I sat next to my younger sister with my hand on top of her head. The mid-morning sun was heating the hospital room in which she lay, breathing rattled and laboured, and surrounded by old flowers, empty bottles, and our quickly gathered together belongings. One of her eyes was closed, the other half open and covered by her long eyelashes.
We’d spent the last week in hospital on the ward for chronic or terminal breathing conditions. In the day it was awash with nurses, cleaners, visiting family, consultants, and at night, an amplification of our own mortality expressed through the desperate coughing of other patients, shrill alarms, and the tortuous signalling of machinery administering painkillers. We slept on the floor around my sisters’ bed through the never-ending hours; her loving husband, my elder sister, and my brother, acutely aware of the smallest subtleties that might indicate that it was her time.
She was unconscious mainly, but when awake and despite her obvious fear and panic at not being able to catch her breath, there were moments we enjoyed that swung between the hilarious and the humbling. I will never forget her words as she awoke to see us all stood around her, visibly upset, only for her to tell us in her rather curt but completely endearing fashion to, and I quote, to “stop being so morbid”
When she died, I wanted to think that she felt comforted by my hand resting on her temple. Like in someway she would know that it was fine for her to leave, that she would know we were all with her, somehow holding her as she went.
Nothing can prepare you for the experience of watching someone exit this world. It was traumatic, upsetting, emotionally uncontrollable, but now looking back it was, and I mean this with the best intentions, incredible on an unfathomable scale. As my other sister would say, it’s like ‘reverse birth’.
So, what is my point? Well, after death comes reflection on life. As I walked the streets of Glasgow, her home for many years, I couldn’t escape the thought that every single person I saw, every person I walked past, the bus driver, the woman pushing a pushchair, the silhouetted figure in the office block, the pilot in the sky flying the plane; all of these people, all of us, me, my family, my daughter, my daughters future children…all of us will experience this. We will all be touched by this at some point. It’s staggeringly and brutally inescapable.
And that scares me so much that I struggle to think about it. As much as I want to tell myself that I’m brave and that I would embrace its inevitability, the truth of the matter is that I can’t. But therein perhaps lies the problem. We avoid the reality of death at all costs. We can’t think about it, despite it being the one thing we’ve all got in common, the one thing that is universally true for all of us. Death is hidden and we don’t like to look for it.
But what if we did……?
One of my sister’s mantras was to ‘live fearlessly’. Maybe in order to live fearlessly you have to face the fact that one day you, and everyone around you, will be gone. To feel it daily, to wash our faces with it in the morning, to sit next to it in the evenings whilst we eat. How often do we wait for an epiphany, a painful event, some catastrophe that makes you talk about getting ‘real perspective’. I know I have….and even then, the feeling wanes and it’s difficult to stop it dwindling. But if we realise that these events, these epiphanies are happening with every single second that passes, then perhaps this would create urgency instead of complacency. The contradiction is that as I write this, I somehow feel liberated knowing that I’m hurtling without any control towards my own conclusion, and that actually, I shouldn’t worry about anything. But then gradually of course, the anxiety returns.
So how do you stop this from happening? Well, I’ve always thought that I need someone to deliver me a daily remainder that just says “you do know you’re going to die, don’t you? So, what are you doing?”. Of course, it’s easy to say that it’s important to just, you know…. YOLO …but it’s much more difficult to act on this with full force.
And this brings me to the epicentre of it all
I’m afraid of dying yes, but I’m more afraid of dying without having truly satisfied every single sense of myself including the physical, the emotional and the spiritual values that I hold within my core. This should subsequently lead to more frequent feelings of happiness, shouldn’t it? It’s also one of the reasons I’m so afraid to think about it, because actually, it means that I have to act, or be content with a future lacking fulfilment that can’t be undone.
Add into this mix the velocity of time and there really is a case for getting on with things. So, what I’m saying is…don’t worry, but don’t wait either. Ultimately, your conclusion is coming whether you like it or not. So be really satisfied with the bit in-between. I’m not going to try and tell you not to get caught up in trivialities. That would be unrealistic and hypocritical. But do remind yourself that it’s time wasted.
Please don’t wait.
Try not to worry about dying of course (I’ll try as well) but do worry about not-living. I’m not saying that everyone has to suddenly become superhuman, but remind yourself of what’s important to you, whether it’s your relationships, your children, your desire to become an expert in Origami or vegetable pickling….whatever you hold true in the centre of yourself, make it real and live it with every single ounce of strength you can muster.
And to Lindsay, it was an honour and privilege to be at your side. I’m sorry for not being the best brother but thank you for being in my life and for teaching me some real lessons.
I’m going to really really try.
Most importantly thank you for teaching me about being fearless.
No one will ever be as fearless as you.
From your big brother,