In the early hours of this morning I woke from a dream where I was hearing a telephone ringing loudly. As I woke, I realised it was the telephone ringing loudly. At that time of day, such a phone call could only mean one thing: my uncle had passed away.
For weeks now, we’ve been expecting my uncle Brian to finally capitulate to the tumours that have been ravaging his brain over the past several months. Since Christmas, he has gradually slipped away, degenerating in small steps until he was put into hospital just before the New Year. When that happened, the expectation was that it would be over in a matter of days, but he’s held on for weeks.
I decided I’d said my goodbyes to him before the New Year rolled in, as I felt me being there for the final chapter would be imposing on the family’s grief. Unlike his family, I had the choice to break off the contact in the final weeks of his life, so that I could remember him happy, coherent, and enjoying life as he always has. I could remember him the way I wanted to remember him, not the way his illness left him. I told myself it was ok because he wouldn’t know I wasn’t there anyway. So I cannot speak first hand of what he endured in his last days. I can only talk of what has been relayed from other family members.
In the past few days it became evident he was slipping into the final phase. He became hypersensitive to touch and couldn’t shave, cut his nails, or even replace his false teeth without being in severe pain; he lost consciousness; his breathing became laboured. He was hooked up to tubes and machines to drain the fluid building in his lungs.
Last night, some of his family stayed with him through the night and they’ve today spoken of the change in his breathing through the night and how, whilst it remained laboured, it stayed strong almost until the end. My cousin Sarah was there when he died, and she said when my uncle David (the youngest of he, my Dad and my aunt Maureen) arrived around 5am, it was as though Brian sensed one of Maureen’s siblings was there, and decided to finally let go. He gave a few expelling sighs, and slipped quietly away.
My cousin Michael, five months my junior, has been a persistent presence in the last year of his father’s life. In the past few weeks that has often meant just sitting silently on the side of the bed, holding his father’s hand and making sure he’s well looked after, and that he’s comfortable. It’s a side of Michael I’d been aware of, but never really acknowledged before, and today I found myself wondering how I’ll cope when it comes my turn (as it inevitably will).
When I returned home from Spain, my Dad was in hospital and in a lot of pain, and even though I’ve long contemplated life without my parents, I found myself confronted in a way I’d not experienced before. I remember on that first weekend, going with Mum to visit Dad. His face was gaunt and his voice strained, and he was dosed so highly on painkillers he struggled to hold a coherent conversation. Seeing the fear in Mum’s expression said all that needed saying, and on leaving the hospital I had a strong urge to hold her. But I didn’t. The reason for which, I don’t really know. I do know for certain that the next time that urge arrives; I’ll not ignore it.
Brian was a man of faith. I am not. I’ve witnessed enough deaths in my life now though, to have some comprehension of why people need it. Two of my grandparents barely missed a step until the end, when they simply stopped, like a car running out of fuel. The other two endured illness that brought misery and suffering for them and their family as their bodies slowly lost the battles with the encroaching cancer. I think most people would prefer to have a painless death, to pass over to whatever is beyond free of suffering, and to do it quickly, rather than as part of a drawn out process. If faith can provide some insight for them as to what the big mystery might be, or some hope for what happens when they are left behind by loved ones, and then they in turn leave their loved ones behind, I can understand them wanting that. Myself, I believe it’s more than likely there is nothing beyond, but we like to kid ourselves with our human egos.
I know that eventually I will learn if I am capable of doing what my cousin has done, and sit waiting for the end with my dad, and eventually I’ll know if my attitudes towards religious faith have been right or wrong. For now, I’m glad that Brian and his family have some relief.