March 15th 1996 – December 10th 2007
This is a Poem of sorts that I wrote for my son a couple of years ago in which I try to explain my personal experience with death. It was posted to my Blog.
Ode to Death
by Vivien Ní Dhuinn
She moved with the grace, serenity and elegance of a Swan,
Our beautiful and gentle Indian Nurse, her speech soft and compassionate.
We worked together, removing wires, tubing and syringe drivers,
He had passed at 6.30, my son Conor, just 11 years of age,
With his systolic at 52 and his oxygen at 25, he had drawn his last breath,
The hiss of his oxygen mask sounded loud and pathetic,
Pointlessly being wasted on the dead, it was switched off and the room sank into a calm stillness
No beeping machines, no shrill sound of alarms dragging us from our petrified fractured sleep, alerting us to dangerously low stats
And my son, now free of restrictions and contraptions, lying there as if asleep, motionless
Death had eventually arrived and we had flung open the doors to greet him,
Embracing his long cool, yet comforting darkness, I wondered what had taken him so long,
Death had eventually taken pity on us all, and not before its time,
But my son had gone before his time, a life ahead to live, a childhood still not done, A future waiting to be revealed,
Yet, I had welcomed the appearance of Death, with his penetrating cold stare and chilling understanding,
Death had expert and ancient skills at his disposal,
He had come to do his job, and both nurses and doctors stood back to allow him work, watching once more in awe and reverence. They had watched Death work many times before,
They had learned that Death is not always there to punish or upset, but so many times to comfort, ease and soothe,
It was the disease, the cancer, that was guilty of inflicting pain and horror, not Death,
Death knew what must be done in order for release, a release from suffering and endless pain,
The only guaranteed antidote when drugs don’t work, won’t work, can’t work
During many nights on St John’s, I had fled through hospital corridors, seeking Death,
calling out for him to help me help my son, to end the screaming and the torture,
Oh yes, Death was busy elsewhere, many wards and theatres to visit, my piteous calls lost in the din of Parental tears and wails,
Should I have turned a corner, entered a room, found him,
I would have dragged him with me, begging and pleading my son’s case,
‘Now, please now, please. He can’t wait. Don’t leave him like this’
But Death was not yet ready for us; he had other places to be
Until that night, December 10th, 2007 when all hope had been lost, and our minds gone beyond the beyond,
He arrived and I recognised his presence immediately. Relieved and frightened, I felt both privileged and honoured to bear witness to his work,
It was where I had to be, the most natural place,
I had been there when my son was brought into the world and breathed life into his lungs; it was only fitting that I should be there at the end, when those very same lungs exhaled their last,
Too soon, too premature, we all cry, but there was no turning back from where we found ourselves in that little hospital room. Cancer had seen to that.
Outside our curtained little room, the ward was busy and noisy. Doctors and nurses passed up and down, parents carrying steroid-starving children towards the kitchen in search of more food to appease their cravings, catering and cleaning staff moving fast, their workload heavy and demanding, chemo-sickened nauseated teenagers being pushed in wheelchairs like old men and women, their bodies collapsed and exhausted.
It was all going on, on the other side of the door, yet inside was peaceful if not surreal,
Our Indian nurse helped me bathe my son, her long slim arms tenderly lifting his legs and arms as she slowly drew the warm cloth over his cooling skin,
I cleaned his face ever so carefully, not wanting to cause him any more pain or discomfort, soothingly wiped his closed eyes, his beautiful blue eyes that had suddenly gone blind in less than two days from his tumour. The shock of that still nauseating to the pit of my stomach,
We worked through this beautiful ritual, speaking softly to my dead son, blessing him and holding him,
I held his feet and palms against an ink-pad our Indian Nurse produced, and pressed gently,
There, an imprint left behind, the lines and shapes forever recorded, his footprint, his handprint,
We cut a lock of hair from his precious head and stored it safely, his bed was tidied and smoothed down,
She asked if I would like to take a photograph? I declined.
We were then left alone. I tried to let it sink in but couldn’t. However, I let out a deep sigh and thought to myself, ‘there it is done, it is over, thank god he has been let go’. I held his hand and talked to him. I asked him if he was still in the room or had he already gone? I asked him what it felt like to be well again, to be able to get out of that bed and be free once more?
I listened for answers but none came,
Too soon perhaps, he had other things to attend to,
but I just wanted reassurance that he was okay, that someone had come for him, that he wasn’t on his own or frightened, It was out of my hands now, there was nothing else I could do.
