What happens when the heart just stops

30-09-08

So it goes.

I sit in the by window of the bedroom, listening to him breathe. Noisy, rattly breaths. He wakes only occasionally now. To pee. To take a few sips. He knows us. He knows what’s happening. He even makes the odd sarcastic one-worder (not having the energy for a full one liner).

But his voice is slurred and weak and he hasn’t even the energy to get the blankets off him on his own. This is what the sickness does to you. Leaves people the shell of what they used to be. I’ve seen it happen before. Just not to him.

So it goes.

Not like we didn’t know it was coming. Either from 4 months ago or even last year. We’ve thought about this. We’ve talked about this. We’ve planned for this. I don’t mean it makes it easier. I don’t know what it means. I’m not sure I have to.

Slowly (insidious as medics would say) he’s gone down hill. As the cancer grows and robs more of his energy and leaves him with more and more nausea and kinks and twists in his gut. As tiny blood clots lodge in the blood vessels in his lungs. As his poor starved liver stops making protein and all the fluid collects wherever gravity will draw it to. Week by week he could do a bit less.

There was of course the odd notable exception. Like the day they went to Newcastle and he ate a steak sandwich. Or the day the palliative care consultant came to see him and he was outside cleaning the drains. As mum said to the consultant: “this is gonna look bad…” I told dad they’d take his Graseby off him.

We’re grateful for what we had. He was glad to be here and we were glad to have him. I think that’s changed now.

I am remarkably calm. Though that’s not the right word. I’m not freaking out for some reason – I know I have done previously. The whole thing is a decidedly odd (and equisitely painful) experience.

4-10-08

And now he’s gone.

In the same way I’ve watched them all go before. We looked after him at home. We did everything. No nurse cared more than we did (and the nurses were great), rarely have I been so proud of my family, doing what they’ve had no training or experience to do before. I do this for a living in many ways, it is completely foreign to them.

I could watch all the signs that go with the event of dying. All the medicalised aspects of it. Knowing that there wasn’t enough blood and oxygen to his brain to deliver any kind of conscious awareness of what was going on. He was already gone. I knew this, but still… it’s my Da. He looked like all the other poor dying souls I’ve watched, but still… this was my Da.

Watching someone die is a strange and profound enough experience to start with, never mind watching it happen to someone you love dearly. I think this is part of why it has such a profound experience on people, and perhaps why it didn’t have such a big effect on me. His act of dying (the three or so hours form when he wouldn’t wake up until he was gone) wasn’t anything special. It was, as we’ve described it to people: “peaceful”. The bit that gets you is the sheer finality of it all. That the eyes won’t open again. That there’ll not be the sarcastic comments and the steely determination.

Amazing how quick something can go from being someone you have an intimate relationship to an odd looking body that bears little resemblance to the man you once knew.

I don’t understand emotion – I’m a man, none of us do apparently… But I mean on a physiological basis – the constriction at the back of your throat, such that you can’t even swallow, the pain, the sheer physical pain in your chest, the headaches, the inability to complete sentences, the way your face curls up like (to quote dear Ronnie…) “a bulldog chewing a wasp”. Why does loss affect us poor creatures so?

I wouldn’t want to have kept him here. At least not the last week or two, they’ve not been pretty. In some ways there’s this selfish desire just to keep them here, even if it’s only for a smile and a word. But you think about it and then you realise you wouldn’t want to keep them, not like this anyhow.

And then we were sitting there. With all that was left of Da. And what do you do. Where do you start? Simon phoned the doctor and all the important people, I sorted out Dad and all the medical stuff. Mum baked a pie. What else would you do? I was hungry. I don’t know why, but I was hungry. It was the best pie I’ve ever eaten.

The undertaker asked us would the house be “open” or “private” – Though according to Ruth ,when it says “private” in the paper it actually means anyone can come to the house, but if it says “strictly private” then it’s private. That seems perverse. But it is Norn Iron I suppose.

People started to turn up at the house. And then more people, and more people. And here’s the difficult bit…

I am glad that so many people turned up to wish us well and grieve and tell stories. I am truly grateful for the hundreds of cups of tea and buns and sandwhiches. But there were frequent points when I was very close to standing up in the middle of the room swearing loudly “would you *&^%$£$% all go home and just leave us in peace…”

I didn’t.

Instead I went out to the garage to stroke the dog. The dog is therapeutic. Safer and cheaper than drugs and booze. The dog helps us cope. The dog has been walked and stroked within an inch of its life in the past few weeks. The dog is the single most happy and contented thing/creature I have ever met. Like colin the robot in the Hitchhiker’s guide to the galaxy after Ford has rewired its pleasure circuits (for those who’ve read Hitchhiker’s then you’re with me, if not please read it…) Dog’s are good listeners. We could learn a thing or two…

I am sorry for thinking about such thoughts about such dear people who would come only to “pay respects” and encourage. In one of those odd ways I am both glad that you were there while at the same time I wished you weren’t. I think i’m allowed such confusion.

We bury them quick in Ireland. Two days later. I like to think it’s on the third day and all that… I don’t know why we bury them two days later. Makes the whole thing a bit more intense, but I think it’s a good idea none the less. Though how should I know, it’s not like I do this a lot…

We had a short service in the house before the trip to the church. 25 of us – pretty much the whole family, well those of us old enough to know what was going on – packed into the living room. An unbreakable and terrible tension in the room. Me and Simon waited outside for the minister to come. Both of us in our suits, white shirts and ties, greeting mourners as they arrived. I remember thinking we looked like bouncers. Like a skinny, more weedy version of Max and Paddy.

And then we followed the hearse.

