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COMMENT: LIFE AND DEATH

Dead-End Journey: A Very British Story
Colin Todhunter
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).

It 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 death.

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 wasn’t. She asked if he wanted morphine to decrease the pain; he didn’t. 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 of nature.

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 journey.

© Colin Todhunter May 2003
email: colin_todhunter@yahoo.co.uk

CHASING RAINBOWS
IN CHENNAI
is just being reprinted and will be available in a new revised edition May 12th 2003
Colin Todhunter
ISNB: 0-9731861-0-0
To Order Go to Paypal
and pay Andytoddy@btinternet.com



Colin Todhunter in India
All Aboard the Tamil Nadu Express: next stop - insanity!
Colin Todhunter in India
He had met a woman in the hotel, and was totally mad about her.

From Copenhagen to Byron Bay:
A tale of two women
Colin Todhunter
"In India first you get married and then you work these things out", he said with amazing casualness.

Poison Kiss
"There will be a small financial re-numeration" Mr Sunderjee says...
Colin Todhunter finds himself the unexpected 'star' of an Indian movie.


The unique experience of going
to the gym in India

Colin Todhunter


Me, God and Jerry Seinfeld: spaced out in India
Colin Todhunter

I got the impression that he thought he was a living God. He was lost in space.

Chennai Tax Office and the Trail of the Banana Pancake
Colin Todhunter
'as people get to where they think they want to be, many realise that they didn’t want to be there in the first place or at least want to be somewhere else - somewhere better'.

Back to the Future on Triplicane High Road
Colin Todhunter

I found women with love in their eyes, and women with flowers in their hair, but not both together.

More Journeys in Hacktreks


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