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Saturday, March 17, 2012

A Death in the Family

On Sunday, March 11 at 12.15 am, after battling emphysema for several years, my beloved father-in-law, George passes away.

He is a man I truly loved and now, there seems to be a deep gap in my family: a gash.

Here is a picture of him with Ethel:

Al and Ethel are by George's bedside the morning he dies at the Wesley Hospital in Brisbane, a place they have been travelling to and from for the past three weeks. It has been exhausting for both of them.

Afterwards they will report how it all transpired. How George was taken off the machines that helped him breathe, how they watched, distressed, as his heart then his blood pressure, all his vital signs, dropped suddenly then flatlined, and how quickly it seemed his body went cold.

Al is able to tell me how George was intermittently conscious, how he was able to say his goodbyes.

Neither can relive the experience without crying. It's awful.

I'm still trying to shake a cough. Still a little susceptible to bugs, I couldn't visit George in hospital. I had to rely on a kind of semaphore to let him know I was thinking of him.

It is some compensation that Ethel managed to read him my last blog, "Blessings", while he was partly conscious. I could console myself that through these words, I was by his bedside in a way, but it would be a small consolation.

As our hopes have been raised then shattered through his battle, Al and I have cried then recovered. It's been an emotional roller coaster that has culminated in this terrible sense of loss.

George's illness and death hits me harder than I anticipate.

On the day George goes, I go for a 6 km walk and I cry from beginning to end. It's like a cartoon cry, like Olive Oil cries when Brutus is a brute: big chunky tears that spew from my eyes.

All day I think about loss and losing, the cruelty of life, the way things we love or need are taken from us by a thousand, slow cuts.

That evening Al and I hold each other and sob.

This is all new to me: this thing that is grieving. It is a deep and debilitating feeling, a shredding from the inside.

Still, life goes on so the week passes. All week, we work on the funeral service. Al and Ethel sift through hundreds of old photographs. Ethel navigates the sea of formalities that come on the heels of such an event. I rally myself somehow to source some music and craft some readings for the service.

On Monday Al and Ethel go to see the funeral director. We will cremate George at the nearby crematorium at Mount Cotton and the plan is to spread his ashes most likely in the Bay where, for many years, he loved fishing and boating. There will be no hanging around there afterwards we're told as it seems that the Grim Reaper has been really working his scythe lately. (Bastard!)

Nicky rings and explains how even Peter, her usually stoic and quiet husband has been crying. She asks about the funeral arrangements and makes me laugh when she says she's so bad at funerals, she's thinking of hiring herself out as a professional mourner.

On Tuesday, Al speaks to the celebrant.

Friends are invited to the funeral and those who offer to bring something for the wake are not rebuffed. We are expecting at least 60 people to come to our home afterwards for refreshments: I don't have the energy to prepare everything myself.

That evening we go to the see the Nigerian-English comedian, Stephen K Amos, at the Brisbane Powerhouse. (I booked the tickets ages ago). I'm really glad because we both have a good laugh. It's much needed. Afterwards, we have a drink on the deck and again are somewhat melancholy.

On Wednesday, Al prepares his presentation - a production worthy of Spielberg and extremely time consuming.

Nicky rings again and we chat about George, a man who lived with such absolute integrity. I find myself saying how for such a quiet and unassuming figure, he made such an impression on people. I ponder the fact that George was a man who really lived by a strong belief in doing right, in everything and for everyone. He is a man who never cheated, never lied, was incorruptible. He worked hard without complaining and paid his own way every day of his life. He genuinely had few if any regrets.

In the afternoon we have an inspection, and Ethel comes early to help clean up. It's such a lot of work this business of selling a house but keeping busy helps us all.

I go for a 5 kilometre run with Spunky lagging behind for a change and in the evening, we go to Trivia and win.

On Thursday, Al finishes the artwork for the Order of Service and we send it off to a local printery. (It helps that he's a graphic designer.) A little later, we go to view the body which is held at the funeral director's head office at Mount Gravatt.

We are met by the funeral director who looks like a stereotype of an undertaker although I notice his bright yellow tie is crooked. (He is tall and thin, dressed in a dark suit. Why don't undertakers dress like Al Grasby? Come on! Would it hurt to wear some lairy stripes from time to time?).

We are directed into a tiny chapel where Pachelbel's Canon in D is playing softly. George is laid out in a coffin at the end of the aisle. He's dressed in his blazer and a navy tie. As soon as I see him, I burst into tears. Al cries. Ethel cries but, at the same time, she says he looks really good, so much better than he did in hospital. I notice he has red lips. His skin looks smooth. He looks like he is fast asleep.

Ethel places George's cricket cap (he was once selected to play County Cricket - he was a great bowler), a box of chocolates (George had a notorious love for dark chocolate especially) and a picture of Peanut, the dog that seemed to have been superglued to his side as long as they've had her. If the Egyptians could prepare for the after life in this way, why shouldn't we?

I am still crying out in the car park, and sniff all the way home with Ethel. Ethel says she is glad she went to see George at rest. It makes her feel better.

After I get home, I have to go to the shops to pick up some ingredients for the goodies I am baking for the wake. At the shops, I digress from my mission and browse through a dress shop.

While I am there, I exchange pleasantries with a lovely lady with quite a youthful face. She boldly (baldly?) asks me if I have 'Shaved for a Cure' (an annual fundraising initiative of the Leukaemia Foundation) or if I have gone through chemotherapy.

