3 May 2014

Arrivals and departures

I claim to remember the day I was born, a possibility reinforced by the testimony of my mother. I have a blurry memory, like a slow video replay, which I discovered in my head at a young age, and after watching it play through many times I mentioned it to my mother, and her response surprised me.

This memory gives me the impression of lying on my back, and there is a high white panel rising up beside me, to the right, but then it seems to move aside in a gradual motion that I could now interpret as perhaps a door that was open being pushed closed. Then a high wide blue blurred shape appears beside me, looming over me, and at the top of the blue there is a fleshy blob framed in black, which approaches, moves down, very close to me, but never resolves itself into focus. And then another big blob moves in from the left, a bright pink one this time, with another roundish hazy blob on top, that moves in on me too, then rises up, and then the silent images stop. This scene replays within my mind any time I want it to. I have, of course, just watched it again right now. And when I first told my mother about it, as a young boy, I do remember that she seemed puzzled, and frowned, then said, 'Goodness, that sounds like the day you were born.'

I was born at home and was told that on my first day of life I was in a cot tucked in behind a white door to my right, and there was a big fat dark-haired midwife in blue and my mother was in a bright pink nightdress, resting on the bed over to the left of the cot. And on the day after my birth my cot was moved over to beside the window, with its green curtains - a quite different landscape altogether.

'As a baby, you were never right beside a door on your right ever again,' said Mum, 'and these colours and positions exactly match the few hours after you were born.' And so she implanted my suspicion that I may remember the day I was born. I don't know if it's true or not. I don't know if anything is true or not, but I have heard tales of other people who claim to remember their birth, or just after it, but then lots of other people are deluded nuts.

But the thought makes me remember another long gone day as I recall the sound of my son's heart, while still in the womb, on the evening of his birth when a medic laid a stethoscope cup on my lady's taut belly and the microphone threw out the sound of a racing new heartbeat within her, thundering like a galloping horse's hooves.

A new heart pumping so fast and so loud, as it echoed around the delivery room, and I realised completely and fully that there really was another person, my first-born child, about to emerge in that garishly lit small place.

And then the next shock was the total domination of the waves of biochemical insistence that overcame my lady's body, again and again – no going back – this child was coming out. And that our lives are at the complete mercy of chemical change became more vividly apparent to me than ever before. Nervousness. Excitement. Awestruck as the orifice stretched impossibly wide and I moved my gaze back towards my lady's straining face as the medic peered inwards. And she announced, 'This baby is covered in thick dark hair.'

What! Covered in thick dark hair? I panicked and the floor seemed to shift a little beneath my feet. After all the anxieties and all the reassurances, was I to be the father of some gross and hairy mutant?

'Oh yes,' she added, 'a fine mop of dark hair.'

Oh... Just on the head, did she mean? And I dared to look as the head popped out, and the neck, and back all pink and messy but all as it should be. Relief! Until a few minutes later with the child away from us and being weighed a nurse declared, 'Your son has very long fingers...'

What! Long fingers? Was this the sign of some clinical abnormality? But fortunately she saw my alarm and smiled and reassured me with, 'Nice and long... just nice and long... Nothing not normal...'

Relief! And gradually as he was returned to his mother (His mother! My goodness! Life had changed...), but as he was returned I dared to believe that everything was fine, and that I was not the father of a hair-covered mutant with abnormally long fingers, but was the father of a normal baby boy. A boy who opened one eye and tried to look at me, and to whom I said, 'Hello.' And still he tried to look at me. He opened the other eye, and in his gaze I sensed, or perhaps just imagined, confusion. And he had every reason to be confused.

And at that time of birth and life beginning, my mind was stirring with thoughts of my own life ending, for, gloomy man that I am, I recognised this as the beginning of my own end with the arrival of the next generation. But I managed to be happy. Warm and happy, even amid such a confused mixing of thoughts of life and birth and death.

And in less than two years another child arrived, and she popped out so fast and easily I almost missed it, and then she screamed in loud complaint – a trait that would continue. And the cycles of biology moved on as we continued with our circles round the sun, having now come 26 times round since I first heard that heartbeat pounding fast like a horse's hooves, and the sound of new life made me think of my death.

I next realised most profoundly that death was drawing closer to me than I had thought on the day I went to visit my brother as he was receiving his first dose of chemotherapy for leukaemia. It was many years after that long dead day of my first child's birth, when I was forty-eight. But it was nothing to do with the visited afflicted man himself that brought my steadily approaching date with mortality home to me. It was the view into his possible future, and mine, that I encountered as I visited him. He was looking fine, sitting up in bed with the drip attached, reading a newspaper, eating a small bar of chocolate, and telling me, 'This chemotherapy is a piece of cake so far, actually! No problem at all.' Of course that was before his hair fell out and the days of significant queasiness that followed, but still, it was okay for him, and successful, at the time, and not really too much of a problem at all.

But across the room there lay a very ill man, only a few years older but presumably receiving the latest of a longer series of treatments. He was pale, thin, barely conscious, but with a tortured face, and accompanied by an elderly woman, probably his mother, who sat holding his hand and staring at the wall across from the bed. And then on the way out towards the relief of the normal world again, I passed the rooms with open doors and the late-stage victims lying still and quiet, and all alone. And I could see how white and bald and pale they were. How thin - just skin and bones. And they were lying there, just occupying their stations on the route to death, just moving on towards their final exit from the door. A door that I so eagerly reached and tumbled through into the sunny normal day.

