I have returned to a family immersed in the process of living and dying at the most extreme peaks and troughs of the cycle. Whilst both have their own particular beauty, I think I can say with definite bias, which of the two I prefer.
It’s difficult to believe the last of my grandparents died eight years ago; it feels like it was only yesterday. Here I was just getting used to the rhythm that has ensued since—cousins and siblings having children with rabbit-like frequency—only to now have the dying phase starting once more. My sister had her second child whilst I was away, yet whilst one life is beginning, another in the family has been winding down.
It would be so much more enjoyable to dwell on the arrival of my niece Bridie, as her birth sits in a much happier space. But I guess like most my age, I’ve not learned to fully appreciate moments of joy in the same way I analyse those of sorrow.
In June, I learned that my uncle Brian had been diagnosed with a brain tumour. In the early days of a tour of the top-end with my aunt, my parents and another uncle and aunt, his erratic behaviour had prompted them all to demand he pay a visit to the hospital. After Brian was diagnosed, he and my aunt returned home to begin treatment, and he underwent brain surgery to try and remove the tumours that had already been growing aggressively for several months. They got most of it, but not all. Since then he’s undergone the usual treatments including a cocktail of chemicals that have weakened him physically, along with his body’s defences.
As with many faced with such a fate, he investigated alternative therapies in an effort to combat his illness; but ultimately, the prognosis provided by the doctors has been borne out. There is no cure. All he would ever be able to do is buy time. In the months since, he has done his best to get his affairs in order, and prepare himself as best he can for whatever is to come.
He went for a check-up just before Christmas and was told the initial tumour, the 5% they’d not been able to get, was continuing to shrink as a result of the treatment, but that there were three new ones, one of which was moving down his spinal column and inoperable. His six children, and ultimately the remainder of the extended family, all made a point of returning home in time for Christmas and the New Year, and for what would ultimately be their good-byes.
He held on until he’d seen off another year, but then the tumours got the upper hand again. He’s become increasingly disoriented, and after falling and gashing his head a couple of days ago, was admitted to hospital where the final act will be played out.
Today Dad and I went to visit him—Mum, wisely, stayed in the car, saying she’d already said her good-byes. I say wisely because Brian had deteriorated a lot since I saw him on Boxing Day, not even a week ago. Maureen (my aunt—Dad’s sister), my cousin Stephen and his wife Belinda, were there sitting with him, but it didn’t take long for me to see that we were all of us coming to terms with what is approaching. Despite the brevity of our visit, we all exchanged glances that told the others we knew he was shutting down, and we did our best to convey some sense of assurance that afterwards, it would be ok. This was life happening.
He seems to be retreating into himself, progressively losing interest in those around him, and no longer even engaging in conversation, let alone dominating it in the way he once did. I found it hard to reconcile the man I saw in the hospital with the man who has, for as long as I’ve known him, been a giant in life. He was always willing to voice an opinion, and despite the fact I almost never agreed with his politics, to see him falling silent is unsettling.
As we roll into a new year, my uncle is sleeping—probably in a bizarre world that only he is privy to—waiting for the end, when the worry etched in the faces of his family will morph into relief that his ordeal of his last days is over.