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June 1, 2014 | by  | in Arts Online Only |
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Dying Thoughts

It’s a strange thing, to watch somebody die, to contemplate the end of life.  I was present when my grandmother passed away; to me, it seemed that she had what you would call ‘a good death’ – if there is such a thing.  She came down with acute myeloid leukaemia and was taken into North Shore hospital.  The nurses kept putting needles into her to count her white blood cells.  She was never alone.  A scary thing, to die alone, with nobody to hold your hand.  My mother’s brother and his wife slept in the room with her one night, and then my father and mother would be in the room with her the next.  The rest of her grandchildren were all present, saying their goodbyes in turn.

“It’s just such a bugger, Laura”, she said to me.

Earlier, she had said to my sister, “It’s no fun, getting old, Nicola.”

“The train is coming”, she murmured, shortly before gasping her final breath.

And then….gone.  At least her spirit was.  Her body lay lifeless, doll-like in the bed and my grandfather stood in the room with her, quietly, gently weeping.  Her essence was elsewhere.  Do I believe in life after death, in an afterlife?  Have I got any faith in a spirit realm or reincarnation?  I recently had brain surgery to remove a tumour.  The name of this beast is a bit of a tongue twister – oligodendroglioma. After the surgery I thought I could hear and see a DVD of my own funeral playing.  I could hear my relatives speaking in turn.  Spooky stuff.  I’d had a small sub-acute haemorrhage; dying must have been on my mind.

I’d like to believe I could come back as a cat, free to a good home, perhaps living with some little old lady who took good care of me.

“I’ve had a good life,” said my grandmother, as she lay dying.

Could I say the same of my existence?  It’s certainly had its twists and turns, its ups and downs.  Apparently, the tumour is genetic, not linked to smoking or drinking.  I still feel guilty.  I have abused my health and now I am paying the price, my body is saying ‘enough’s enough’ and throwing up its hands in despair.  Genetics and epigenetics.  Surely there were external factors which contributed to the cancer.  There’s nothing I can do about it at this point.  Too late now.  Damage done.

I belong to the local brain injury group.  We enjoy ourselves.  We meet up for coffees, ten pin bowling and boat trips.  One man had a car fall on his head when the hoist, which was holding it up so he could examine underneath, snapped.  He gets by, but there are times when he struggles to think.  Blank spaces where thoughts should be.   What strikes me about brain injury is the randomness of it.  How sudden and strange it is to be permanently injured in some brutal way.  Strokes, haemorrhages, vehicle accidents; these are just some of the injuries that have been inflicted on members of my brain injury group.  Another guy had a large chunk of metal fly into his head when he was working down on the wharf.  Now he’s religious and wants me to join his prayer group.  My mother’s friend is praying for me too.  And who’s to say that prayers don’t work?  Maybe they do, the whispered words or thoughts spiralling upwards towards Heaven where God listens in with his right hand cupped around his ear.

How could anybody possibly claim that dying doesn’t matter?  How could the end of life ever be thought of as insignificant?  Surely dying, inextricably intertwined with life as it is, is a major event.  My father, who is right about many things, claims that after life there’s just nothing.  Imagine that; no eyesight, no hearing, no walking, no talking, no fighting, no loving.  Nothing at all.  It’s hard to conceive of it.  Does everything in life happen for a reason or is that just a platitude to make us feel better about events when life throws us a curve ball?  How can a random whammy like a brain tumour fail to make a person depressed?  Any major medical condition strikes a blow, makes us think about our own mortality.  As Jarvis Cocker would say, ‘We can’t escape, we’re born to die’.  Born with a shelf life.  And when it’s over?  Maybe when it’s over that’s it, kaput, final curtain.

One of the biggest lotteries in life is the family we are born into.  You can choose your friends, but you can’t choose your family, as they say.  For better or for worse, you are stuck with them, unless, of course, you are one of those who ends up estranged from their whanau – even then they’re still blood, thicker than water.  What family doesn’t have a rift in it?  Discord and disharmony are as much a part of life as playing the right chords, living in harmony.  They say you should never go to bed angry; I also believe that nor should a family member die with a rift in the family.  Rifts exist to be healed.  If somebody passes away you will never get the chance

to forgive and forget, not properly.  When disaster strikes it’s a true test of character.  How we bear up in the face of potential disaster says a lot about us as people.  Do we fall to pieces or do we soldier on?  Has anybody ever written about what it’s like to die?  I don’t mean the onlookers, the people watching, but how is it to stand in the shoes of the person passing away?  Oh yes, we’ve all heard about the Great White Light and moving towards it, but is that for real, or all just hearsay?  Hard to report back from the other side, unless you believe in spirits and Ouija boards and all that jazz.  Rapping out messages from the Great Beyond, with only the talented, the ‘gifted’ able to hear you and most of the rest of the world labelling them a sham or a kook.  Maybe these notions of heaven, hell and purgatory are just inventions for humans to placate ourselves with.  To some people grief is a largely solitary affair, others grieve in groups.  Maori people often wail at funerals, giving voice to their grief rather than repressing it; letting it all hang out.  Hawaiian people practice kuwo – a form of vocal lamentation.

