The Positive Things 2021 has Already Taught Me About Death, and Life.
On the first day of March this year, I was sitting on a Eurostar train watching the cold but sunny French countryside speed past the window. The carriage, in these pandemic times, was virtually empty and the journey was proving to be calmer and more relaxed than usual. Which was a relief after the month that I’d just had.
I read my book. Had a nap. Listened to music. Texted my friends and family in Amsterdam that I was on the way home. I got a coffee from the buffet car and removed my mask to sip it. Then my phone buzzed with a message from my wife, “It doesn’t look like he has much more time.”
What more could you want?
Eighteen months earlier my best friend, Jim, had been diagnosed with terminal cancer. It had spread from his pancreas to his liver. We always hated terminology such as “he was fighting cancer,” because that felt like if only he could battle it a little harder he might survive, and that when he died it would be because he hadn’t done enough, he hadn’t fought hard enough. Jim didn’t want to be the victim. His cancer was as much part of life, his life, as anything else he had experienced. It sucked, but Jim was determined to not let it get in the way of living.
I’d dropped in to see Jim the day before leaving for the UK — I wasn’t sure how long my trip would last — and while obviously unwell he had been on good form. We’d drunk a few ciders, his drink of choice, and a glass of red wine, and chatted about everything from the books we were reading, to politics, mutual friends, and my upcoming trip back to the old country.
At one stage he’d looked around the apartment that he loved and said, “you know what, I’m lucky, I have everything here I love. I get to spend as much time with my wife as I like, I have my books, my music, my cats and my computer games. I’m cooking and eating great food every day. What more could someone want?”
He was determined to not let it get in the way of living
Three weeks later, the Eurostar arrived in Amsterdam’s Centraal Station on time, on that bright chilly afternoon. At home, my dog was pleased to see me, and I think my wife and son were too. We had a lot to catch up on. We looked at one another with exhausted eyes and went over what had been happening while I was away. Even though we had been in regular contact, it felt better to go over things in person. Which took a while.
The next morning while we were drinking coffee, I texted Jim’s wife, Laura, “How are you? How is Jim doing?” A few moments later came the reply, “Twenty minutes ago I was sitting with him while he slept, and he stopped breathing. It was very peaceful.”
It’s funny the conversations you find yourself having. There had been a moment in November when we sat together and said “if we get through Christmas and everyone is still alive, that will be a bonus.”
In December my wife and I had caught Covid. Fortunately, we managed to get through it in a couple of weeks with mild symptoms. Most importantly we isolated and didn’t infect anyone. This was especially important because as well as our friend Jim, my wife’s mother also had terminal cancer.
As it turned out, we were quarantined for the first few days of Christmas, but once free of symptoms we spent a lovely day with Jim and Laura. Although he was in some discomfort, we ate and drank and talked and laughed. During the holidays, thankfully, my wife also managed some trips to see her mum, who was pretty much homebound.
Things reverted to a sort of normality through January. Every Saturday afternoon I swapped houses with Laura for a few hours, and Jim and I talked at his kitchen table. My wife also visited her mum, who was discussing moving to a hospice. Some days she was fine, up and about around the house, but on others, she could hardly get out of bed. She was managing her pain, but only just.
Just a cold
Around then, on a regular Saturday morning phone call, my mum said “your dad isn’t well, he’s got some sort of cold I think. It can’t be Covid, as we never see anyone, and he’s always careful if he goes out anywhere.” My dad came on the line and was his usual cheerful self. We talked about football and he never mentioned being ill.
During the next couple of weeks the messages and calls came more frequently. My dad had had a nosebleed that wouldn’t stop. He was always exhausted and fell asleep in the armchair. He had a cough that wouldn’t go. One day he was making coffee, dropped his precious coffee maker, and almost broke down in tears. “Was your Covid like that?” asked my mum. It sort of was, I said.
They organised a home testing kit. “If it’s negative we’ll call the doctor about your dad, as there is something not right with him,” my mum said when they had done the tests. My dad came on the phone “I’m fine. It’s just a cold. That bloody test is unpleasant though.”
The next afternoon I was at home working, and a text from my mum came through “Your dad has just gone to the hospital.”
I waited for the punchline: “He’s had to take the Covid tests in himself because we don’t trust the post.” “He’s giving one of the neighbours a lift.” Something along those lines.
I texted back. “What? Really?”
“I’ll call you.”
Not a cold
If they had left phoning for the ambulance until the next day my dad would probably not have made it through the weekend. As it was he walked to the ambulance, but in a few hours was so sick that he often had no idea where he was or who was treating him. A couple of days later he was in a hospital bed and noticed he was still wearing the trousers and shoes that he’d worn to the ambulance. He asked one of the doctors what that was about, “we didn’t have time to take them off, as we’ve been working on you pretty much the whole time since you got here.”
