Considerations on death

As of Thursday morning, mum’s in hospital with diabetes. Given she has terminal cancer, it seems almost immaterial, strange given that diabetes is no small thing. In any case, the hospital is a good place to be for her right now. I don’t know if the diabetes will play any part in her prognosis, but the rest and attention will do her good.

This comes after a visit to the doctor on Wednesday. I’m pretty jaded these days. I go along, I ask questions, I support mum, but I don’t expect a lot. “You watch,” I said beforehand, “you’ll walk in, and the first thing he’ll say is ‘you’re looking well”. And I was right.

Mum is in decline, as I’ve noted before. Nothing is really different, except that everything is just a little bit worse. The only little thing different was the thirst that mum reported. That prompted a blood test, which revealed the diabetes. I got a call from mum at 7.30am Thursday reporting the results to me: her blood sugar three times what it should be, the likelihood of diabetes, and the need to go to hospital. Situation normal.

It does feel normal in a funny way. You know that things are going to get. You don’t know exactly what will happen, but you know that things like this will occur and that every chance what kills her won’t be cancer but some secondary ailment the cancer induces.

Not surprisingly, I think a lot these days about the inevitable progression of this. I think of mum and what’s happening, and for reasons I can’t explain, I find that I have come to associate her situation with my aunt, dead for 7 years now from cancer. Strangely, it’s my aunt that I recall. Many others have died since, and some closer. It’s her, though, that I remember. I always remember an occasion we had drinks together one Friday night in Sydney towards the Rocks, a small, mundane memory that has stayed with me ever since. I remember other things then, one memory becoming another like a bunch of synaptic dominoes: attending Handel’s Messiah at the Opera House with her when I was a kid, a party in her Watson’s Bay apartment speaking with a US marine, visiting her in her office in Spring St, Sydney, drinks at the Grand National with ‘Young’ Jack in Paddington… I remember then that she’s dead, how she died, and how I remember bits and pieces, but the rest is gone.

People die. They go from you. You remember them, but most of what they were and what they did is gone somewhere else. In time you remember vague and random snippets. One day it’s all gone, like a bunch of old and forgotten family pictures dumped onto a bonfire.

Sure it sounds bleak. You get that, though, thinking about someone you love knowing that soon they will be gone. You don’t want to lose those things. You want to remember them while you can, want to recall them like living links between you, let’s not forget, let’s not overlook.

I often find myself thinking of mum from within that context. Watching a program the other day set during the Suez crisis, I thought I’d like to ask mum about that. What do you remember, mum? What were you doing then? It’s the same for all these other moments before my time, or when I was too young to know, like the Cuban missile crisis, the day Holt disappeared, Nixon, even the little local things you see pop up on TV occasionally – famous murders, celebrity mishaps, and so on. I’m genuinely curious, but I also want to see it through her eyes, as if I might gain an alternative understanding of her in so doing. She is a little interested in that. They are things that happened, that’s all. For me, outside, they are all part of the sweep of history, the ups and downs, the dramas and controversies that fill newspapers one day and are forgotten the next. I suspect that for her, that much of that was just part of a background tune that changed pitch and tempo occasionally before returning to a steady rhythm. So I come up blank there.

It’s strange knowing that soon she will end, and with her those moments, those memories. We put her in a coffin, and at the same time, we may as well put all those memories in a box, too, captured moments that will never change now but slowly forgotten. That’s the world, though. Multiply it by a million, and that’s what the world loses every day.

I don’t say any of this to mum. I doubt she would understand. I don’t really say any of this to anyone. Sometimes I think people think of me almost as too erudite, somehow different, but it’s just, I think, that I see a broader perspective. I know what I’m losing, and it’s not just a mother. It’s not my role to say these things either, to be that person. I’m the strong and reliable one. I’m the unflustered, unflappable, capable son managing and ordering things. I get frustrated sometimes at being confined to that role, ever and always. You feel pushed into that role in the absence of anyone else, defined in your role relative to the roles played by other people. Take a little bit of what you have, mix it in with what others need and want, what they expect, and that becomes the part you play.

It’s not a bad role, and I’m glad to support and help. I play an important part, but I’m not sure if what I need in this gets any real air. Hell, I know it doesn’t, not outside these pages. The problem, really, isn’t the role I play or the persona I project; it’s the fact that I’m not really the man I sometimes (and only sometimes) wish to be. Ultimately I understand this as some kind of existential dilemma mum could never understand. It’s not the role I play, but the fact that I can never really play any other role but that.

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