My dad died last week. You could say it was sort of expected. He was in a nursing home, confined to his bed by a series of strokes, the last of which had left him unable to speak; but that doesn’t, of course, make it any less shocking. A lot of what’s happened since I might have predicted – the sadness, the guilt, the support of my friends. But there’s also been a lot I wasn’t prepared for.
Some of these unexpected elements have been positive. I knew a lot of deaths occur after Christmas, as if people hold on and then let go. But I hadn’t realised the extent to which someone who is terminally ill can choose the moment of their passing. A friend told me about a book they’d read by a nurse who worked in a hospice. Story after story underlined her belief that people in my dad’s situation have control over when they die. Like the woman whose family kept a constant vigil by her bed – husband, children, sisters, cousins – but who was unable to pass away until the nurse ushered them outside for a few minutes. She just didn’t want to do it in front of them. Or the taciturn man without a family, whom the nurse witnessed clinging on to life for months. He suddenly found the energy to pour out his life story and, reassured by her that he’d led a full and valuable life, he finally passed away.
Much the same thing happened with my dad. He’d had a similar infection twice before. Both times we’d rushed him to hospital and I’d watched him struggle to stay alive when the doctors had more or less given up hope. This time we’d managed to keep him away from the clanking white noise of the hospital. He was in the calm of his own room, surrounded by the nurses he’d grown so fond of, and I think he just decided it was time to go. The nurse who was with him noticed his breathing was growing more difficult and told him she was going to ring my mum. He nodded. She came back and told him my mum was on her way. He nodded again and, reassured that everything was in hand, instantly breathed his last breath.
Of course, I might just be giving events this encouraging spin to make me feel better, though it would be typical of my dad, a black-belt in meticulous admin, to make sure that even in the moment of his death everything ran smoothly. As I rushed to the nursing home having heard the news, I could also see his death as something of a release. I could tell myself that even though we tend to talk about death and life as being discrete opposites, totally separate – you’re either alive or you’re dead – with my dad the two states were more of a continuum: when it came to fill in the date of his demise I wouldn’t want to put that Tuesday in November. He’d actually died over a period of years as the strokes invaded, then conquered, his life. So, date of death: April 2002-November 2006.
Such musings were knocked right out of me the moment I confronted my dad’s body. There was death in clear opposition to life, with my dad held in a freeze-frame so precise it was brutal. He looked at peace with his eyes shut, but his mouth was open and a sliver of saliva had been caught hanging from the roof of his mouth as if frozen in the very micromoment of death. To see time held with such a merciless eye for detail almost knocked me physically backwards.
In the West, most of us rarely come into contact with dead bodies. We hardly see them or even talk about them. Of course, this is partially due to our good fortune in living somewhere relatively free from disease and war and extreme poverty. But there’s something slightly unnatural about the way death is hastily bundled away from us, like some potential troublemaker at a presidential walkabout. It means that when we finally confront it face-to-face, it’s that much more shocking.
I realise that up to this point my concept of the stillness of death was based on characters dying in movies or on stage. But they’re just people trying not to move. Here was a true, absolute stillness and it looked completely different. I kept staring at my dad, convinced that at any moment he’d give a big snore and move again – it simply wasn’t possible for someone to hold their breath that long.
A strange schoolboy curiosity took over. I had to fight the urge to shake him, pinch his cheek; tickle him, even. Maybe, on some level I was just struggling to accept his death. But I suspect there was a part of me that wasn’t really thinking about him and was simply fascinated by death itself. Is that why I felt angry I wasn’t there at the actual moment of his passing? Was it less about me wanting to be there for him and more a morbid desire to know what happens and how I’d cope? If so, that’s not very good. Yes, I won’t win any Nobel prizes for this next observation, but it’s a complicated mix of emotions you feel at a death.
And I won’t win anything for saying that what hits you when you see a dead body is the absence of the person who used to inhabit it. I felt I was looking at a disappointing Madame Tussauds approximation of my dad: smaller, paler. It was as if he’d left his body lying there like a teenager leaves his clothes lying around the room.
Of course, it’s this that makes a belief in the soul so tempting. It seems embarrassingly obvious, it’s basic GCSE physics: something can’t become nothing. There was something (my dad), now there’s nothing, so the soul must exist; maybe heaven, too. But I wasn’t quite ready to find my answer to the Big Question. There was so much to process as I looked at my dad, I felt like my head had been suddenly upgraded from dial-up to broadband. Thoughts about death, faith, my mum, my father himself, but above all a terrible panic that I might lose someone else: a child, my partner. People flashed in front of my eyes who’d lost someone “before their time”: my friend whose girlfriend died when they weren’t quite 30, that couple down the road whose toddler had been run over, the parents of all the Hollys and Jessicas. How did they manage to carry on?
