COMMENT: LIFE AND DEATH
Journey: A Very British Story
professional term for it is palliative care (aka - we can't do anything
for you, but we will invent a technical term to disguise the fact).
had been a long ride, which had begun in the previous Century; from
a place when duty and obligation meant something. George was a product
of his time; a solid, dependable type. I looked into his face and could
see the boy he had once been, the man that he was to become, and the
man he now was. He had lived the prime of his life when people knuckled
down, made the best of what little they had, and got by together in
the overcrowded terraced streets of Northern England. The place where
a pub existed on every street corner, and a church on every other one
- the twin pillars of community. It had been a long ride.
Now he was dying: in an age of quick-fix divorces, immediate gratification
and where the notion of community had been bulldozed away by a society
that worships at the altar of the individual at the expense of the collective.
Times had changed. He had witnessed the journey away from the period
of trade unionsisn and factory-labour tyranny, to a time of consumerism
and gleaming shopping malls bathed in designer lifestyle propaganda.
Whatever happened to the British pub anyhow? Its plight mirrors that
of British society. Many of the churches are now empty shells, but the
pub - it has been transformed into the modern theme bar: the "theme"
being the very tradition and community, which was destroyed under the
banner of progress. Now that it has all been swept away
and lost there is a media induced thirst for what once was. Or more
precisely, to a fairytale misty-eyed view of the past bogusly reproduced
and resold at a profit. The modern pub: mass-produced real ale,
wooden floorboards, and old-world mythology. There is a huge profit
in nostalgia, even if the whole thing is a massive con-trick. People
now sip at the trough of make-belief nostalgia - of how things used
to be. But it is not how it used to be; it is how it is now - a theme
world dreamt up by advertising executives and consumer trend analysts.
A kind of unreality that has somehow become reality.
In a world of shifting, shallow values, he had remained the man he had
always been; the man who he had been brought up to be. Now he was lying
on his deathbed. At almost eighty-three, the journey was coming to an
end. One that had begun in the urban poverty of early Twentieth Century
England, and had moved into the carnage they call the Second World War.
The Germans were unable to finish him off. He had been shot and blown-up
on more than one occasion during the war, but had survived. Pieces of
shrapnel were still embedded in his body, but bombs and bullets were
now a thing of his past. Indeed, living was almost now a thing of the
past. He had been dying for the last month or so. A slow and painful
He was given the dignity of being allowed to die at home, in his own
bed. The sanitised world of the hospital ward is a souless place where
care and dying are standardised and conveyor-belt nursing is the norm.
At least community-based nurses give the impression that they care on
a personal level. Possibly, they had the same attitude as hospital nursing
staff, but the difference was that on wards full of dying people it
is more difficult to differentiate one patient from the next and, for
the onlooker at least, the visibility of mass nursing-patient relations
removes any sense of individuality.
The hospital ward brings home the brutal fact that nurses just do their
job in return for a salary; mass caring and professionalised dying.
People are no longer persons but "patients". The hospital
kind of reinforces the mortifying role of the ward where "the patient"
is prepared for "treatment" and "care" or just dependency
and death. Even the tea-woman wears a bright clean uniform, telling
patients they are just another recipient of paid service. Sanitised
and stripped of individuality. The mirror image of the characterless,
standardised shopping mall. The mirror-image of the modern world.
A week or so earlier, the doctor had visited him. She asked what he
wanted. His reply was to get better, live for as long as possible and
to be able to go on holiday to Spain. She told him that Spain was off
the agenda and that he was eventually going to die. Getting better and
life were also off the agenda. You can't "get better" from
old age and a worn out body. There was no "gradual disclosure"
taking place here. It was straightforward honesty. He asked the doctor
was she saying that he had nothing to look forward to. According to
her, he should re-evaluate his priorities and enjoy the company of his
family. It was her way of saying that he was right - basically there
was nothing to look forward to expect death itself. Sometimes there
is no easy, sugar-coated way to tell someone the reality of their predicament.
She asked if he was religious; he wasnt. She asked if he wanted
morphine to decrease the pain; he didnt. She had made it plain
to him that if he did take morphine, then it would shorten his life.
So that was it; the medical profession had surrendered to the forces
He was old, and his body had fallen to pieces. All they could do was
to make his time left as comfortable as possible. The professional term
for it is palliative care (aka - we can't do anything for you, but we
will invent a technical term to disguise the fact). The simple fact
was that he had pneumonia and found it almost impossible to breathe.
The pain of breathing eventually led him to seek release through morphine.
Before he took the morphine, he looked at me and said that it had gone
so fast (his life). After he took the morphine, he never regained consciousness.
I stood by myself in his bedroom, looking at him and wondered if he
had ever thought that the end-game would be like this. I wondered how
my end-game will be: how old will I be when I die; how will I die. Will
it be slow and lingering, like his, or short and sharp? One thing is
for sure, I am aware that my life is also going fast.
When you get to his age, people try to take comfort in the loss of a
loved one by saying things like "He had a good innings" as
if the old deserve to die. Or maybe they say "He died peacefully
in his sleep". Just coping strategies that help onlookers to deal
with death. As I stood watching him take in his final gasps, I thought
what a waste it all was. He was about to "expire", along with
his memories, experiences and knowledge. Before the Morphine took over,
he must have still remembered the first girl he had kissed, the first
woman he had loved, and the first best-friend he had lost to machine
gun fire during the war. Memories he would take to the grave. Unique
ones that we all carry, seldom if ever talked about, but ones that will
stay with us to the point of death.
We all hope to have "a good innings". But how many would sacrifice
a good innings for a younger yet quick and painless death? The ideal
is to live to a ripe old age. The only trouble is that over-ripeness
leads to tender body parts that fall to pieces and leave us writhing
in pain. It may be OK for an apple, but not for people. Old age can
leave a bitter morphine induced aftertaste. If we don't get knocked
down by a bus tomorrow or get struck down by some ugly disease, his
may be the kind of old age and death that awaits us all in this age
of souless and mechanised living and dying.
In Britain at least, we are now all supposed to be individuals with
are own unique needs and identities. But the reality is that the modern
world attempts to strip us of our identity and too often we are regarded
as a quick buck to be squeezed, then left for dead; all in the name
of freedom of choice and individualism. Life was brutal in the past,
but at least no one tried to hoodwink us into believing otherwise. Death
is tragic; life, even more so. Essentially, we are all on a dead-end
© Colin Todhunter May 2003
IN CHENNAI is just being reprinted and will be available in a
new revised edition May 12th 2003
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Todhunter in India
Aboard the Tamil Nadu Express: next stop - insanity!
Colin Todhunter in
met a woman in the hotel, and was totally mad about her.
Copenhagen to Byron Bay:
A tale of two women
India first you get married and then you work these things out",
he said with amazing casualness.
will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says...
Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.
unique experience of going
to the gym in India
God and Jerry Seinfeld: spaced out in India
got the impression that he thought he was a living God. He was lost
Tax Office and the Trail of the Banana Pancake
people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they
didnt want to be there in the first place or at least want to
be somewhere else - somewhere better'.
to the Future on Triplicane High Road
women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair,
but not both together.
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