Monday, January 02, 2012

JDS Insights: December 2011

My December threw up a lot.*

I hope you get something from reading this (rather long) post.

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December 3rd, very early in the morning, my Father-in-law passed away.

I was there.

It was something that was quick and slow at the same time. He'd been pretty ill for a number of years, including being in and out of hospital. It almost felt like another 'routine' visit to hospital on the Friday night when I got the call from Her.

When She texted again though, the content was far more serious. Until that night, I'd only every come across the words 'heart' and 're-started' in the same sentence when they were uttered by some random actor on tv.

When we arrived at the hospital** the seriousness of the situation was highlighted by the look on the faces of the two people already there and the fact that they had been advised to contact family. When the doctor from A&E came in and spoke to us, the straightforward question was asked: "Could he die?" The candid answer was a 'Yes' followed with a point that people do recover from the position he was in and go on to lead a normal life. This was further qualified with the fact that he was very ill.

The evening was turning into a series of slow-motion moments. There was nothing for me to do apart from deal with whatever was happening in front of me: no past, no future just the present.

The other immediate family member arrived and we lapsed into discussion and speculation - which isn't always helpful - but can be more comforting than the deadening silence of our own thoughts. There were goings-in and goings-out for cigarettes and phone calls but waiting can be utterly mind-numbing.

A&E were attempting to stabilise his condition. Absorbing earlier recounting of the day: from coughing fits to doctor's visits; from ambulance rides to hospital beds, I listened to a key moment being described. He was in A&E when one of the hospital machines started to make a bleeping sound; at which point about six people seemingly materialised from thin air and began to do the things you see in television dramas.

As my brother-in-law explained this, it became clear that this was the point he probably suffered a heart-attack and his heart was re-started. The doctor had told us he was staying in A&E until he was stable enough and a free bed was available in the 'ICU'.

Time passed and we went upstairs to the ICU. As we came out of the lift and were buzzed in by some hospital staff we were shown into a room called the 'Relatives Room'. It was quite a small rectangular room with seating around the edge of most of it. There was a water cooler in one corner and an over-flowing bin as you entered next to the door. It was decorated in the dull nondescript shades of hospital blue and grey.

Apart from these pointless details my brain took in, the room was filled with the members of a large family. So much so there were only just enough seats for the five of us to sit down. We sat together and continued our speculation and discussion, peppered with visits to a snack machine and gently winding each other up whilst avoiding the big elephant in the room. I could feel the tension mixed with tiredness in the air around us.

I can't really tell how long we were in there but like I said, the night was turning into a series of discrete, punctuated moments rather than a long event. We were getting a little more riled as time passed - purely because we couldn't go and see him and we didn't know what was happening.

At some point, a doctor appeared and herded the members of the other family into another room next door. I didn't think much of it until the silence swallowed us. We were suddenly aware of how loud our voices were.

After a few minutes, the members of the other family emerged: quite a few in tears. As they all came back into the Relatives Room the possibility of what was going on began to roll over us like fog. It was a sobering moment.

Eventually it was our turn. The doctor took us next door into a small room with a few chairs in. What stood out was the table with boxes of tissues on it. The doctor locked the door, asked us to sit down and started talking to us.

He explained how ill my Father-in-law was: how his blood acid was high because his kidneys had stopped working and he was on drugs for this; how he was on a the highest level of adrenaline for his heart; how his heart stopped and blood flow stopped to the brain; how if he did recover there was a significant chance of brain damage;  how he was breathing with a machine; how he was sedated and how he was being monitored for a response to the treatment but that it was unlikely that he would survive.

As he spoke those words, time slowed down. I was struck by how much space there was in the conversation; how clear he had been and the high level of respect and awareness he brought to the situation and to us. This was not unique. The doctor in A&E had shown a similar level of calmness and clarity. I thought all the staff were amazing.

He knew how much it was for us to take in with such a short space of time and he let my mother-in-law say everything she wanted to say: no interruptions, no misdirections, no distractions and no looking away. Truly brilliant. He let us ask questions and then left us to do whatever we needed to do.

They would only allow two people at a time to see him. I waited in the Relatives Room. I saw one brother-in-law come in, face white, sit down and put my fedora hat on top of his head covering his face. I happened to have with me an unopened packet of tissues and gave him one. The second brother-in-law came in and again I gave him some tissues.

When She came back, she was upset too, obviously.

When I saw him on the bed, machine breathing for him, eyes closed, all the nonsense and pettiness of my own thoughts fell away.

We sat in the Relatives Room for a while longer before we were called again into the small room next door. I made sure the tissues were accessible for everyone. This time the doctor spoke some more but used the words 'prolonging his death'. Now there was open crying and visible upset. Raw humanity.

A priest was contacted for last rites. Rosaries appeared.