But they did. Just like my mum was doing as she tried to remove that line of saliva from my father’s mouth with a tissue but was unable to do so because death had already hardened it – one last devoted gesture from this woman who’d looked after her husband for 45 years and who wasn’t going to let death stop her making him presentable.
I spent two minutes alone with him. They were, without doubt, the most peaceful of my existence, as if the rest-in-peace of death can, like smoke, be passively inhaled. But life hurtled on outside the door. The doctor had to be fetched and a certificate issued, which had then to be taken to the local registrar so as to get the body collected and arrange the funeral for (in our case, being Jewish) the very next day. Plus, there were all the people who had to be told.
Initially I wasn’t very good at this. I just came out and said: “My dad died today” (as I sort of did at the start of this article). To add a preamble felt insincere, but I could see it was too brutal a statement to leave on its own. So I quickly learnt to soften it – I added an “unfortunately” before I told people, warned them I had bad news, replaced “died” with “passed away”, told them how it had been a release. It felt like it was my role to make any conversation as easy as possible for the person I was telling.
Was I right to feel this? Shouldn’t I have been so absorbed by my grief that I didn’t care how I told people? They say there’s no correct way to react to a death, but at times you worry you’re doing it wrong. Was I upset enough? Was I wrong to be amused by the bloke at the Registry for Births, Deaths and Marriages who had to switch instantly from happy face to sad depending on who was next in the queue? Or my Turkish friend with the slightly dodgy English whose condolence card asked me to make sure I was being “neutered” rather than “nurtured”? When is it right to let humour back into your life? When is it right to write an article for The Independent? How do we know? Who do we ask?
Eventually, I stopped worrying. It seems that after the death of someone close, you become a sort of surrogate for them. You start to do not what you want, but “what he would have wanted”. I’m not really religious but my dad was, so we followed Jewish tradition and sat shivah for seven days. This involves staying at home, saying prayers every evening, not shaving or washing or changing your clothes apart from the minimum requirements of hygiene (the idea is you don’t have to worry how you look; thus, all the mirrors in the house are covered).
There’s something very clever about the Jewish way of mourning. Its initial function is to force you to confront the death straight away, not just by having the funeral the next day. Traditionally, bodies are buried without a coffin, wrapped only in a prayer shawl, so you can see the outline of your loved one. That tends not to happen in this country, but mourners are still expected to shovel clumps of earth onto the coffin once it’s in the ground. This isn’t just a Jewish tradition, but it always seems to be done with vigour at Jewish funerals – large clumps, often several of them – as if to really ram home that the death has occurred. And it works. It was the brutal thud of the clay that I shovelled on to the thin wood of my dad’s coffin that shouted at me that his life was over and, whether I liked it or not, the generations were clicking one notch on.
After the funeral, Judaism eases you carefully back into society. By the end of the seven days of shivah you’re ready, if not desperate, to get back into the world. This is followed by another 23 days during which certain restrictions still apply, then almost a year when the restrictions are relaxed even further.
I’m not saying I’ve observed all the rules, but as I said the mourner’s prayer for the first time, I suddenly felt a confidence seeping through me. I was doing the right thing. I was fulfilling the laws not so much of Judaism, but of “what he would have wanted”. It didn’t matter that I agonised about whether I was the best son in the world or the best griever – he’d made me what I am and, without getting too saccharine and Disney about it, I knew at that point he’d always be part of me.
That was the closest I’ve come so far to a Big Spiritual Moment. That, and hearing his voice on the outgoing message of my mum’s (and his) answering machine. During his illness, especially once he’d lost his voice, I found it very hard to listen to his message in its bold, confident, bass tones (my dad was a singer, which made fate’s confiscation of his voice all the more cruel). I even asked my mum if she’d thought of recording a new message, but she was understandably up in arms at the idea. She told me about a friend of hers who’d kept her late husband’s voice on her machine for the last 10 years, even though she’d since remarried. I couldn’t understand it at the time – what must the new husband think? – but the first time I rang her after my dad’s death and heard his voice, so strong and clear, I felt that that’s how he must sound again, now that his struggle was over. Finally, the answer machine message made sense.
I still haven’t really cried, though I imagine some schmaltzy advert will set me off in six months’ time, probably one of those terrible BT ones with the bloke from My Family. I’m making jokes about what’s been happening – inevitable with a taboo as strong as death – though I’ve tried to resist it in this article. (It’s a tonal thing. Imagine the comment about people dying after Christmas if I’d linked their deaths to another year of disappointing presents.) I hope my dad doesn’t mind too much. As a man who liked laughing as much as he did, I suspect it’s what he would have wanted.
This article appeared in The Independent in December 2006