This week as in most weeks I think how lucky I am to be alive, to experience this mysterious concept that is life, this sense of being, the elation of nature, the wonder of love and the importance of relationships.
My first encounter with death was as child aged 4; my Uncle Len a man I remember with the bushy moustache, a sense of fun, a man who always wore a trilby hat when he went fishing and a man who was suddenly gone. People were sad, they cried, my dad was really sad, they told me Uncle Len had gone to live in the clouds. I didn’t understand; I didn’t know why.
Then a year later my Nana a tall willowy lady who was always pale and who spent a lot of time in bed, was also gone. No more watching Casey Jones “at the throttle of the Cannonball express” on the television in her bedroom, she too was gone to live with Uncle Len in the sky.
Years passed, I went to school, I loved to learn, I loved to read and I loved life, childhood moved into teenage years and my life was good.
Then a school friend called Martin was diagnosed with a brain tumour, he was off school, he was ill, but then he came back; always wearing a hat. He was a handsome young man, with a flashing smile, a charming personality and a life time to look forward to, but he got sicker and sicker. He was so ill he couldn’t come to school any more so my friend Sandra and I used to go and visit him. We spent many happy hours talking and he used draw us pictures, he was such a talented artist even when his brain tumour made it difficult for him to hold the pencils. He died aged 14, Martin didn’t go to live in the sky, no Martin was in a coffin, in a coffin that disappeared behind a curtain. The handsome, funny, talented Martin was cremated at the crematorium which was at the end of the road just a few yards from our high school.
Then I reached the mature age of 18, studying at college, driving a car, having a social life and steady boyfriend so, life was good. My cousin Anthony, a big, adventurous soldier who had joined the SAS and who was an experienced and talented mountaineer, was given the opportunity to realise a trip of lifetime to climb Everest. He was so excited; my life was good and I was proud of my brash, brave, dashing cousin, who was killed in avalanche on Everest aged 28. Anthony did go a place close to the sky; he was buried in a crevasse just 9,000 ft. from the summit of Everest. There was a memorial service and plaque on a wall in Hereford; but Anthony was gone.
For me, my life was now different; my most recent experiences of death were of people I knew, people the same age or closer to my age, life was good but there was always this dread, this unnerving knowledge that each day I lived with death.
Aged 22 life was really good, a new house, a new husband and everything to look forward to, moving forward into a new married life. Fourteen months after my dad had walked me down the aisle, he came in from work one night and collapsed in the bathroom, my mum found him. She called an ambulance, we took him to A and E, he was admitted to a ward they thought he had a bleed in the brain. At 10am the next morning I got a call; I needed to get to the hospital quickly, when I got there my dad was attached to a machine, he was warm and alive, but his brain had suffered a haemorrhage so catastrophic that he was brain dead. He was here but gone…. We donated his organs to help others. When we left him to go the operating theatre he was alive and after the operation to harvest his organs someone had to confirm that my dad was dead. I went a viewing room to identify my dad. It was the first time I seen a dead body and it was my funny, kind and wonderful dad. My dad was cremated at the crematorium a few yards from my old high school.
Over the next few years there were many deaths, my two grandfathers died; Joe from a stroke and Jack with cancer both well into their eighties and my Nana Doris in her seventies. All the deaths were sad but it felt like it was the right order of things, given their age. They all concluded their journeys at the crematorium a few yards from my old high school.
Then our baby niece who had been born with hydrocephalus died after just a few months of hospital admissions, operations and unfounded hope. She was carried by her dad in a tiny white coffin into the crematorium just a few yards from my old high school.
Many, more distant family members died, we were unfortunate to experience the devastating impact of suicide in the family. All of our family members were cremated at the familiar crematorium over the next few years but despite everything, death, loss, sadness and grief, my life was good.
My mum who after the death of my Dad could never assimilate her grief, had many bouts of illness, emergency hospitals admissions, operations, treatments and on five occasions I was told to say my goodbyes as the medics thought she would not survive, but she did…. it seemed like she was indestructible. Until she broke a vertebrae in her neck and she too died; my indestructible mum was gone, we took her to the crematorium just yards from my old high school.
Even through the grief and loss of my mum, life was good, I was married to Seth we had been together for sixteen years and because of intransigence of life and the knowledge that death was a whisper away we embraced every second of our lives. We loved each other with a deep devotion, we traveled the world instead of saving our money for our retirement, we were a team; our own perfect version of our own perfect couple.
Then in thirty three short and heart-breaking days Seth was gone, he died, I took my beloved Seth, my reason for living, in a coffin to the crematorium just yards from my old high school.
Today, my life is good, despite the loss and emptiness, life without Seth is painful, sometimes the pain of the loss is paralysing, sometimes I am angry, sometimes I am so distraught I can’t function, but still my life is good.
On reflection when I think about what has death taught me about life, its taught me that it’s the purpose of life.The purpose of life is to know that we all be a part of the universality of death. Death and the crematorium a few yards from my old high school have both taught me all I know about life, love and relationships……death has shaped me.
Since Seth’s death there have been more losses of loved ones, Seth’s nephew Archie died suddenly aged 15 from an epilepsy attack, Seth’s beloved mum Patricia and his dear Aunt Elizabeth have both died in the last couple of years. Patricia’s funeral took place just three short years after Seth’s in the crematorium just yards from my old high school.
I can see a pattern throughout my life where after each of these deaths, I have taken active choices, choices in living a life affected by the shadow of so many loved ones deaths.
Death has shaped me and Seth’s death has given me access to a form of deep knowing and innate self-knowledge that I can’t articulate or share. Now, I just know…… and I know that Seth’s life and death has had the most profound influence on me.
So in Dying Matters week you are asked “What can you do?” well that’s your decision to make but make it in the knowledge that death has a 100% success rate.
As for me I choose to live a life in the full and certain knowledge that one day someone will pull the curtains across a coffin at the crematorium a few yards from my old high school and it will be me inside the coffin. That will be the time that I join Seth in the ultimate mystery of life…. Death.
But for now despite everything life is good.