My neighbour, but one, died nearly three weeks ago. He’d been a neighbour for 34 years. Our nearest neighbour informed us of his death over the garden fence. It was a shock. It was the kind of shock where you don’t quite believe it, thinking your neighbour must be mistaken, because you’d only heard the dead neighbour a couple of days ago, pootling around in his garden. It was also a shock because the husband had had quite a lengthy discussion with him the morning of the day he died. Their first ‘proper’ chat in two years.
Yesterday I plucked up courage to visit his widow (what a ghastly, loaded word.) This is a problem I’m unfamiliar with – when to visit the bereaved? I’m familiar with Grief writ large but what to do when it comes to bereavement protocol? I used to see her frequently, many years ago, when we had young children in common, but for the past umpteen years barely ever; just occasionally stopping in the street, should we bump into each other, for a quick hello and a very brief chat. We had become mere acquaintances; or ships that pass in the night (as the father-in-law was fond of saying.) Life moved us out into separate sea lanes (best to keep a metaphor going once you’ve started.)
We put a sympathy card through the door the day after his death. I judged it way too soon to make a possibly unwelcome appearance. But 18 days had elapsed since his permanent disappearance and I thought, I must do something, for old time’s sake. So I called round, armed with a pot plant from Sainsbury’s (judging a bouquet way over the top) but also worrying that the tiny pot plant looked a bit pathetic. I adopted an unreadable expression on my face, thinking let the widow set the tone.
Unbelievably (or not; Grief, like God, works in mysterious ways) the widow was her usual self, or the self I remembered from long ago. So, I smiled when she smiled. I laughed when she laughed. There were wry comments about the deceased. I relaxed. I toured the sympathy cards. There barely seemed to be any commiseration required. The widow and I are the same age. We sat down and so began the graphic tale of her husband’s demise.
He’d spent his last day ‘doing the electrics’ in the garage where they’d had a fire a couple of months ago. ‘The second of the ‘blue lights,’ she said. ‘The blue lights?’, I asked. ‘The fire engines that came for the garage,’ she said. The first blue lights had been an ambulance taking her mother to hospital the week before, and everyone knows things come in threes. The third set of blue lights had carried her husband away. This was unarguable logic.
After wiring up the garage all day, the widow had told him that her car was low on petrol. He’d grabbed her keys and said, ‘I’ll fill it up for you, then I’m off up the allotment.’ ‘Those were our last words,’ she said. We contemplated the banality of their last words. 6 pm had rolled around and the widow had rung her husband to tell him she’d put the dinner on. There was no reply. An hour later a few rain clouds had begun to hang heavily in the sky. She rang him again, no reply. She’d sent her son to fetch him back. The son had found the allotment gates locked. He’d climbed the gates and found his dad. ‘Such a good way to go though,’ she said. ‘Lying down in that lovely (the local allotments are lovely) and peaceful allotment, the birds flying overhead.’ The son had particularly noticed the birds and their chirpy birdsong. The son had also noticed his dad was turning blue. ‘It was around his ears in particular,’ she said with perfect equanimity, ‘and part of his face, and the ends of his fingers.’ I’d begun to squirm in my seat.
The blue lights had come. Another good thing about his sudden death was that he had not suffered. The paramedics told her that there were no signs of pain or struggle. Her husband had been planting asparagus and raking the soil over the seeds. The rake was still in his hands as he lay on the floor. Had it been a painful death, then he would have dropped the rake, clutched both hands to the bit of him that hurt and contorted his face in pain. The widow demonstrated the clutching and the contorting, informing me, via the paramedics, that the final struggle often remains fixed on a face that is dead. I sank further down into my chair, trying not to contort my face in pain.
The cause of death had been failure of a mechanical heart valve he’d had implanted several years ago. The neighbour had not enjoyed the best of health and yet I’d thought he’d possibly go on and on, in the way you don’t believe that anyone will really die. This meant his heart had filled with blood causing sudden cardiac arrest. Why that would be painless, I don’t know. With equal suddenness I became uncomfortably aware of my own heart, beating erratically in my own chest, and wondered about the state of its own valves.
The widow continued chatting and then I decided to leave. Pausing at the back door the widow pointed out an enormous pile of something or other lying at the bottom of her garden, covered in tarpaulin. ‘That’s all the stuff he took out of the garage after the fire,’ she said. ‘I told him to tip it, but he left it lying there. It’s all burnt and covered in soot and now he’s left it to me. And there’s a mountain of paperwork to get through and I can’t find most of the important bits. He never filed it, like I told him to. Keep it all in one place, I said, put it on the computer, but no he never listened.’ Yes, I mused inwardly, quite inconsiderate of him to drop dead like that really.
And I got it. Somewhere he was still alive, she just couldn’t find him; to tell him to stop messing around, to come back home and tip the burned stuff and tell her where the paperwork was.
