Wednesday, 12 March 2008

Memento mori

Recently I've been thinking about death. The other evening I visited an elderly man on my way home. He is about the same age as my father and has lived in the same terraced house since he got married, though his wife died a decade ago. We had to go upstairs in order that I could examine him properly so I got a good look at the house. It was reasonably tidy but I could see that it hadn't received “a woman's touch” for a long time. Clothes were stacked in piles but not put away in cupboards, frequently used things were scattered around the living room, the house was not properly aired. My patient was matter-of-fact, charming, and grateful for my visit. He also spoke highly of his neighbour who calls frequently and gives a lot of help.

When young people develop a fatal illness we think how brave they are at facing death, but people in their seventies and above are in a similar position. I was impressed by my patient's quiet uncomplaining fortitude, sitting alone every day in his run-down house with his television and his memories. After arranging his admission to hospital I let myself out, walking through the small damp garden in the darkness back to my car. As I drove home to my bright warm house, my wife and my supper, I thought of Larkin's Aubade:
Slowly light strengthens, and the room takes shape.
It stands plain as a wardrobe, what we know,
Have always known, know that we can't escape
Yet can't accept. One side will have to go.
Meanwhile telephones crouch, getting ready to ring
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented world begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.
Yet there can be humour, too. I saw a patient in his eighties this morning who told me that he was just about to visit a friend who is 101 today. She is still mentally very bright, inquisitive and has retained her formidable memory. I know this lady myself, for she had the misfortune to try to teach me the violin forty years ago. My patient told me that he last visited her a few months ago, when her parting words were “do come back to see me soon, before I go...”


Anonymous said...

Very moving...

Each time I visit my elderly father in the nursing home, I always part with the words "see you soon, Dad!" and he always replies with a smile "if I'm still here".

He loves life but he's also 'ready to go'... with the knowledge that at aged 88, he's had a good innings.

cogidubnus said...

What a wonderful posting...thank you

Dr Andrew Brown said...

Thank you very much.

Death isn't easy to write about, but I will keep trying.