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Inevitabilities

When I was a toddler I was terrified of St Gangolf’s, the second oldest church in Trier. Its altar is a masterpiece of late Gothic art. As an adult I’ve grown to appreciate the quality of the artwork, including that of the near-life-size crucifix. As a toddler, I wasn’t quite so keen. For years the mere mention of the name “Gangolf” could provoke a cold chill in the spine. The emaciated, tortured sculpture of Christ towering over me with a bleeding wound on its side was more than I could manage. Yet, I generally got over my fear of death at a relatively early age.

The female-type parent read medicine. She was, is, quite good at it. At least no one in her operating theatre has died… Because of this, her being a young mother, I’d sit with her at a microscope looking at slides of blood and human organs at an age when the sight of a scraped knee could make many shudder. It taught me to have a healthy respect for life – and death.

When classmates died, sometimes accidentally, sometimes through foul play, I accepted it as a part of life. All things are transient and we can’t control the ratio of good and bad things that happen to us and those around us. Seeing the occasional mangled corpse, the pool of blood that was all that remained of a woman who thought it would be a brilliant idea to overtake another car in thick fog only to find herself on the losing end of a war of physics with a lorry was nothing to make me take a day off work or lessons. Even watching a man die a few yards in front of me, while certainly unpleasant, didn’t prevent my going to fitness centre for a workout after giving the police my testimony and contact details.

Seeing the older generations pass, on the other hand, drives a sense of urgency.  My paternal grandfather died in 2006 – a few days short of his 70th birthday. He had been in declining health for years so his relatively early demise came as no surprise. My maternal grandfather died after a massive stroke last year. He was just over a month short of his 87th birthday. The viewing was uncomfortable and I was only able to stay for a few seconds. It’s strange, really. I’ve always been that way. I can’t eat meat if I saw the animal alive. I was not perturbed by putrefying animals on road sides, but the sight of a dead pet… It’s a comfortable hypocrisy.

My paternal grandmother died this week. Her health hasn’t been what it used to be and she’s lived in an old age home for a few years. She took a sudden turn last month before rallying. Then, suddenly, she was gone. I now have one remaining grandparent. It’s been difficult. Since my grandfather died, my maternal grandmother has aged rapidly physically and mentally. Early this year she was diagnosed with dementia. She was determined to fight it, determined to prove the doctors wrong. But she hasn’t. Her personality is changing quickly, becoming increasingly unpredictable. I’ve been in Germany largely because she can no longer be alone and getting the wheels of Hunnish bureaucracy to turn is fiendishly difficult. Some days, she’s kinder than she ever was. On other days, she’s mad. On her good days, you can see flashes of brilliance. She was a seamstress for decades – one of the last who could design, cut and finish clothing by sight and feel alone. Last autumn, she took a few cast-away garments and made a remarkably stylish coat with the material. By hand.

On her bad days, she screams accusations. She can almost become threatening. It’s hard to predict what will happen, what to expect. But it isn’t easy to live with. It’s even harder when I see the woman who cradled me as a child, who held me in my choleric infancy – who minded me when my mother was at uni or work – lose control over her functions, mentally and physically – at times very publicly. This is more than I can handle. After months and months of sheer ineptness, pure incompetence, the wheels of the bureaux have finally started to turn. She’ll be provided with regular assistance, at home. With luck, she will receive two visits daily and have transport to shops and doctor appointments arranged for her at no additional expense. But it isn’t any easier to see her decline so rapidly.

Remember me as you pass by,

As you are now, so once was I,

As I am now, so you must be,

Prepare for death and follow me.

 

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Categories: General
  1. August 5, 2017 at 8:06 am

    CT, we learn to live with the idea of death as we get older. When we are young, it is a remote, unreal phenomenon that we see as an old people’s ‘problem’. Gradually we understand its more immediate significance – until eventually it is in our daily thoughts, prompted by the illness or demise of our family and friends. Your grandmother’s illness must be heartbreaking for you; I experienced the same sense of helplessness and sadness when both my parents suffered and died in the mid-´80s.