‘Is it ok I called round?’ I asked, not really knowing why I asked, except that we’re not close at all and maybe I was intruding. ‘Yes, of course. I know it’s difficult, knowing when to see someone when something like this happens, but I want things to be normal. I want people to be normal.’ ‘When is the funeral?’ I suddenly remembered to ask, being various neighbours wanted to know. She gave the date and we said goodbye.
The widow is supremely pragmatic and always has been. She is a fine example of the way ‘ordinary’ people go about things, with understated courage and a sense that they have no other choice. I could learn from her example.
Blog, I’m 58. Nearly four years ago, I wrote a post about the fleeting nature of Time. I was 54 back then, and even as I wittered on that I wouldn’t be 54 for long, I thought that at least it would take more than a fleeting second before I’d be sitting here, aged 58, wittering on in another blog post. But it didn’t. Yesterday I was 54, today I’m 58. The neighbour who died was 68. I’m caught up in a numbers game and it’s a game I can never win.
How long do I have left? The average life expectancy for a woman in the UK is 83.1 years (2016) but the latter 19.2 of those years will be spent living in ‘not good’ health (ONS). So, barring any calamitous illness, I’ve possibly got 6 good years ahead of me and 19 rubbishy ones. 25 years – less than half the time I’ve currently taken up space on planet Earth.
When Mr Samuel Johnson intoned that the knowledge of our own impending death concentrates the mind wonderfully, he had been referring to its capacity to make a formerly dull and stupid individual ‘stronger’ in his opinions and wit. And not, as I thought, to Death’s ability to make us concentrate on what matters most. You see, Johnson had ghost-written an appeal against capital punishment, on behalf of a clergyman friend who’d been caught embezzling funds and had been condemned to a public hanging. It was noted by all that the appeal was way above the intelligence level previously noted in the poor clergyman, and Johnson was suspected of fraudulent authorship, which he denied, later indulging in a bit of literal gallows humour, at the expense of the desperate clergyman (most people were pretty desperate circa 1749.) Johnson’s bon mots ran like this: ‘when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.’ If you’re going to be hanged then it suddenly makes you all clever-clever and capable of writing like a genius, is what Johnson was saying. That was Johnson’s idea of a joke and probably really creased old Boswell up, when he was busy jotting it down for posterity – life was tough in the 18th Century. I digressed.
Yesterday I started with a heavy cold and what sounds like a chesty cough (I’m not prone to chesty coughs.) What if I keel over at the washing up bowl? What if I die suddenly on the loo; how awful to be found on the loo. What if I croak it, standing up in the shower and the husband hears the shower running interminably and can’t get through the locked door? What if I kick the bucket, the one I use to mop the floors? What if I’m struck by lightening? And do I really believe those paramedics, when they say they can tell when death is painless. No, I don’t. This cold is giving me quite a lot of gyp, how much more gyp would something deadly give me?
Every time the husband goes out, I ring him past a certain time, to make sure he’s not lying dead up the tip, or in a field somewhere. The widow’s words echoing in my ears, ‘I rang him, no reply.’ The husband also has a cold. I am attentive. I tell him to slow down. I make him hot lemon and honey. I check his pulse. I monitor his breathing. The husband has an alarming propensity to stop breathing at night, for a-g-e-s, so I regularly give him a mild thump to the chest. When I think about it, that’s probably not a good thing. That’s probably just the kind of thing to bring on sudden death.
Yes, Death, when he turns up on your neighbour’s doorstop unexpectedly, really does concentrate the mind – just not so wonderfully.
So, my mind is concentrated and I’m on a mission. I must do things. Things I partially put on hold down the rapidly disappearing years. I must go to the theatre; we rarely go to the theatre. I must go to jaunty, feel-good musicals, so I can ward off deadly thoughts. I must read more and be open to books I wouldn’t normally choose, or have even heard of, such as the Kingkiller Chronicles, suggested by son no.1 (It may take the rest of my life expectancy to get through The Wise Man’s Fear, such is Patrick Rothfuss’s love of rambling) and The Art of Being a Little Bit Crazy by Heloise Clough. I read almost the whole of classic English literature, whilst at university, but imagine all the books I’ve never read, or ever will read. In fact, imagine all the things I’ve never done, or ever will do. And I’ve got things to knit; things to sew; things to sing; things to write; things to colour-in; people to see and places to go. And all without knowing what kind of timescale I’m working to. Ay, there’s the timely rub.
And the husband has severe ankylosing spondylitis, controlled only by a myriad of drugs. Any long term, inflammatory process comes with what the medics call a ‘burden of disease,’ by which they mean autoimmune diseases, like AS, tend to shorten average life span by 10 years. So, it is even more imperative that we do things now and not waste any more time.
The husband is also fond of Yetis and area 51 and UFOs. Back in our youth the husband and I could be found UFO spotting. Maybe we’ll take up UFO spotting again – that’s not a waste of our remaining time, is it?