To the church, along the road that Dad walked every sunday afternoon when he was a kid, turning just before we passed the house he grew up in, up roads where he walked every sunday morning with the aging BB old boys.

To the church he’d gone to since he was a baby, that both his and mum’s parents had gone to for all the generations we can trace. [And all of a sudden I realise why roots are so important. Da always said, as if stuck on repeat, “who you are, where you are from, to whom you belong…”]

Carried under the flags of the BB he’d been a founding member of, where he’d served for 40 years. Carried down the same aisle that he’d watched mum walk down on their wedding day so many years before. [Funny how funerals are so like, and unlike, weddings…]

To lie in his coffin at the front of the church filled with the 500 or so people who came to say that they knew and loved him.

To listen to the hymns that neither, me, Simy or Liz could even begin to sing without choking up on tears. We just stood as if the sheer volume and meaning from the crowd behind us could hold us up. [“From life’s first cry to final breath..” is always a killer – i have watched lots of “life’s first cry” waiting to resuscitate babies as they come out. I have watched my own Fathers “final breath” – this is a lyric with depth and meaning…]

To listen and watch as Dad’s best friend gave a eulogy where we all got reminded who he was – someone who loved well and was first class when it came to taking the piss out of people. People got insulted – Da would’ve been happy, he wouldn’t have had it any other way…

And then carried. By those who knew and loved him best, by those who were his family, as we walked behind, careful to look only at the coffin and not side to side, knowing that if we made eye contact we’d come to pieces. Odd that – on the one day designed for mourning, you spend the whole day trying to keep it together for the sake of those around you.

Then taken. Out into the pissing rain (good day for a funeral…) And me and Simy take the coffin, down the path to where we’ve buried the rest of his family. And I just repeat over and over in my head “thank you for the life you gave me, thank you for the happiness, thank you for the discipline, thank you for what you made me, thank you for everything… I’m gonna miss you.”

This and the horrible practicality that if I have to walk much further on a slippy path in these shoes then I’m gonna drop the coffin.

I remember my Granda’s funeral, the same grave, 15 years before. When, as they lowered the coffin they struggled to fit the coffin into the hole and I remember it being remarked that it was just “Billy (Da’s Dad) – stubborn to the last…”

Dust to dust, just like every funeral.

[Liz is for being cremated- she says she’s scared of enclosed spaces and scared of being buried alive. I’m being cremated to save space. Or possibly cut up into tiny pieces by inept medical students with my stolen fingers being used in tasteless pranks… I fugure if GOD raises the dead, then the spread of my individual molecules, atoms, protons, electrons and Higgs Bosons throughout the diaspora shouldn’t pose too much of a challenge…]

As we walk away, the BB old boys gather round the grave to do what they always do, to do what I’ve done before, and “bury their own”.

In the hall, there is tea. Cups of tea like you’ve never seen before. Trolleys of buns and huge vats of tea, all arranged and moving with military precision. There is nothing quite like dear church folk doing catering at a funeral.

We took up a position in the corner and waited for the onslaught. Two hours of handshakes, embraces and tears we were still there as the queue slowly diminshed. Most of it was a bit of a blur. People I had never met, hugged me, good country men shook my hand till the bones cracked. Almost everyone called me Simon. I developed a layer of foundation on my shoulder from all the embraces. It was, in the strangest way, enjoyable. Listening to people tell me stories about Da, from long before I was born.

You see, this is what I didn’t get. I considere myself an authority on my own Da. I had reason to think so. But I forgot that Dad had this whole other life before I turned up. He had 20 years before he even met Liz. This life where he met and loved people and did all kinds of stuff that I knew nothing about. People knew Da in all kinds of ways that I didn’t even think were possible. I am humbled.

For most of the time I was OK. I smiled and laughed and joked and practised our “funeral soundbytes” – it is impossible to say something original every time someone asks you a question about it so you come up with a few choice truths which somehow lose their depth of meaning with repitition.

But every now and again someone would appear in the queue who I hadn’t quite expected or someone who didn’t even know Da and had come solely for my benefit – and then I’d begin to wobble a bit. It goes down as one of the strangest experiences yet.

Your wedding day is cool cause you know and love everyone there, your funeral is the same, except you don’t get to be there. Da would’ve enjoyed it. Just shame he wasn’t there.

We only seem to get this many together if someone gets born, married or dies. Odd that. Odd, the traditions we have.

That night we all got letters from him. We knew we were getting letters. And that wasn’t the easiest. To read his handwriting, with all the nice things and him taking the piss (“Andrew, you knew you were always meant to be a girl…” Cheers Da) and at the end he’s signed it and I can’t go downstairs and say thanks. That’s the tricky bit…

Cheers Da.

Ronnie Neill

Born 29-3-48

Died 2-10-08

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12 Responses to “What happens when the heart just stops”


  1. 1 suzy2110 October 8, 2008 at 2:27 pm

    I was very moved by your post. I am so sorry for your loss, and wish you and your family peace.

  2. 2 Renee Khan October 8, 2008 at 5:35 pm

    I am so very sorry for you loss. I understand it to well, as my Dad died last Tuesday of cancer as well. I have Stage 4 inflammatory breast cancer and cancer is not an easy trip, but I want to thank you for writing so lovingly of your Dad here and in other posts.

    Let us hope that we will see them again.

    Renee Khan

  3. 3 Roads October 13, 2008 at 6:11 pm

    I’m so sorry. Wishing you all the best that I can wish, and good grief.

  4. 4 Nelly And I October 13, 2008 at 6:26 pm

    thank you everyone. Andy

  5. 5 shadowlands1501 October 14, 2008 at 5:54 pm

    I echo the condolences and marvel at how closely the Irish traditions are kept in my own family…
    So, very sorry for your loss….


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