  2. August 5, 2017 at 9:41 am

    I sat with my sister for two while she died of cancer. She was very heavily sedated with morphine and we didn’t know how concious she was. Just before dawn on the first day I thought ‘Oh God why do you let this happen….’ or something like that. I’m not religious. I looked outside, saw the pre dawn light and heard seagulls…….nothing else just nature and found that oddly comforting.

  3. August 5, 2017 at 12:56 pm

    Janus: Youth is reckless. We’re protected by comfortable certainties. Well, more often than not, anyway. As we grow older, as we see just how vulnerable we are, just how little we can control the inevitabilities of life. Perhaps this is why we grow more conservative with age. It’s the resignation that things will happen that we can’t control so why not try to protect what we can, why not try to hold onto those certainties we have. My deceased grandparents died suddenly. Even if it wasn’t a complete surprise, they were there until they weren’t. Seeing my remaining grandmother gradually disappearing has taken a lot out of me. In a way, the fact that I see her every day makes it harder for me to notice the changes. I adjust to them and take them into account bit by bit. It’s when others, those who don’t see her as often, come that they point out the marked decline. I’m glad to have been able to, for better or worse, spend as much time with her over the past year as I have. I spent so much of my life flitting about that we were strangers to each other. Yet, it’s also exhausting. It’s coming to the point that I’m overwhelmed and there is little I can do. She will get the help she needs now and I know that I’ve done the best I can.

    Jazz: How true.

  4. O Zangado
    August 5, 2017 at 5:36 pm

    Best wishes, Christopher. I hadn’t mentioned it before, but my visit to Blighty next week is for Dad’s 90th birthday. He is in rude health, still driving legally, does the DT crossword in a rare idle moment and, by his own admission, is spending the inheritance at a rate of knots (and long may it be so), but he’s the last of his generation, a true paterfamilias. My Mum died suddenly in 2015 having been married to him for 62 years. His own mother, my Grandma, had six children, which included two sets of twins. Dad lost his twin sister a couple of years ago and his elder sister a year before that. The elder sister was a twin too, one of whom died at 16 days, yet the other died three days short of her 100th birthday. They are now buried together. One elder brother was killed in the Western Desert when one of Rommel’s mob lobbed a shell into his tank and the other (who also served with the Desert Rats) died a decade ago. Every single one of his in-laws has also passed away.

    One of my favourites of his comments was when William Hague became the Tory leader in 1997. “I can’t believe it”, I lamented, “I’m older than the leader of the Conservative Party”. “That’s nothing”, he replied, “My son is older than the leader of the Conservative Party”.

    Such is life.

    OZ

  5. August 5, 2017 at 6:43 pm

    Oz: My grandparents built their house. The neighbourhood was entirely new and is very much a product of Germany’s postwar economic miracle. Of those who built the houses on this street, my grandmother is now the last one left. Before he crossed over to his heavenly abode, my grandfather sometimes noted that there were relatively few men his age who found their names in the obituaries. So many died during the war and so many women never married. In the last few years, he observed that he was well older than most who were in the process of popping their clogs. Until his middle age, he often called groups of OAPs something that, at least in sentiment, roughly translates as “Crusty Aches and Pains Brigades”. After becoming an OAP himself, he suddenly wouldn’t let that term be used within earshot.

    I used to tease my mother about the things people wore in the 1970s-1980s, the time she was growing up and became a young woman/mother. Lately, I’ve been watching some music videos from the 1990s-2000s, when I was growing up and coming of age, and frequently find myself cringing. I still remember being young and carefree, but most of my old colleagues have been married off, become parents and in some instances divorced.

  6. Boadicea
    August 6, 2017 at 3:52 pm

    I’ve just returned from the UK. My original intention in going had been to celebrate my mother’s 96th birthday. A week before I was due to leave – she suffered a stroke – and lingered for nigh on two weeks. She died 6 days short of her birthday.

