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                                                                             DEATH IN THE FAMILY

 

I’ve lost many good friends and relatives over the years – Cancer – (The Big C), most commonly Lung Cancer, and Coronary Thrombosis, a Stroke, and in some cases, through suicide.

 

What is scary is that none of the deaths, no matter how close, reduced me to tears. I feel guilty about that.

 

In childhood I saw a few pets die, my first budgie, a few cats, a couple of dogs… my pet rabbit was torn apart violently by two wild dogs that smashed his garden hutch and tore him to pieces in the night. I saw the bloody remains the next morning.

 

I knew that people would leave me the same way The first to go was an uncle, called John, who died of Asbestosis in 1975, or asbestos cancer as they now call it. His wife, Madeline, who had been given six months to live when she was 55, lived to be 94, and all of her immediate family died before she finally gave up on life. 

 

I remember being shocked to see Auntie Madeline keeping John’s ashes in an urn. I thought such things only happened on TV. There he was preserved on the mantelpiece for all to see.

 

The first of about six suicides occurred soon after that. A man known to us only as a customer of my Dad’s (My father was then an insurance salesman) threw himself from the roof of his flats, about 90 feet above the ground. He survived, and recovered in a hospital bed. Realizing that he was still alive, he immediately hurled himself through the hospital window before the eyes of the shocked nurses, and they found his body in the courtyard four floors below.  My Dad took great care of the man’s wife and children in the months to follow, so the family became good friends of ours for many years.

 

In 1977, my Gran, my Dad’s Mum, died slowly of the Big C, wasting away to a yellow gaunt skeleton, I visited her daily, though I wasn’t by her side when she died. My Dad was.

 

We had a wake for my Gran, and drank ourselves stupid for two days. I remember going through fourteen pints, from two Party Seven cans, and then going on a mixture of shorts, - I have never been so ill on alcohol since that time.

  

On June 6th 1979, One month to the day after his Mum died so did my Dad. Though her death had been slow in coming and fully expected from medical diagnosis, his was right out of the blue. He’d gone to a café in the city centre for breakfast while doing some routine errands. Diners there were shocked when he suddenly stood up clutching his chest and fell to the floor stone dead before their eyes.  The police at home visited my Mum with the awful news, and she called the school to have me fetched home. I wasn’t told what was wrong, but I knew it had to be serious. My Mum was too distraught to talk. The police filled me in on events. My own life fell apart.  My Dad died a month before my sister’s wedding. It fell to me to give the bride away.  He died as I was going to my school exams, many of which I failed or got bad grades for. No one seemed to allow for the obvious distress I was facing.  Te funeral was awful – My Mum insisted on giving my Dad a burial, not a cremation, though many felt my dad would have preferred the latter.  I remember everyone telling me that I was the man of the house now, and that I had responsibilities. Within two years I abandoned responsibilities too join a religious cult. BRAINWASHED - A CULT SURVIVOR'S TALE

 

I escaped from the cosy blinkered cult world in 1985 to face more death. My Mum’s Father got throat cancer, and dragged in and out of a coma for weeks. I had adored his story telling ability, and now I watched helplessly as he was reduced to a vegetative state. He didn’t die of the cancer, but from a breathing problem caused by a faulty valve on an air-supply filter. My Mum declined to sue the hospital for negligence.

 

His wife, my Mum’s Mother died a few years later, of thyroid cancer. The Big C took her too.

 

After I left college in 1990, I learned that a fellow student I had admired had killed herself, by throwing herself in a near perfect swallow dive from a motorway flyover to the road below.

 

About the same time another man, one I never met, killed him by casually stepping off the roof of a twelve-storey tower block my Father’s dad lived in.  I visited the spot the man had jumped from and realized that I had no comprehension of what could push someone to such desperation as to take their own life like that. No matter how bad life gets, suicide has never struck me as an option.

 

Another friend planned her suicide meticulously – writing letters to her family and booking a hotel in the Southern counties before taking her overdose. I saw her in the days before she put her plans into operation. She was as cool as a cucumber about what she was already preparing to do.

 

The Big C returned for my Grand-father, the heaviest smoker in the family, but now in his eighties – in hospital he developed gangrene in his legs but he refused to have them amputated – ‘They’ll bury me in one box – not in pieces’ he insisted – his death was slow and horrible, but on his own terms.

 

The next casualty for the Reaper was my cousin, Susan, a few years older than myself who slipped in the snow and ice breaking an ankle – a laughable if painful misfortune we expected – but a blood clot formed from it and hit her brain soon afterwards.

 

My Dad’s younger brother, Jim was the recipient of a stroke - he had smashed his liver in with heavy drinking all his life – but his heart gave out first, after leaving him disabled and in nursing homes for over a year.

 

My Mum’s Brother, Alan was the next to go, with a heart attack brought on by TB, a disease that was until recently considered to be eradicated.

 

Soon after Alan died, my Mum’s Sister, Pauline, and her husband, John was diagnosed with cancer – Pauline fought hers off with chemotherapy and drugs. For a time, she seemed to be winning. John was less lucky. His lung cancer took him quickly. Pauline’s long fight ended a year later, when pelvic cancer bled her to death in her hospital bed. .

 

A few months later, news reports announced even in the newspapers that a cousin, who I won’t name, had taken her own life, and that of her baby son, with carbon monoxide poisoning in her own house.

 

A dear friend of my Mother’s was next – lung cancer again, a few weeks ago.  Though saddened, I also feel strangely dispassionate. Death has become a routine. I wonder who will be claimed next. Each death tells me that one day it will be my turn too – I wonder how I will go. Not being a smoker (ever) I think the Big C will skip over me, leaving me for a high blood pressure heart attack, if I don’t get run over I am terrible for walking into oncoming traffic). I know I could perish at any time – I just plan to enjoy life as much as possible before it happens – despite the losses caused by deaths, I have done that, though part of me feels selfish for doing so. I do hope that when I go, no matter how, others get on with life rather than being too upset by my departure. A Humanist funeral and modest cremation service would be nice. 

 

My step-father died early in 2009, of a heart attack. He was 79 He had several near misses in the three years leading to the final devastating attack. He died while visiting my Mum who was in hospital having tests for her high blood pressure.  He popped out to get some air when her tests took longer than expected and collapsed in the hospital car park. A passing nurse and a paramedic fought valiantly to revive him, but they had no chance. When the hospital staff and police checked his ID, they found my contact details and phoned me. My Mum was left wondering why he hadn't returned for her for over an hour as i rushed to Rochdale, where the police broke the news to me. The similarities to my father's death told e what had happened even before they told me, and even before my Mum was told he awful news, I was asked to identify the body. 

 

As an atheistic Humanist, I see no reason to think of the deceased friends and family I miss so much as being in Heaven, or burning in Hell or Limbo - they are simply gone - and one day, so will we all - on that cheery note, fare well. Enjoy life while you can. Whether we like it or not, we are each, individually and endangered species - the last of our kind. . 

 

Arthur Chappell

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