Arabella McIntyre-Brown on the inevitable
More people die than are ever born: death is the one common experience of all living things. So why do we try so hard to pretend it won’t happen to us?
It’ll be a whole lot easier, I suppose, when it’s me that kicks the bucket. Nothing to do but lie there and be done to. God, I hope so. How appalling if it turns out that I’m going to have to float about like a bit of steam, watching in fury as amateur family members fumble through my funeral and put some god-awful song from Cats over the speakers as the curtains swish discreetly around my coffin. I want the third of Richard Strauss’s Four Last Songs, if my executors are reading this.
I care about my death. I want hordes of sobbing friends and relations all mourning the loss of the wonderful me and roaring with unseemly laughter at stories read bravely by celebrity friends about the hilarious, charming and lovable me. But as I have no spouse, no children and – after six family funerals in two years – a dwindling clutch of grieving relations, I suspect my funeral will be short and functional. That hurts, although I hate to admit it.
It’s an easy game, being flippant about one’s demise. What wasn’t easy was watching my sister die, too bloody fast and too bloody slowly, of an aggressive cancer that gave her months of excruciating pain. She was 56, fit, strong, tough, and it was her husband Ran who’d had a major heart attack less than a year before. He was the one at risk, not Ginny.
I’d known she wasn’t well but we all thought she needed a hysterectomy, nothing more. She and I were planning to write a book together while she was housebound, trying not to split her stitches, for six weeks over the coming winter.
Then she phoned me when I walking in to a restaurant one evening in October 2003. She never phoned my mobile; so I knew before she spoke. Four months later she was dead.
We’d talked on the phone – long positive chats about all the options she had to get back to shining health. I was hurt and cross when she didn’t return my calls at Christmas. I didn’t realise she was in hospital till New Year, because she hadn’t wanted to worry me.
In the end Ran rang, because Ginny couldn’t. Her body was packing up and she was in constant pain. So much for palliative care. I shot down to Exeter hospital; Ginny was thin and pale, but undiminished: still my big sister.
A month later, after three days at home, I got back to find she’d been moved to the hospice. I got there at 2am, and Ran was asleep in the camp bed, gripping his beloved wife’s hand. He didn’t wake, but Ginny opened her eyes. Her smile terrified me because it was a really lovely, joyful welcome and there was no worry or pain on her face. I just hope she couldn’t see the shock on mine.
This was the first time I’d been so close to someone who was going to die very soon, and this was the person I loved most in the world. There were black circles round her eyes and her lips were shrivelled in gaunt, waxy cheeks. This change from my big sister, ill but alive, to this shadow creature on the fraying hem of life, undid something in me which hasn’t been repaired.
Seeing Ginny and Ran together in their last two days you’d think they’d only been married a week instead of 34 years. It hurt badly, to watch a true marriage being ripped apart. But it also hurt that I’d never felt such profound love and probably never would. What’s worse – the tiny daily doses of sadness over my wasted life, or the tidal wave of grief that crashed down on Ran and almost destroyed him?
Over to the poets. I can’t hack it.
First published in the North West Enquirer 2006