    Last October, my daughter and I returned to the UK for the second time that year because she had been taken into hospital and the medics had determined that she could no longer live on her own. She wanted to die in her own home, but that was no longer possible.

    She was suffering from dementia – and not silently. Indeed the care home we found for her, said that she was one of the most difficult people they had ever had to deal with – she would stand in the corridor screaming like a spoilt 2-year old that she wanted attention “NOW” … On the other hand, the carers queued up to listen to her stories about her life. The doctor who assessed her phoned me to ask just how many of those stories were accurate – and I had to tell her that each and every one of them was quite true.

    She led her life to the full, achieved everything she set out to do and a lot more besides. She was expelled from school on her fourteenth birthday and told she would amount to nothing. Everything she was told she could not do – she did. I had no need of Germaine Greer to tell me I was as good as any man – I had three generations of women behind me who knew that!

    I cannot grieve for her. To be honest, and she taught me always to be truthful, she wasn’t the easiest of people… indeed there were many years when we did not speak. By the time she died, she had fallen out with most of her family – including my brother who she never saw for well over fifty years.

    I was with her at the end, as I had promised I would be and despite the fact that she fought death every inch of the way – she had been ready to go for some time.

    Her mind was shutting down, she could not hear, she could not see, she could only eat mush and, finally, she lost her most prized ability – that of speech. I would do her a disfavour if I wanted her to stay on this earth in a condition that I, myself, hope never to suffer.

  7. August 6, 2017 at 6:22 pm

    Boa, in that case may I wish you peace – at last.

  8. Boadicea
    August 6, 2017 at 7:33 pm

    Thank you Janus.

  9. August 7, 2017 at 6:42 am

    Hi Boadiciea, I am always interested to hear the lives of older people and frequently encourage the younger generation to engage with the old and vice versa. To most older people their own histoires may seem banal, but when juxtaposed with those of younger generations, they can be fascinating. I am sure others here would be interested to read about some of your mother’s stories. Where she came from, what she achieved, her ups and downs. These things put our own lives into perspective. Perhaps you could share some her adventures with us.

  10. cogitationator
    August 7, 2017 at 11:04 pm

    In contemplatio mortis…

    People, especially Americans, seem these days unable to deal with the concept of death. Rather than look it in the eye and see it as it is, a natural part of life, they become fearful and fretful to what I consider an unreasonable degree. It is, of course, perfectly normal to mourn the loss of those close to us or, when much remains unsaid, undone, etc., to regret the imminence of one’s own departure but, even for those who have not experienced the mass deaths of war in one way or another, it appears that death cannot be faced with equanimity. I must leave to those wiser than I the question of why this has come to be so. Perhaps it has something to do with decline of religious belief in a joyful afterlife.

    CT: As might be expected, I couldn’t resist looking at pictures of the Church of St. Gandulphus the Cuckold. (Lesson learned: beware of priests.) Assuming that postwar reconstruction was reasonably close to the original design, I find it more modern in appearance, brighter and generally friendlier looking than many, if not most, such buildings. Certainly not a structure designed to hold the congregation in awe of the Supreme Being and His duly deputized representatives. Nor so clearly designed to impress as the church to which I went as a child, which even so went out of its way to be “child friendly,” issuing lanterns after the early Christmas Eve service for a procession through the graveyard to the tomb of Clement Clarke Moore, with a reading of his poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas.”

    My parents and their children (my brother and I) were lucky in that both of the old folks died quickly and unexpectedly and were both as sharp as the proverbial tack right up until the end. Sitting with my late stepson, who remained mentally sharp but who was in considerable pain even though he resisted admitting it, during his last months was infinitely more difficult. How much worse it must be where dementia is involved, seeing a person to whom you were close becoming someone you no longer recognize.

    To Boadicea, CT and all others who have lost loved ones under such difficult circumstances, I extend my deepest sympathy. If I may offer a suggestion, it’s that, with the burden of care and concern lifted, you should now indulge in some quality “you” time.

