My mother came to death after a decades-long tussle with Parkinson’s Disease. By this time she was in the Cottage Hospital in Caterham (which no longer exists). It was at least a smaller and more intimate environment than one of the big wards at Redhill. Things hadn’t gone well. She’d managed to fall out of bed a couple of weeks earlier, and had then contracted MRSA (always a risk in any hospital environment). Both my father and I were there, and she died in her sleep – and in my arms. I remember how broken my poor father was when he realised she had gone. And the care and love with which the hospital staff washed her, tidied her bed, and gently ushered us in to see her when they had finished.
My father’s death was mercifully swift by comparison. We had arranged to visit him one weekend, and at the same time to show the Church Road house to a young couple interested in buying it.
On the Thursday he uploaded the last page of Slow Shipwreck, a novel he was writing jointly with his godson, Mark Titmus (and including himself, for the second time, in a brief cameo!)
On the Friday, while we were visiting the Ideal Home show in London, he fell ill. I showed the house to the young couple, as promised, on the Saturday morning, and then rushed down to his care home in Dorking, where I found him barely able to speak. I called a priest that evening, and within an hour he’d received the Sacrament of the Sick. On Sunday his condition continued to deteriorate, and I asked if the care home could provide palliative care – which they did. I spent the night in his room – and the next day the home kindly offered me the use of a neighbouring flat. I
Later on Monday I went back to see how he was. The meds had taken effect and he was calm, and frequently asleep. I sat with him into the evening, talking to him even though his eyes were closed, wondering how long this would go on. I needn’t have.
Suddenly, his eyes opened. He looked up, saw me, and – I am sure – recognised me. I said to what I’d been longing to say. ‘Thank you for everything. You’ve been the best father anyone could ever have wished for.’
I got back a smile that lit up the room. And then his eyes closed again. And minutes later he had gone.
So what do I think now?
Death, itself, doesn’t frighten me. I don’t cry when I think about it. What brings me to tears is the thought of Rosemary having to be there when I die – and being left alone after I’ve gone. I’d always imagined I’d be the one who was left behind to cope. And mentally I’d been preparing for that at some point in the future. (As far away as I could push it. Obviously.)
Right now there’s nothing I can do about that – except to create happy memories that can bring back flashes of joy for her at the darkest moments.
And that seems like a pretty positive thing to be doing…