That did it for me. The thought just came that, Oh! I have reached this time of life. This time when, death can ever increasingly be expected to come knocking at any moment, and will progressively be less of a surprise to everyone, less of an unfortunate twist of fate, and more of an inevitable consequence of having survived, thus far, unscathed.

And this all makes me remember that the first person that I watched die was speaking to me cheerfully about one minute before it happened. Then, at the age of ninety-two, she said 'Oh!', looked shocked, got up from her seat and rushed to her room, to where I followed, realising that something serious was underway, and found her lying on her back with her arms deliberately folded neatly across her chest, seemingly aware of and ready for her end. And as I stood over her, concerned, she closed her eyes and died, in a moment. And I didn't understand what had happened. Nobody did.

The second person that I watched die was only fifty-six, and she looked intently into my eyes as she went, clearly knowing what was underway, and she was one moment so obviously there, and in the next moment, although still with open eyes directed at mine, was just as clearly gone. And I didn't understand what had happened. Nobody did.

The last person I watched die, or most recent, I should say, went with significant difficulty, but hopefully largely unaware, thanks to the drugs, although there was brief painful perception just at the end. And as I witnessed the last exhalation, I was again mystified by exactly what had happened. As was everyone else. Mystified, each time, because, since we don't understand what a living mind is, we cannot understand what has happened when it has gone. And even as death was being pronounced, there was undoubtedly much in there still living. Many little cells that were still, metabolically, 'alive'. But the person was gone. Whatever they were. Mysteriously. Goodbye.

And so I think again of watching new human life arrive in a messy noisy struggle, and then exchanging a gaze with bright new eyes, and looking into those windows of new conscious minds, and wondering how that happened, mysteriously. And all the time the wind blew, and clouds moved overhead, and grass grew upwards, as the clocks ticked on.

But, returning to death, I remember when I was sitting at the bedside of my dying father in the classic family group situation. An impersonal hospital ward with a quietly gasping and drugged-up old man surrounded by his two sons and three others of the family beneath bright lights and the dying man shrouded in white linen. And gasping again, and again, occasionally, as we watchers looked at each other, and then at the man, listening to every gasp and noting every short pause in light breathing that made us wonder, is this the moment that we have been told is no more than an hour or so away? And then a short but bulky young woman appeared at the open door and said, 'Oh, I need to ask what he will want for breakfast. What should I put down?' And she held a menu request form out towards me.

The silence among us was awkward so I quietly said, 'He won't be needing breakfast.'

'But I need to know what to put down for him.' she insisted, seemingly oblivious to the situation before her.

'Look,' I said, while pointing at the sign attached to the wall above my father's head, which read Nil by Mouth.

'Oh... But that's today,' she persisted, 'He may be different tomorrow.'

We all smiled at this, but awkwardly.

Ah... what to say? Was she new in the job? Did she not have the experience to realise what may be going on?

'He will be very different tomorrow,' I declared firmly but as quietly as I could, 'but trust me – he won't be needing any breakfast.'

And she looked at me, agitated and oblivious, before announcing, 'I'll come back and ask him later.'

And she turned and left. And we waited, and watched, and listened, until a nurse arrived and asked us to leave the room for 'just a short moment while I change something.'

And almost as soon as we had been shepherded by a second nurse into a nearby side room the first nurse arrived and said, 'come quickly, I think he may be going.'

And by the time we got back to the bedside he was gone, so I did not actually see him die. And very soon a relative of a deep religious persuasion announced that she wanted to open the window, 'to allow the soul to leave.'

How strange, I thought, how strange. Does she imagine the souls of those entombed by earthquakes are forever trapped? Or just those souls whose relatives forget to open windows? How very strange.

And soon we were back in the side room being offered tea while the body was dealt with, and the nurse returned and asked, 'Do you know if your father was wearing or had any jewellery attached that needs removed?'

And while thinking that surely any such thing would be easily spotted I heard my nervous foolish mouth declare, 'Well not unless we are about to discover about some secret intimate piercings he never mentioned to us.'

And the nurse just stared at me, while brows around me furrowed, and in my own defence I thought that, well... I thought it was funny, and Dad probably would have, although admittedly probably not best timed.

And soon we left, and I never saw my father again, but I do recall a rather odd phrase used by the undertaker when we went to make the arrangements. 'Now we would like to offer your father some treatment,' he said, then paused. And during the pause I puzzled over what form of 'treatment, could be offered to a man who was obviously dead.

'To preserve the body...' he eventually added.

Preserve? We are here to arrange for it to be burned, I pondered, before he continued with, 'To avoid it from making noises or releasing odours at the funeral.'

Ah... A lame excuse to charge us another few hundred quid, I expected, but of course we agreed.

And then at the funeral I do most vividly recall that several people came up to me and said, 'Oh... You look so like your Dad.'

And I thought, I hope not, for he is old, and dead.


Elephant's Child said...

I don't remember what I was doing the day before yesterday, much less what I was doing/seeing on that very first day.
My father, an intensely private man, died less than five minutes after he got the room to himself. Which was undoubtedly what he wanted.

Andrew MacLaren-Scott said...

Your father sounds rather like me in that regard. Peace and quiet and solitude generally preferred.

And I am struggling to remember anything about the day before yesterday myself, but nothing much of significance must have happened.