From there a conversation develops when she tells me she is curious because her four year old has also been through chemo for something called 'neuroblastoma'. I ask her if that's leukaemia and, almost sunnily, she basically says the prognosis is usually much worse. Her son's name is Oscar and I can't help saying: "Poor little mite, I'll pray for him". I mean, what else can I say?

Then I discover she is buying a new dress for a funeral tomorrow too - except it's the funeral for a two year old little girl.

Now, there you go. That puts things in perspective doesn't it?

In the evening, I bake some muffins and a cake and later, I go to my meeting with Karen's campaign team.

That night, Al stays up until 3.30 am finishing his presentation.

We wake on Friday, both feeling unrefreshed. After a week of rain and gloom I am surprised to find it is a lovely day with a blue sky and a nice breeze. George has done well.

After tidying the house, we all get ready. Ethel comes over and runs Ben through the poem I have written for him. All four of us are to speak at the funeral but I'm not sure how the boys will go. Al has cheated as his presentation includes his spoken tribute. (He has to do it this way as he is really shy of presentations. If you add his emotional state to the equation, it is unlikely he would have spoken at all. Besids, he can share the presentation with his relatives in the UK so it's a bonus.)

At 12.15 pm we set off for the Great Southern Garden of Rememberance at Mount Cotton for the service.

Pretty much as soon as we get there, guests start to arrive. They include Rob, Al's cousin, who is based in Sydney and several friends from Brisbane who have taken the morning or day off work to come and show their respects.

There are friends I haven't seen in ages, months, years! It's terrible that it takes a death in the family to bring people together.

All my closest friends are here or represented. My sister Fiona brings her whole family (which is awesome!).

My sister Nicky is crying even before the service begins. So is my mum.

In memory of George's love for chocolates, a plate of Cadburys are offered on as silver platter and I have to stop my youngest nephew, Raphy, from gorging himself before everyone has had one.

Al consults with the celebrant, Robyn and another representative from Metropolitan Funerals.

There are kisses, hugs.

At 1.00 pm, right on the schedule, Amazing Grace as sung by Judy Collins begins. The A Capella strains fill the small chapel at the end of which George's coffin rests. It's decorated with an arrangement by Ness which includes the fragrant frangipani grown by George.

Al's presentation is great - photos, film. It was worth the effort. There is a moment of reflection as we listen to 'Blue Moon' which was George's favourite tune that, I daresay, took him back to the days when he loved dancing.

Then it's Harry's turn to speak. He is crying and has to gather himself. I'm so proud of him. I can tell you from experience, there is nothing harder to do: to rally yourself in the face of grief. Harry reads a poem and then a personal tribute he has written. It's very healthy I think: for a boy to be able to grieve like this.

It's Ben's turn to read the poem I wrote for him but the child is sobbing. He can't do it. So Robyn reads the poem instead. (Al was right: Ben really IS like him.)

Finally it's my turn. I am surprisingly collected and can only assume that I have wept myself pretty much dry over the past few days. I cry a little through the service but all in all, I am doing well.

The service is completed in half an hour. As Lionel Richie sings "Goodbye", the curtain finally shuts on George Hope. It is at this point that I bawl.

We shuffle out of the church, wiping our eyes.

In the carpark, the next group of mourners has arrived so there is little time for farewells to those who aren't staying for the wake afterwards.

A long row of cars heads back to our place. It's hard to know how many ended up coming back. All I know is every last bottle of alcohol was drunk and every morsel that was prepared was eaten, barring some cake.

My friends are a great support, serving food, filling up glasses, helping with washing up. Aren't they wonderful?

There is conversation, laughter as we gather on the back deck. Guests come and go.

As the light leaves the sky, the breeze gathers. It's pleasant and I think of George, up in the sky.

The last of my guests do not leave until 8.30 pm. By this time, Al has conked out, fully clothed on top of our bed.

Rob and I clean up.

I am asleep by 9.00 pm I think. George has had a great send-off.

It was exactly three weeks yesterday, since I got out of hospital. With everything that has happened, some friends have commented that I must have 'run over a Chinaman' but I am quick to dispel that idea.

Really, I don't see myself as any luckier or unluckier than anyone else. We all have our bad patches and this just happens to be Al's and mine.

Sure, there have been some moments recently when I have felt a tiny bit overwhelmed, even a little negative. But overall, I can't say I think I'm that badly off.

What is life without a few knocks, eh? It's what gives us context.

This week 22 children were killed in a bus accident in the Swiss Alps.

This week, a two year old toddler ran onto a busy motorway and was skittled by two cars.

I think about the suffering these incidents have left behind.

I think about Oscar battling neuroblastoma at just four years of age.

Here is one thing this week has emphasised. Dying is easy. It's living that isn't for sissies.

You have to dig deep if you want to hang on.

George hung on to his life as long as he could. That's all any of us can do.

1 comment:

  1. Bron, you are a wonder. I don't know George, but I get a real sense of what kind of man he was from your lovely words. Your ability to share your thoughts and feelings so frankly and honestly is a real gift. I feel for your family, dealing with the vacuum created by losing a man like George, but I love that you have such a positive and pragmatic viewpoint. Living sure aint for sissies, but you're not one, so you've nothing to worry about!

    Like your friend, I could be a professional mourner too - bawled my eyes out while reading this blog. Thanks Miss B - very cathartic!

    Love to you, Al, Ethel and your lovely boys.