We need to talk about life, death… oh, and mowing
There’s a little stand-off going on between the Husband and me. Except he may not realise it. He has a higher long-grass-on-the-lawn threshold than I do. Which means that I usually end up mowing the green stuff. Last time I hauled the mower out, he popped up with a cup of tea for me as I’d nearly finished. ‘That looks nice,’ he said. ‘You can do it next time,’ I said. Not altogether graciously. After all these years, you’d think we would have resolved the thorny issue of whose turn it is to mow the lawn. But we haven’t. It lurks in the air around us like a mysterious unmentionable secret.
The daughters don’t seem to have any problems with unmentionables. I confess I didn’t know that a ‘shart’ was a shit-fart. I’ll be careful not to let the word accidentally drop into conversation – I assume one doesn’t have much control over the deed. My young women continue to alternate between hugging and biting each other, and seem to find each other endlessly fascinating. With 14 years between them, lockdown is probably the most concentrated period of time they have spent together since one was a toddler and the other was in the thick of GCSEs and A levels. It’s a bit of a gift really.
Recently the daughters were discussing the pictures we have. The youngest asked if the Husband and I had allotted them to particular people in our Wills. Turns out she’s got her eye on a couple. We all found this hilariously funny (I think drink may have been involved). When the eldest daughter pointed out that first dibs on the spoils should be hers because the youngest could enjoy them after she was gone (they’re both ignoring the existence of the older brothers – if you’re not here and all that…), the youngest’s laughter began to turn to tears: ‘I’ve just realised,’ she sobbed. ‘I’ll probably be left all alone. You – you can’t die before me…’
Early on in lockdown, when the human tragedy of people not being able to be with their loved ones during the hardest and most emotional of times: serious illness, birth and death (except, possibly, Dominic Cummings), a little game circulated. The idea was to name the five people you’d invite to your funeral (the UK-government-imposed limit). Like ‘Snog, Marry, Avoid’, it’s quite compelling. Clearly, it’s in bad taste. However, it’s in keeping with the kind of dark humour that many of us embrace when events are frightening and uncertain and beyond our control. Let’s face it, a good dose of laughter is a bit of a tonic. Although, the coronavirus pandemic has perhaps emphasised that, as a society, we’re not really geared up to have the conversations around death and dying that might help with later heartache. Often, talking about dying is seen as tantamount to wishing someone gone, or it’s viewed as morbid rather than practical, or as taboo rather than an essential part of life. So we skirt around it and think about easier things: like, say, divvying up the goodies.
The Husband and I walk up the garden pretty much every morning and evening – and several times between. Yet still neither of us says ‘the lawn needs mowing’ because, to do so, would be to claim the doing of it. We both love how the garden looks when the lawn is mown – so how come we can’t agree how to deal with the mowing of it between us? Maybe it’s a conversation that might throw up perceived imbalances in other parts of our relationship? Whatever: the silence on the subject continues. Although, the Husband has just read this and said in a hurt tone: ‘I will do the lawn next time.’
The four of us have recently embarked on a ‘final meal’ game. So much food we love and one meal to craft from it all. I mean, how do you actually choose? The eldest daughter is a mince fan and started off claiming mince would be part of her last supper. However, she seems to have moved on. She’s now having a seafood platter (including oysters, lobster, crab and everything else crustaceous and from the deep), followed by roast goose and all the trimmings, then all the cheeses with truffle honey, rounded off with a chocolate fondant. The Husband is determined to slip a bacon sarnie in somewhere and foie gras – we suggest a starter platter with tidbits of all those things he can’t shoehorn in elsewhere. Me? I might go for calves liver, and either a game pie (suet crust, of course) or seafood linguine – to include crab and lobster and a sauce, created from the shells left from the daughter’s seafood platter, to make a super sea-tasting bisque sauce. Like the eldest, I’d have to have all the cheeses with pickled walnuts, Normandy salted and unsalted butter, a bread basket to include sourdough oh, and some of my homemade rhubarb chutney. And for pud, I’d go for lemon syllabub with fresh-baked shortbread biscuits. The youngest daughter is happy as long as her meal involves sushi, pizza and a hot pud – possibly a chocolate brownie.
All of this we can happily talk about and explore for hours – remembering favourite restaurants and the memorable meals we’ve enjoyed that have informed our palates. And, yes, you’re right: the final meal game is another ruse to distance and diminish the whole death thing.
When my Dad died, I was 26. My eldest daughter was just over a year old. Dad’s death felt brutal and totally unexpected to me – even though there had been warnings. I now realise, I was broken by his loss. I had not contemplated how it might feel not to have him around. Maybe, this was a gap in my emotional education. Maybe it’s just the way I responded to the death of someone I loved at that stage in my life. Probably some of both. Certainly, in those days, it felt like the death of a loved one was something you just had to grin and bear as life hurtled on around you and you fell apart.
Crank forward 26 years and, finally, I began to engage with death in a positive way. I don’t want to harp on about having had cancer (if you’re interested, you’ll find more about the cancer year here), but being diagnosed with bowel cancer led to a more pragmatic engagement with life and death. The Husband and I even wrote our Wills (the children will still have to scrap over the house contents!) which, until then, had felt too complicated to do. A year later, I helped nurse my dear Mum as she died.
Three things I learnt: Firstly, nursing a loved one through dying and into death is exhausting physically and emotionally, but (for me) a privilege and pleasure. The support of a decent end-of-life and palliative care team is invaluable and should be a given (but isn’t). Second, if the loved one has spent time preparing for their death by ‘putting their affairs in order’ and talking about their funeral etc with you, it’s a real gift from them to you. Finally, our own death preoccupies us a lot – we joke about it, worry about it, and push thoughts of it away. But, in reality, our death will impact on others more than it does on us. It’s just the way it is.
Back in the garden, the lawn has had a stay of execution. The Husband (and I) had all last week to mow the darn thing. It was sunny and dry and the perfect weather. This week has begun with a wet and wild northern hoolie. So, when the rain stops, which one of us will get the mower out of the shed and slog up and down, as per? Or will we discuss the elephant in the haystack?