Acute Leukaemia. The doctor in his local hospital emergency room had spotted it. Most likely from a blood test. Before they call an ambulance often with the excruciating abdominal pains my dad had, many people later diagnosed with leukaemia think they have a cold. Or flu. Or, these days, Covid. Often by the time they are in hospital and diagnosed, it can be too late. My dad was fortunate and was given a dose of chemo in his local hospital before being rushed, during the night, to a specialist cancer hospital in London where he stayed for almost the whole of February.
If everyone is still alive, that will be a bonus
Testing, testing, testing
Which was why I had travelled to London. The initial shock from my dad’s diagnosis was replaced with a need to do something. To be with my mum. But the borders were closed, weren’t they? My mother-in-law had gone into the hospice a week or so previously and was comfortable, but was nearing the end. My wife and I talked about all the potential likelihoods, and decided if it was possible, I should go back to the UK. Leaving my family and friends — particularly with what they were going through — in the Netherlands would be hard, but I had to go. I checked. There was a train to London.
I took a Covid test and waited for the result. I booked my trip on the Eurostar, collected together the paperwork, and organised an apartment in London for my week of isolation. A week after my dad had gone to hospital I said goodbye to my family. The next day, a huge snowstorm swept across the Netherlands and all trains were cancelled for a couple of days. I had left for London just in time.
I spent a week in that apartment in King Cross, watching the snow fall outside, and eating delivery food. Ten minutes’ walk away my dad was in his hospital room. Even without Covid he probably wouldn’t have had visitors, as with leukaemia there is a huge concern about infections. So I talked to him every day. He was responding well to treatment, and blood transfusions made him feel a lot better. He was on intravenous infusions of all kinds — “I think they find stuff at the back of the fridge that needs using up,” he said. “And put it in my arm.”
I was working at the table in the apartment when my wife called. Her mother had died peacefully with her dad at her side.
Without the pandemic, I would have been in the UK with my mum the day after my dad had been taken to hospital. I could have been back at home in Amsterdam with my wife when her mum died. Covid has been devastating for so many over the last year. My family have been really lucky that we haven’t been badly affected directly by it, but I saw a different angle to it when sitting in that apartment in London. If anything had happened to my dad I couldn’t be with him or my mum. My wife’s mother had died and I couldn’t be at home. The restrictions, the quarantining, the isolation and testing are necessary — the only way we can protect one another — but during some of those moments, it was tough.
My dad came home on my mum’s birthday. I must admit I shed a tear when he came through the door. My parents had hardly spent any time apart during their 50-odd years together. His trousers hung from his skinny waist, and he was pale beneath the beard that had grown as he wasn’t allowed to shave in case he cut himself. But he was doing ok, the old spark was still there in his eyes.
I stayed the weekend and cooked his favourite food. We had a couple of beers, watched football, and talked about what had happened and what was going to happen. The leukaemia would be his hobby now. Injections and tablets and hospital visits. But he was home, in his armchair, reading the paper and drinking tea.
It’s happening to you too
Just after he was diagnosed, Jim got married to Laura, the love of his life. He loved Christmases, and lived to celebrate two more. We had plenty of afternoons sitting in the sunshine with a cold drink and conversation. We had stupid text message chats. Later on, there were harder conversations when he’d had a fall and was frustrated and upset. Even though I wasn’t there for his final few weeks, it never felt like we were apart. I sent Jim photos of the fish and chips I was eating in the UK, and got the response, “You lucky bastard.”
Jim never shied away from his disease, from what was happening to him, but he wanted things to be as normal as possible. To live and enjoy life. When another friend asked him earnestly “what does it feel like to be dying?” Jim responded, “you tell me, you’re dying too.” We could dwell on death, on the unanswerable question. When and where? How and what? On the finality. Or we could order another drink, consider what we want for lunch, think about poetry, or music, or politics, or a friend’s ridiculous behaviour. Or watch a plane’s vapour trail bisect the sky and enjoy the moment. That was his legacy.
On a cold but sunny Saturday morning, we carried Jim’s coffin from his apartment to a boat on the nearby Amstel River. He loved that river, and he loved the city. The boat took us past so many memories. It was the perfect way to remember him, with a small group of friends who had been through everything before and during the cancer. We chatted and there were some tears. Finally, we said goodbye at a riverside crematorium. It was a great day. He would have loved it.
It’s a month since Jim died, and spring is finally arriving. There are bluer skies and blossom and buds, and even some green. Nature’s first green is indeed gold. I’ve been listening to music and walking by the river and talking to Laura about life and Jim.
I’m not sure I subscribe to the notion of ‘stages of grief.’ It’s not linear. Grief, for me at least, doesn’t feel like something that can be boxed into neat sections. Not a day goes by when I don’t think of something, or read something, and automatically reach for my phone, “I’ll tell Jim that…” Not sure how long it will take for the spaces between those moments to increase. I’m not sure if I actually want that to happen. I think someone once said that we stay alive while there are people to remember us. That they live on inside our memories, in our minds. Inside us.