  11. sheona
    August 8, 2017 at 11:52 am

    My condolences on your loss, Boadicea, even if it was in a sense a blessed release.

  12. Boadicea
    August 8, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    Cog – my mother never reached the stage where she forgot who she was, nor did she ever forgot who we were. What she did lose were the social restraints that had, for most of her life, stopped her showing some aspects of her personality that she only ‘allowed’ some very few of us to see… I think a few of her friends were very surprised, while most, but not all, of her family were not.

    And yes, Sheona, it was ‘in a sense’ a release,

  13. August 8, 2017 at 4:17 pm

    Boadicea: Please accept my condolences. You were fortunate to have a mother who led a life truly well lived.

    Cog: In the past people were more comfortable with death. It occurred so frequently that people were exposed to it from an early age. Some say that people started to grow less comfortable with it after the First World War and the Spanish Influenza Pandemic. There was simply too much death, more than could be stomached. At least since the Second World War death has become such an industry that people are no longer exposed to or involved with the process of death, dying and burial. Funerals have become so sterile that there is almost no family involvement in the process. It’s surprising how many people are taught that there is no other way to prepare for a burial than the most expensive way. It’s not true, of course, but people hear little else. Things aren’t much better in Germany or the UK than they are in the US. If anything, they’re even worse in Germany where even the cremation process is regulated to the gramme of ashes! Even those who take care of the most vulnerable elderly are rarely Germans. Rather, they are almost to the woman, Poles. “Such dier eine Polin” — find yourself a Polish woman — has become a by-word for the physically frail.

    Germany has extremely strict “Denkmalschutz” — historical preservation — laws. St Gangolf was rebuilt as close as possible to its pre-war state with as many original materials as possible. It was a market church, not a main cathedral so its intended purpose was somewhat different. The Romanesque Trierer Dom — main cathedral — and Gothic Liebfrauenkirche — the “Notre Dame” of Trier –are vastly more inspiring. Neither, however, has such a large and lifelike Crucifix to scare sense into 3-4-year-old children.

  14. Boadicea
    August 10, 2017 at 1:10 pm

    Christopher: your comment made me chuckle!

    I’ve given a lot of thought to this… children of parents who lived their lives to the full may often feel that they lost out to their parents’ desire to do their ‘own thing’ – while those of parents who dedicated their lives to their children may well feel that their parents were over-involved in their lives and end up feeling guilty!

    Poor parents – they simply cannot win!

    Since I hope my children will forgive me for being who I was and who I am – I have to accept that my parents did what they did, as they thought fit, and with the resources they had at the time … I was rarely happy with their choices! At least, at the end, my father was speaking to me after 30 years of silence, and my mother (finally) accepted the choices I made – despite them not being those that she would have taken, given the advantages that she made sure that I had.

    Having taken most of my family back well into the early 1700s, and, in one branch, back to the late 1400s. I tend to think that earlier generations knew and accepted death a great deal better than we do today. Infant mortality was extremely high – and most children experienced the death of siblings, not-so-old relatives and neighbours from an early age.

    The words “in the midst of life we are in death” were a truism for my mother’s generation, as they had been for centuries, if not for my generation. When my mother was young, it was customary to ask the local undertakers to put a baby in the coffin of a recently deceased person because the family could not afford to pay for the child’s burial. They were never refused… nor did the relatives of those who were paying for the funeral ever decline.

    Yes, society is now protected from the reality of death – the advances in medical knowledge have seen to this. But I would argue that those of us who have gone beyond the biblical statement of ‘three score and ten’ do know what is in store. The young know that there is little to fear from the Grim Reaper.

    My mother organised and paid for her funeral some time before her death. It was left to me to interpret and fulfil her wishes. It wasn’t cheap – but it was not expensive either and, most certainly, it was certainly not ‘sterile’… I made sure that she would have loved every minute of it.

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