Let me show you the back room, where I saw the dead


I remember the turn of the year and the longest night, because it was one of those when you wake perfectly rested, around four in the morning, and the glow of the lamp creates vigil conditions. Outside the wind was magical, purging the year while the house slept, still as a lantern flame. I wandered over my blog and thought about the sound of 2014. A good sound I thought – some years just have it.

And it just so happened that lots of things fell into place around new year – the sort of thing where, in a rather more positive Hardy-ish way, things shuffle around just that little way enough to make the jigsaw fit. Before the month was out I was studying again, learning to think in new ways and away from words. Some say only those in the first flush of youth have the energy to do this, but I disagree – that’s just a way of saying I don’t know what to do.

Anyone who’s read my blog for a while might have followed a thread on the way we experience the loss of the family life we knew as children (however unconventional or how regular it happens to be). I wasn’t a stranger to a sad thing happening, but seeing a parent lose independence, and at the mercy of the elements, was a profound experience for me. The last two and a half years has brought me up close to how life might end: that vague, nebulous, misty thing lost in the trees, the ‘here be dragons’ on the map.


White Rose of Yorkshire…

We were lucky – my father had a good nursing home with an excellent manager. The last couple of years there brought a Lazarus recovery into a twilight that was calm, settled and happy. It was a time when I built a different relationship with him, with just the two of us experiencing this process. It was never a self-conscious thing, just that we’d been transplanted out of the way our family usually interacted.

So there I was, early in the year, feeling a bit shiny and new, when my dad had a fall at his nursing home. Within 24 hours he had a new hip, in a week unknown cancer out of control, a month or so and he was gone.

At the worst, and in that romantic way I personally deal with life, he was the effigy on a tomb, the medieval wall painting, life ebbing in the spring afternoon. I will always be grateful to the two wonderful nurses in his last weeks who saw my father as a person beyond the one-dimensional geriatric in care. They gave me their time and awareness to have those moments.

That evening my partner found the film The Wall, an Austrian film from a 1960s book by Marlon Haushofer. (An invisible wall isolates a woman in an alpine landscape, which makes for a stunning rumination on our attachment to others, in particular to dogs, and I won’t attempt to describe its chemistry.) We had no idea what The Wall would be, but it was wonderful.

That’s not to say reality didn’t quickly remind me that life can’t always be processed like this: any wilting Keatsian parody was blitzed ten minutes later. The nursing home’s night staff called and, with the grace of Jo Brand reporting ‘I’ve let out the cat’, told me my dad died half an hour ago.

I could not be a nurse: I’m too weak. There are wonderful, caring, talented and sensitive people who work with the elderly, and there are also under-paid and under-trained individuals. Some of the latter are de-sensitised. They’ve seen too much of illness and the end of life, so let’s not mess around.

I’ve a key lesson from the last couple of years and my dad’s ‘end of life’ experience. No matter what friends or family we have, we will never know where the bonds will hold true, and without them – or even it – we’re hedgehogs on the carriageway.

Two and a half years ago, I couldn’t understand why in one hospital no-one seemed to think missing hearing aids, glasses and teeth might be important. Now, in the current context of care for the elderly, I see they aren’t, provided the basics are in place.

There are, god willing, limited times each of us will be exposed to the loss of those at the heart of our lives. I cannot begin to imagine the ‘less anticipated’ scenarios, but I wouldn’t want a repeat of this exchange via the Registry Office:

‘You can’t book to register a death without the certificate!’

‘Yes, I know – the medical centre won’t have it ready until Thursday afternoon at the latest so that would leave 24 hours to register. I’m a bit worried then because all the guidance says it must be registered in five days…’

‘That’s just to make sure they do it!’

‘Oh. Are you sure? It’s in black and bold and says ‘you must’ a lot.’

‘I can’t make an appointment until you have the form!’

At which point, in the interests of other people who might, for example, have lost a child, I had to explain she was making a stressful time more stressful. At which she relented. Though I got another lecture at my appointment – from someone else – on how I could have turned up without a certificate and it would have been awful.

But loss is a surreal experience. I don’t bat an eyelid now when I get emails from work contacts expressing condolences at the death of my mother.

Today I’ve finished most of the admin and not only have I surfaced, but I’m drying out on the shore. I’ll be back in at some point, but the weather is good…

(The title, which is grandiose for a blog post, and I apologise, is from ‘I Saw the Dead’ by Villagers, a very fine song, from ‘Becoming a Jackal’.)


8 thoughts on “Let me show you the back room, where I saw the dead

  1. It’s at times like these when the rug seems to disappear beneath the very words we use, or hear, or read. Things get too big to compass. Words drain away. Or fill up the empty space with discordant…well… wrongness – like the ways some people sent insensitive words jarring against your loss.

    Words seem so useless sometimes – so inadequate – and yet can also eddy around us and, in time, gather again to form a current of solace and healing. Your words here flow into that current with such truth. And they express so beautifully the whirlpool of loss. The moments of buoyancy, when support comes. The moments of sinking. The long, slow wash of the tide back to dry land.

    I hope I’m making sense. My own words here seem so inadequate – but they come with my deepest sympathy. I’m so sorry for your loss. It’s good to hear that you are surfacing, and have reached the shore…

    I love the beautiful, poignant white rose of Yorkshire for your dad…


    • Thank you – elegant eloquence as ever… and thanks for noticing the Yorkshire rose… I was amazed to feel how a service like that could be so calm and even uplifting, and the flowers were such a simple but powerful part of that. I remember at school having to get all my family to write a poem about spring. My brother went to town, my mum quoted John Betjeman, but my dad’s was just bonkers and unique:

      ‘When I gaze upon a jonquil, I get an awful thrill.
      I do a dance, and end up feeling tranquil.’

      Can’t really add to that!

  2. Janet

    So sorry to hear of your loss, you wrote so beautifully, describing the final weeks. Your experience with the Registrar reminded me of the Alan Bennett Talking Heads episode, Soldiering On, superbly narrated by Stephanie Cole where she describes the scant ‘advice’ given by the health centre and library with regard to recent bereavement, in essence it was “don’t make any major decisions!”…..

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