We follow the signs, white on blue autumn clouds shifting. Slings and arrows show one way to exit. We follow the twisted pitted road down the line. We avoid potholes, broken tarmac, pines felled by storms littering the verge. We drive slowly around those tight bends. The road south unspools an old home movie. In Golspie the doors burst open, the sun breaks gilding the moss, the dry stone walls, the sycamores. The paramedic with kind eyes wishes you breath. Magic moss crumbles gold dust between your fingers until only the scent of earth remains.
the fall begins
a slow decline
ages in one
murder by fire water
can’t remember faces no more
of old age
can’t piss in a pot no more
or a swift
choosing an open window
a dislocation of ghost limbs
shape shifting hair aflame
till you hit
ground zero running
the red light
There’s a pandemic but no one is dying. No, they are all ‘sadly dying’. The adverb ‘sadly’ is now inevitably coupled to any mention of death. Journalists, broadcasters, politicians and other famous figures have all succumbed to this trend – feigning sympathy for the deaths of unknown people as a way of distancing themselves and their audience from the grim realities of dying. It’s particularly hypocritical when UK politicians use this phrase as their lackadaisical response to the Pandemic has caused many vulnerable people to die unnecessarily. People in care homes, health workers, essential workers, disabled people and the elderly have been thrown under the bus due to lack of Personal Protective Equipment and not enough testing for the virus.
The public are struggling, not so much with social distancing and isolation but with this close up encounter with their own mortality. Uncomfortable, terrifying, unfamiliar. Death is one of the remaining great taboos in Western societies. Many people go their whole lives without witnessing a death. Death is hidden away in hospices, hospitals, care homes and the third world. Even in the midst of this pandemic I’ve been surprised how many intelligent people are convinced they could not possible die of Covid 19. They think they’re too smart, too fit, too wealthy, too young or immune because they had a bit of a cough over Christmas and eat a lot of yoghurt.
’Dead is dead’ is a phrase my father used. It sounded harsh to me as a teenager but my father knew there was little room for sentiment when it comes to dying. We are all born to die. Sooner or later, one way or another. We are flesh and blood. My father lived through Holodomor in the USSR, World War 2 and life as a refugee. He certainly knew about death.
We do not help ourselves by hiding away from the truth. The way we use language is important.
Here are some alternative phrases and colloquialisms for dying:-
pop your clogs; kick the bucket; drop dead; snuff out; expire; breathe your last; depart this life; dead as a door nail; launched into eternity; gone to Davy Jones’s locker (drowning); pushing up the daisies; one’s race being run; shuffle of this mortal coil; peg out; hop the twig; slip one’s cable; close one’s eyes; give up the ghost; pay the debt to nature; cross the Stygian ferry; to go aloft; last gasp; the swan-song…
Here’s the marvellous Leonard Cohen’s take on the inevitable with his powerful song Who by Fire:-
I’ve won this battle but I can’t win the war.
Like a vampire back from the dead,
I regenerate in fancy dress disguise.
This moustache doesn’t suit me at all
and spaghetti legs flip/flopping
every which way – most unnerving.
My spine is trying to reach the floor,
running low on back bone and needing a nap.
My arms whirl in decreasing circles,
muscles have given up the ghost. Where is the sultry woman in the gold silk robe?
My heart still beats in dedicated syncopation,
an expectation of holy communion, the red
wine that I must sip not spill. My heart
forgives any casual blasphemy,
rebellion of malformation.
And I, the unbeliever, swear to uphold the creed.
On my left shoulder, smooth as ocean
a lonesome fish swims against the tide
and dreams of new beginnings. Where is the chamomile child spinning down the hill?
She forgets the scars and stripes, puckering
my wrist, tribal markings. A rite of passage
or a reclamation of self? Mutinous but lightening.
My translucent skin, wafer thin, is a manuscript
revealing the indigo text of an alien race. Where is the pearly newborn hidden in her crib?
So near and yet so far. I must cut deep
to draw blood. Beneath the thumb is the scared
and sacred spot where the pulse beats.
Alone in my hospital room at night I watch tiny particles of dust and fluff swirl beneath the reading lamp. They say dust comprises of dead skin cells, we sweep them away when we clean, removing all trace of our former selves. Our cells are constantly reproducing and every seven years our bodies regenerate anew. Your body is repeatedly recycling itself but not your mind. Your mind is an entirely different story. Our brains become less active, neural pathways die, our memories fade and disappear, we lose skills and alertness, sometimes we even lose our sense of self.
But back in my mean small room, Ward 3A. I’ve been here fourteen weeks now. A reluctant patient, more like prisoner. So every night I sit, sleepless and thoughtless watching the dust and wondering if these are particles of the old me, a shedding of my past life. Occasionally moths enter through the open window and dance wildly in the pool of light, their fragile wings clinking against the electric bulb. Blinded and bewildered they circle. In the morning I find their wispy bodies spent and shrivelled on my sheets.
Anyone here had a go at themselves
for a laugh? Anyone opened their wrists
with a blade in the bath? Those in the dark
at the back, listen hard. Those at the front
in the know, those of us who have, hands up,
let’s show that inch of lacerated skin
between the forearm and the fist. Let’s tell it
like it is: strong drink, a crimson tidemark
round the tub, a yard of lint, white towels
washed a dozen times, still pink. Tough luck.
A passion then for watches, bangles, cuffs.
A likely story: you were lashed by brambles
picking berries from the woods. Come clean, come good,
repeat with me the punch line ‘Just like blood’
when those at the back rush forward to say
how a little love goes a long long long way.
A hard hitting poem by English poet, Simon Armitage