As I watch my mother slowly dying
It’s one of pop culture’s great clichés that some actors and some films are best known for their great dying scenes.
I’m watching another dying scene right now, but this is real life and to the people involved, as the weeks have gone by, it seems all the drama has been bleached out of it. The dull flat winter days are turning to vibrant spring. My family is watching my mother slowly dying.
I hold her hand. The cancer inside her is fighting hard. She is resilient and quietly tough and fighting too. But by this stage, we all know what the final result will be. It’s a matter of time, a matter of days. The nurses and the palliative care team, magnificent, tireless, dedicated, work to make her comfortable.
I look at the skin of her hand. Fine and soft and impossibly weathered like bark off a gum tree.
People often say that modern western society has a fundamental dislocation from death. We live in a high-tech world, stuck behind a 40 inch plasma screen, removed from the harsh reality when life either seeps away or is jerked out from under us in an instant.
But maybe that’s not right at all. To begin with, our central religion, Christianity, has the story of one man’s death right at its very centre. And great art likes a great death. It’s everywhere and it started well before cinema.
Shakespeare saves his best lines for Romeo, Juliet, Hamlet, Macbeth and Othello at the moment of their death. But who can top King Lear, worn out and long since driven mad, carrying the dead body of Cordelia? All he can say is “Howl, howl, howl, howl.”
In A Tale of Two Cities, Dickens sends Sydney Carton to the guillotine with the beautiful stoic line, “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”
Opera is full of over-the-top death scenes. When Mimi fades away, dead from consumption at the end of Puccini’s La Boheme, she sets the bar pretty high up.
Cinema just picked up on the same thread. From Orson Welles dramatically regretting innocence lost, dropping the snow dome and whispering ‘Rosebud’ as he breathes his last in Citizen Kane. To the operatic violence of Sonny Corleone being shot in The Godfather. To Schwarzenegger sacrificing himself in Terminator 2, on and on to every second cheesy B grade movie ever made.
But today I’m thinking of a famous death scene on TV - the climactic scene in the adaptation of Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited when Laurence Olivier gives the sign of the cross and takes the last rites from his priest. For the protagonist of the story, the atheist Charles Ryder, this was a sudden realisation that such a small sign had an undeniable and profound meaning – that there was a god and that we would at some stage all be reconciled to his divine grace.
As I hold my mother’s hand, I kind of half expect my own epiphany. And maybe it’s this: when my mother was a child, her father must have held this hand in his just as I’m doing now. Maybe crossing the street or on the first day of school.
And that man, my grandfather, would have held his father’s hand when he was a boy, well over a hundred years ago. Maybe in a paddock in rural New Zealand where he grew up. And so on, down through the years. The simple comforting touch of one hand in another. It’s not just about the bonds of one family. It binds us to every other person on the planet and everyone who has ever lived.
Later, I walk out and get into my car. The car radio is full of mundane news from Canberra. The traffic is a bitch. A man on the street is arguing into his mobile phone.
The comforting minutiae of day to day life.
I drive off, almost happy in spite of everything, pick up the kids from school and make sure I hold their hands in mine as we walk home.
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