Death leaves a vacant space for the people left behind, the friends and family, each of whom grieves in their own way?  They recover, they move on or, at least, they try to.  Death can be quiet and expected, like my grandmother’s, or sudden and violent, as in the case of a murder, a suicide, or plane crash.  I was fourteen when my schoolmate Cindy Mosey’s plane went down.

She and some of her gymnastics club were flying to Wellington to take part in the national championships when the plane, flying low for sight-seeing purposes, hit a wire and went down.  Cindy was the sole survivor.  She got down in the space between seats, where your feet normally go and was spared death, was flung into the open ocean where she bobbed about for

an hour or two before being picked up by the Cook Strait ferry and bundled to safety.  The rest of the passengers and crew perished.  A cliché I despise – whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.  One of the reasons I don’t favour this expression is that there are many people who don’t become stronger through their experiences, but who are broken by them instead.  People who lay down and die.  However, maybe in Cindy’s case it was true as she went on to become three times world kite surfing champion.

In 2015, our local MP is putting The End of Life Bill before parliament as a conscience vote.  I pray it gets passed.  What am I going to be like when my cancer hits grade 4, turns into the nasty glioblastoma multiforme, so named for its ability to take many different forms?  The alternative name for glioblastoma multiforme is the terminator.  Would you want something called The Terminator hanging out in your head?  Will it cause me to lose bladder and/or bowel control?  Will I be partially or totally paralysed, or lose my hearing and/or vision?  How easy, how neat, to be able to dispense of myself with a simple tablet or injection, rather than pass through a lot of unnecessary and undignified suffering.  Dignity, and the right to choose the manner and time of one’s death, is at the heart of the controversial End of Life debate.  Surely it’s better to give people the choice about how and when they go, rather than leaving it up to a callous god or cruel nature.  Dying has never been pretty; it’s one of the muckier sides of life.  Life is full of struggle; the struggle to earn a living, the struggle to stay healthy, the fight to the death for the right to live your life.  Should death be a struggle or more of a ‘letting go’?  And the tumour, can I learn to accept it, can I stop myself from asking ‘is it real?’ every fifteen minutes, thereby driving all the people around me crazy?  Can I come to terms with the fact that other people sometimes refer to me as disabled?

The concept of death holds more questions than answers.  How do I feel about leaving family behind?  Will I make new friends or meet dead family on the other side?  Then there is the question of timing.  Will the man with the sickle arrive on cue, in approximately a decade, or will he wait a few more years, making me one of the long-term survivors?  Both surgeons I

consulted said the same thing ‘I took these tumours out in the 80s and those people are still alive.’  Undoubtedly, they wanted to extend hope, but not false hope, they weren’t lying; there really are long term survivors.  There’s still the option of chemotherapy should the tumour recur.  The tumour has a special genetic co-deletion that predicts extended life and responsiveness to chemotherapy.

No fancy funeral for me; I’ll be happy with a simple cremation.  No fancy casket – just a cardboard box.  Save costs.  No elaborate ceremony either; I’ll settle for a speech or two and maybe a song – Morrissey ‘Sing Me To Sleep’.  Why make a fuss?  I was born, I lived, I died like gazillions of people before me.  I hope that people read my books after I’m gone, but maybe that’s just vanity.  Maybe nobody will read a word and all my literary endeavours have been in vain.

With every centimetre of brain I lose my life options begin to narrow.  I currently live in a community home as I can’t remember to turn off elements and lock doors, slotting me into the unfortunate category of ‘danger to self and others’.  I still have choices.  I went to an interview as a receptionist at a retirement home (back in the days when I still deluded myself that somebody would actually employ me.)  I didn’t get the job, but I loved the decor.  I rang them;

they’re taking people with disabilities when they contract with the DHB in two weeks time.  I fancy moving into one of their ‘care apartments’ – a kitchen/dining area, a bedroom and a bathroom, all brand new, just opened in 2013.  You can smell the freshness.  I had lunch there (free vouchers) and joined in with the book club afterwards.  The sprightly ladies discussed what they had been reading and said they’d be glad to have some young blood in their midst.  There’d be 24 hour nursing care available.  If I sell my property that’s where I’ll be.  Doing lengths in the picturesque swimming pool, attempting to keep my cancer, my death, at bay.


Whanau – the Maori word for family.


You’ve got to fight to the death for the right to live your life.  Jarvis Cocker.


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