Sunday, January 06, 2008

On Death

By Darryl Mason

In the end when death came, there was no final dramatic moment. It wasn't a movie scene. There was no raging struggle to keep breathing, to fight on. She just slept on. She just died.

We saw her shortly before she died. She was sleeping, as she had been sleeping for weeks. The cancer she had was not the most painful kind, it just gradually drained her of energy. A winding down after a long, busy life in which no illness had ever slowed her before.

In July she had been as she had always been, almost bursting with energy and passion. The kind of energy that made you jealous, because you knew you if you had it, you would feel as though you could fly to the stars and back again.

Her mind as sharp as a razor then, her wit hilarious, incisive, absolutely cutting, brilliant.

Within weeks, the switches were turning off. Less than three months ago she was lying in casualty of the RPA hospital in Sydney, listening to a doctor explain that if she were to have a heart attack, or stroke, that they would not try to revive her, that they would let her go, that her cancer had spread too far, throughout her. She nodded, she understood, but as soon as the doctor left us, she was telling us, me and her daughter, how terrible it was that the "poor woman" lying in a bed across the room had cancer "and they can't do anything for her. The poor dear." Did she know that was her, too? That she was the same as this woman she was talking about? Of course she did. But she was more concerned for a sick stranger than she was for herself.

We went to see her the day she died. If she was in pain in those last hours of her life, in those final hours of the 700,000 hours she had lived in her lifetime, it did not disturb her from her sleep. She only woke we came in to see her and touched her arm. Her flesh was cold, as though her death was growing over the hours, with her blood cooling long before she took her last breath.

She cried out only once as her daughter moved the pillows and her utterly frail, thin body to make her more comfortable. She was asleep again within seconds. The kind of sleep only known by those just born and at the other end of life. We watched her breathing, the normal rhythm of breathing out of sync, the loop of regular inhalation and exhalation broken, bent. Not long to go now. Soon it would be over.

The window was open, a dazzling sun razoring through the tree branches and casting glowing anti-shadows on the grounds of the park outside. Next to her, a cup of water she could barely swallow. She could take in nothing but air and drops of water now. Flowers, a wall of cards from all over the country, from around the world, some pills, the bowl of mints she had only stopped eating a few days before, photos of family, friends, neighbours, neighbours who had become like family in that small Sydney street where she had lived with her husband for decades. The sort of neighbour most only ever get to know in fiction, who welcomed all and judged nobody.

The curtains flowed in slow motion, touched by a breeze, the cries of children in the park down below echoed softly into the room. No life support equipment, nothing to monitor her heart beats, no machines that go ping, just an old woman who had lived a long time and was near the end. She wasn't letting go of life, she was just going.

We said goodbye, a last goodbye, because we knew it would be tonight. Sometime tonight. Her husband knew this, the nurses there knew this, she knew it, too. There was no final fight. It was time.

You can feel the phone call coming, before the phone rings. You're not supposed to know when someone you love dies, this is paranormal or at the very least not normal, or so we are told. But you do know. Of course you do. If you listen, not with your ears but with everything that you are, you can hear the lives of the people you love, and when one of them dies, something is then missing from the comforting thrum of that thing that connects you all, that is not supposed to exist, but is still there. It's always been there.

The nurse doesn't ask her daughter if she wants to see her mother, now she is gone, she issues a soft order, "Take as much time as you need and then come and see me up the hall." The nurse knows the daughter must do this, even if she would say no if given a choice.

The nursing home is mostly dark, it's late at night now, and in every other room is an elderly man or woman who will die in the weeks or months or years to come. Not many years. This is a place where you come to die. It never struck me as an utterly depressing place. Some days when we visited, it was like a departure lounge. Old people sitting in chairs, waiting, some patient, some frustrated and impatient. Lots of chatter and noise. The Waiting. Most ready for what comes next, whether they believe there is something next or not.

This night there is not a sound to be heard from the other rooms, where there is usually, always, some babbling, some soft crying if you care to listen closely enough, or the occasional groan of "Nuuurrssse...." and calm mutterings in dreams of youthful times ten thousand days ago, or whispers to those already gone, promising to "be with you soon."

But tonight there is not a sound. Perhaps they all know, not because they have been told, they haven't been, but they seem to know, their silence is respectful, because one of them has gone where they're all going, too, soon. Silence. Not a chilling silence, just stillness.

She is lying on her back. Her mouth is slightly open, her eyes almost closed. She is dead, she took her last breath less than half an hour before. But who she was, the person inside that body, is already gone. There's not a trace left of her. Just her body, a little more deflated, as though something really has left her.

Her forehead is warm, damp with sweat, but her cheek is already cool, and will soon be as cold as her arm was a few hours before.

The window is still open, there is no breeze, and no-one is in the park now. Finding a strength I cannot even comprehend, her daughter pulls back the sheet and lifts her mother's arm off her chest. She removes the wedding ring that has been on her mother's finger for more than sixty years and slides it onto her own finger. We sit there with her but she's not there. Without religion, there are no chants or prayers or noise or activity. Stillness, calm and quiet. It's just memories for now, and grief, but the grief has been there for months, so the shock is not so great. The inevitable is now real, but the reality is not terrible. There is sadness, but not horror.

Her daughter goes to the nurse and thanks her for everything she did to help this elderly woman in her last hours, her last weeks. The nursing home has a funeral director they recommend, but her daughter wants to choose another. She is given a phone book.

We go downstairs and to the table outside, and sit at the edge of the circle of light from the wall lamp to go through the pages of that section of the phone book you always knew was there, but never really looked before. When you're young and people you knew and loved died, there were always others who did these things, made these arrangements. Now it is the daughter who must take care of this duty.

It's still hot outside, even as midnight approaches. The branches and leaves are as still as photographs.

And then a breeze comes, from nowhere, or somewhere. Cool, but not cold, it doesn't pass us, it moves through us. The breeze doesn't touch the leaves only a few feet away, it doesn't disturb the rising blue straight line of cigarette smoke, it doesn't disturb the pages of the phone book, or even shift one hair of the daughter as she leans forward, but the breeze is real enough, because you can feel it on your skin, inside your skin, everywhere.

Not a chill breeze, it's warm but cool, strange but comforting. There's a shiver from the breeze, but not of fear, it's of something familiar, recognition, of something inside you that is not flesh or heart or mind, but is you, recognising the breeze for what it is, and being glad for knowing, not pretending it is otherwise, knowing it is going from from this to that, from here to there, knowing that it is not a bad or terrible thing. Feeling that it is, in the end, good. That this is the end.

A beautiful moment. A final goodbye.