She went for a cigarette with her brothers...which explains the gravity of the situation because She doesn't smoke. I was in this small room with my mother-in-law in pieces at the situation we were confronting. I offered what support I could as a son-in-law.

As the wider family had started to arrive, things began to become more ordered. We had another discussion about organ donation - and again the hospital staff were unbelievably amazing. We then said the rosary in the room with him. Religion gave some structure, sense of identity and means of understanding the incomprehensible and articulating the amorphous.

Then a nurse came in and turned off the machine. We were all silent. For the next few minutes I watched the machines and everyone in the room as his breathing slowed and his heart stopped. One of the aunties began to sing a favourite hymn of his. She was barely into the third line when the nurse came in again - which took us all by surprise.

It turned out that he passed away as the hymn started. It also turned out that he passed away on the anniversary weekend of his Father's death. No doubt he would have been aware of this.

Being in the room as someone dies is one of the most humbling experiences I've had.

After he had gone, his body was there but I felt it was obvious that his presence wasn't. He had left. Yet She kept saying that it looked as if he was asleep and that if She called his name - he would just wake up. The struggle to comprehend what had just happened was palpable.

If ever I felt the obviousness of the separation between soul, mind and body it was in that hospital room. Even then, when I saw him earlier with the machine helping him, there was very little of the Father-in-Law I knew in the room.

The funeral of course had an air of finality yet inevitability. He definitely had a great send-off though. The weather summed up the day: cold, windy but bright sun. A member of the family had died but he would be remembered with brightness. At the service, the priest told a story about him that had people laughing: this is how he would want to be remembered.

Seeing my brother-in-laws be part of the group that lowered the coffin into the ground was real closure.  My thoughts were with them, my mother-in-law and my wife. Any distance that existed between myself and my mother-in-law and brother-in-laws had evaporated.

This has also opened the door to conversations with my own parents about death, dying, grief and wills: something we'll all face.

Now as a final point, I'm not being flippant here, but at some point during this process, I was put in the mind of a Star Wars quotation from Yoda. In The Empire Strikes Back, whilst training Luke Yoda says: "Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter".


Writing this post has had me revisit everything this month. Looking back, apart from the obvious, I'm not entirely sure what order all of this happened - perhaps time stops being as linear as we think when stuff like this occurs.

Since then, events in December really have been a blur. I have taught some more, played in two school concerts, sung in a carol service, done some Krav, driven around family lots, participated on a GTD webinar, supported my sister, bought, wrapped and received some presents and said more rosaries in a week than I have in my whole life.

I've been moved and emboldened by this whole experience. My relationship to Death has deepened.

I'm almost looking forward to January.

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In other news: I started eating chocolate again towards the end of the month.

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Dec 01: Words cannot express the infinite.

Dec 02: Words necessarily place borders and limits on our experience. But they also articulate and create.

Dec 03: Some experiences cannot be communicated with words.

Dec 04: There is always depth behind the words. But it requires deep listening.

Dec 05: I don't just listen with my ears but with my whole experience and being.

Dec 06: Listening is not a passive phenomenon.

Dec 07: Listening can be conscious or unconscious. It's interesting to note where I spend most of my time.

Dec 06: When we speak of someone they are present in the room.

Dec 07: My judgements are my judgements. They're not right or wrong.

Dec 08: Everything you say has an effect on people whether you (or they) realise it or not.

Dec 09: Death and life intertwine.

Dec 10: My body is a vehicle.

Dec 11: What happens to my body is only a part of what life has to offer.

Dec 12: There is so much more to the experience of being human than we realise.

Dec 13: Context creates pejorative terms not the words themselves.

Dec 14: Words are context and content at the same time.

Dec 15: Being asleep and being awake can sometimes blur but it's all life.

Dec 16: Colleagues are not always friends but they are not always enemies.

Dec 17: Some people reveal more with what they don't say.

Dec 18: What I don't say is a communication to the self-aware.

Dec 19: Truth communicates no matter what.

Dec 20: Adults run away from their truth more than children.

Dec 21: Families are not always the best people to turn to for support.

Dec 22: Support comes from anyone at any time. Are you listening?

Dec 23: God communicates through everyone we meet. Are you listening?

Dec 24: Time reflecting is time well spent.

Dec 25: Too much reflection becomes navel-gazing and pointless.

Dec 26: What you believe is not necessarily a truth worth imposing on another.

Dec 27: Standing for something you believe is an act of self-definition.

Dec 28: The World is neither bad nor good. It just keeps on Living.

Dec 29: The world does not revolve around me. Yet I can make a difference to the world.

Dec 30: Own all of it and I can change some of it.

Dec 31: Look back and learn. Look forward and create.
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*All my shizzle. Most of these (from the 8th onwards) were written last night. Such has been the nature of this month.


**St. George's, Tooting. The hospital staff were fucking amazing.