There are many reasons for my decline in Samizdata productivity during the last year or two. The feeling that I had said a lot of what I had to say, and the feeling that, me having said it, the world seemed disinclined to listen very carefully to it are but two that spring to mind. And then there is the fact – no mere feeling – that professional journalists have become rather less snooty about blogging than they were (they could not have become any more snooty), and that some of them have now got quite good at it. Other bloggers who started out as amateurs have become professional journalists. All of the above makes difficulties for amateurs like me, sapping my will to blog, at any rate about ‘issues’.
But just lately, another very different distraction has entered my life. My mother is now a very old lady. And suddenly, it has become all too clear that she will, quite soon now, die. A few short months ago, Mum could still look after herself, with only occasional visits from my eldest brother and more recently, daily phone calls from my sister. Luckily for us all, brother Toby lives a short car ride from the family home that we all shared half a century ago and where Mum still lives. But just recently things took a turn for the worse, and now one of us must be present in the morning and in the evening (soon it will be round-the-clock), in person, for our duties to be performed properly. Also rather luckily, my sister is a retired doctor. She was what we call in Britain a GP, a general practitioner. Actually she is a retired GP who now lives on the west coast of Wales, but such are the wonders of email and cheap phone calls these days that her wisdom is a daily boon to the rest of us. She is now the captain of the ship, so to speak, even when not physically present.
Do not pity any of us. My mother has lead a full life, having been part of a generation and a country and a class which did great things, but had many contemporaries who were cut off in their prime by war, including in her case her elder brother John, killed in 1940, during a naval target practice. Pity her for that, but not me and my siblings for our mother’s impending death, aged 94 – more if she lives until May 2009, as well she might. Her death, when it arrives, will be an entirely different event to those horrors when someone is cut off in their prime as Uncle John was, or as a lady friend of mine with a daughter still at the toddling stage nearly was by untimely and sudden illness a few months back. I also still recall the clear-blue-sky shock when an aunt, who lived quite near to us, died in her mid-fifties after routine but bungled surgery. Untimely death is something else entirely to what my brothers, my sister and I are now experiencing, at just the one remove.
But timely death has a flavour and an atmosphere all its own, not the least of its features being that all concerned know that it is inevitably going to arrive soon. Being intimately involved with such a death, I am now starting to realise, means that you enter one of those large clubs of strangers that give melancholy shape, but also wisdom, to human society.
There was, for instance, that famous club consisting of all the men who had endured but survived life in the trenches of the First World War. Members of that melancholy club could apparently all recognise one another immediately, because of the particular haunted look that they all had.
By no means all but many of that unhappy fraternity were members of another and bigger club, the club of those who have killed.
And what of that particularly unfortunate segment of humanity who have killed another person or persons by mistake, through serious negligence, a moment of carelessness or just by being the instrument of a malign fate? What of the doctors who, it was rumoured at the time, killed that unfortunate aunt? What of the sailor or sailors who killed Uncle John? Pity them. I do. I recall a driving blunder I committed in my twenties which could all too easily have got me into this club, and I have surely committed many other forgotten follies that might similarly have killed someone (perhaps me), and thereby utterly changed (or ended) my life.
Happier, with regrettable exceptions, are those great majority clubs of Big Boys and Grown-Up Girls who have had sex with one another. And although not myself a father, I have recently got to know that in addition to the great and obvious Sisterhood of Mothers, there is the great Brotherhood of Fathers, whose constant cry is: “What they don’t ever tell you is …!”
Clearly I will not be a full member of the Terminal Carers Club until the terminus is arrived at. (One of the features of TCC membership, I am learning, is jokes of various sorts about death, often involving euphemisms a lot more inventive than that one.) And equally clearly, there is a big difference between being a lone carer, and being, as I am, part of a caring team and a junior one at that. But already I am sampling some of the privileges of membership, such as the recollections of other more senior members of the club. My eldest brother, for instance, spoke on Christmas day of the final, cancer-ravaged and acutely painful hours suffered by his much loved mother-in-law, and of the knowing looks exchanged with doctors as the final dose of morphine was duly delivered. That was not a story I had heard before.
In general, I suppose that most TCC members have given some thought to the euthanasia debate, even as they arrive at very different answers. None of my opinions on this debate look like changing very much now. I wish my mother could be allowed to make her exit at a time of her choosing, but fear that she (and many others with her sort of highly developed sense of duty) might feel obligated to die, in order not to be a nuisance. I understand why most politicians want to steer clear of legislating about this. The right to end life is hard to contrive without the right to go on living of others also being put under severe strain.
There are of course dozens of facts and feelings and discoveries associated with doing terminal care for the first time that I could write about. I will end this by mentioning one that has surprised me. One of the odder things that I have felt so far concerns what happens in a house which was until recently within the control of the soon-to-be-deceased. I have of course been in this house many times, and not just when I lived in it as a child. But now I and my siblings occupy it in a new and rather unsettling way. Personally I feel a little as the Visigoths may have felt when they occupied Rome, rootling around amongst the possessions of their former rulers, no longer needing permission and with no one to tell them to stop. I did a posting about a discovery I recently made, in what used to be my Dad’s room but which is now the room I am occupying. Mother, who until so very recently was in firm charge of her house, even as she depended more and more on others to help her look after it, now confines herself to the far half of the top landing. So, the rest of upstairs and all of downstairs is, well, ours.
Of course I knew that it would all become ours, sooner or later, come … terminus time. But what I didn’t see coming was that this process would begin while the journey was still in progress.