Death by the book

THE NASTY CHEMICAL smell had gone. His eyelids were shut and she wanted to have one more peep to see if he was still there. Gently, she prised the right one open. The skin was tinged yellowish-brown, soft, wrinkled and cooling now. The eye – she had never seen anything like it before except on a dead fish. There was a glaze, but no look, no life. He had gone, but where?

He stayed warm all day up until 4 pm, when the white van with no signage pulled into the driveway and she noticed the neighbours drawing their curtains. Two cheap suits with mock-serious expressions walked in. The mother knew one of them and struck up a lively conversation about a colleague from the same company whom she’d hoped would be a pallbearer. He used to joke that business was good because people were ‘dying to get in there’.

The mother had been in high spirits all day. The daughter found this surprising and disturbing, but in time, she would put it down to high anxiety and a customary insensitivity. The mother had displayed these traits before – not always at the same time, most often for children and people she didn’t know, like or understand and for situations she couldn’t control. She might have felt relieved after a year of nursing and waiting for the inevitable, but if she did, it would be short-lived.

They wheeled the trolley in with the body bag. The daughter became nervous as she imagined him being stuffed into that bag and zipped up, shut out. She imagined him in that cold bag in the chilly fridge with his bones broken, open sores mapping his body, all alone. She told the men to take good care of him because he was a lovely man. She didn’t believe they would. She wanted to use the present tense.

Half an hour later, mother and daughter were on their own in the house. It was tidy for the first time in a year with no evidence of incontinence, metastasis or death.

I’ve got a bit of ham. Shall we have a toasted sandwich?

Gazing out the window over the manicured lawn, the daughter didn’t notice the petunias curling and drying. She was thinking about how it had all gone well except for a couple of glitches. He’d waited for her to arrive from across the world. He’d wanted to wear trousers, but the mother had put a stop to that. He hadn’t gone on too long. He never complained.

The pad thing was upsetting. She’d watched a nurse roll him over on the bed to change his nappy so that he caught sight of himself in the full-length mirror of the wardrobe. The morphine driver had been a bit of a worry too. There was a minute when she felt he hadn’t got enough and was in too much pain and she’d pumped like a maniac to make sure he was comfortable. She could have killed him.

She hadn’t liked the morphine. It made his eyes roll and he could no longer speak. He got agitated when he could hear people talking about him in the kitchen and when they started chatting right across him in the bed about random stuff. The mother talked about him as if he wasn’t there.

The night before, the daughter had gone to him with the Tibetan book in her head. She’d bought The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying especially to prepare for his death because she’d wanted to get it right. The book told her that people who know they are dying know that they are losing everything. That had been a bit of a shock. Every thing. She read that people died as they lived, and so she was reassured that her father – such a fair, good, strong, honest man with a passion for gin, jazz and the odd cigar – would be at peace and with a clear conscience. Others had told her, Tell him you love him and what a wonderful father he’s been, tell him he can let go. Then he can slip away quietly and happily.

The daughter had done this when he was conscious, but it had felt weird and wrong. She’d never heard herself speak like this. He’d never heard anything like it before from her or anyone else. They weren’t that kind of family. And instead of lapsing peacefully into some other space, he had said something that wasn’t in the book at all.

She’d been expecting something like, Look after your mum. I love you. It’s alright.

She could have accepted that. She thought he might have had a quiet faith tucked away in there – he’d always said God bless, holding back tears whenever the daughter had left the family home after a visit and flown back overseas. He’d never taken a trip to the local church and had made many a naughty joke, but none too dirty. God bless might have been the closest he could get to saying he loved her.

So what he did say in his last minutes threw her completely. The daughter didn’t know where she was then because it was so unexpected, so unlike him.


SIX MONTHS LATER she found those words in the book when she reread it properly and realised what she had missed in her haste – what she had not read.

She had overlooked the two words that were his last on earth. Where in heaven or hell did he think he was going when he leaned over to her and, with the terror of a child in his eyes, said simply –

I’m afraid.

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