The brave and distraught began to arrive to pay their respects,
Ashen faced and unsure of what to say, they cautiously entered the room, their eyes drawn immediately to the boy they had all known and loved so well,
They knew this time was coming but were unable to prepare themselves for the reality of staring down at a dead child in his bed, this same child being their brother, grandchild, cousin, nephew, friend, pupil,
He was gone, no more. Only memories and photographs would survive. Frozen in time at 11 and ¾ years of age in December 2007. He would be left behind in that year, in that decade. He could no longer look forward, for it had all stopped with that last breath, with that last heartbeat. This particular life-time for my son was over,
Living the horror every day strengthens you, prepares you, but those on the outside, they struggle, their minds exploding in horrific despair at the mere thought of it happening to them or one of theirs,
I too had thought the same before cancer had arrived into our lives. It had sought out the youngest of my children to launch its attack. What was I to have done? Run away and leave him to fight it all on his own?
One does what one has to do, and one can do remarkable things, things one never thought possible,
Courage, strength and bravery sat in every room on St John’s Ward that night and every other night, yet none so brave as the parents of similarly suffering children who dared to enter our little room just to show they cared, to offer support and to kiss my son on his forehead or hold his hand,
God, what it must have taken for them to stand and sit there looking at my dead child thinking that it might be their turn tomorrow, the next day, or week,
They shed not a tear but just held me; they spoke no words of comfort, for they of all people knew there was nothing that could be said. I shall never forget them and their solidarity.
Slowly, they fled the room one by one, family and friends, home to a sleepless and tearful night,
Alone once more, the room fell into its deathly silence,
I felt tired and exhausted. I needed some air and some space. Leaving the room I headed down to the front of the hospital, down the long corridor, the statue of Our Lady, her eyes cast down as I turned the bend,
Drawing close to the front door, I could feel the chill of the cold December air and pulled my heavy cardigan tightly around me,
The security guard nodded kindly at me as I passed through the automatic doors and out into the dark still night,
I was drawn to the tall, looming Christmas Tree that stood imposingly at the entrance, twinkling its soft blue lights, a painful reminder of all that I had lost,
I sat for a while, the cold seeping through my bones, wondering about what had just happened, staring at the Christmas tree and thinking of all the children who would be counting down the days until Santa Claus came,
My son had been one of them until now. Beside his deathbed lay his sealed letter to Santa that I had helped him compile. It was full of the usual stuff a nearly 12-year-old boy would want; Xbox, new phone, games etc. His list was as usual, endless. What was to be done with his list?
The cold and tiredness eventually drove me back inside, the same security guard smiling good night as I passed,
Could he not see from my face, from my being, that my son had just died? I passed several others on my journey back to St John’s, they too smiling and passing friendly comments. They didn’t know what I knew. If they did, they wouldn’t have been smiling and laughing at me, or worse still, wishing me a Happy Christmas,
With leaden legs, filled with heavy wet sand I let myself back into our little room and took up position by my son’s side once more,
In the time I had been outside, he had already changed. His hand was much cooler now and his appearance had altered slightly.
I suddenly knew that Death was still with us, had not completely finished the process,
Death was unravelling my precious son, bit by bit, every minute passing, taking him further and further away from the physical. There were certain things that still had to be done and all I could do was standby and watch as my son, the boy I knew for so long, begin to dissipate and disappear before my eyes.
They came for him in the small hours of the morning. It had been at my request. I had wanted to spare the other parents the torture of watching his gurney being wheeled by their rooms, their children understanding and knowing only too well what was before them,
I too had watched similar scenes pass my window during my time there. Young children, teenagers; alive one day, dead the next,
We all had stood as if to form a silent guard of honour as the gurneys were wheeled by, parents sobbing and holding each other up, overwhelmed by their circumstances.
Painfully aware of the fragility of our own situations, mine was more definite, terminal from diagnosis, yet I had watched other children with treatable cancers suddenly take a turn for the worse,
All knew that Cancer had its own schedule and cared little for who it took or the suffering it caused.
And so we began our journey to the Morgue, the gurney moving slowly, the porter quiet and reverent, respectful,
Out under the bright lights of the long corridor, I could see my son’s face more clearly now and it frightened me,
Death was doing his job for certain. Gone was the colour from his face, his lips now pale and drained,
I forced myself to look, for this was my son and we had gone through so much together, I would not fail him now. I would walk with him, right to the very end, into that Morgue where I would have to hand him over to others,
Down past St. Roch’s, the long corridor stretched out ahead of us,
Over each metal strip on the floor, the gurney rattled and my son would move slightly, but I could see that his movements where stiff and hard,
Death was here alright and there was no pretending anymore. He no longer looked like he was just asleep. The change had startled me, leaving me unstable and weak,
The Porter stopped to unlock the door that led down another corridor,
The sign above the door, ‘The Mortuary’ hit home and I felt so afraid of what I might see. I had passed this door so many times, my eyes each time trying to avoid the signage, yet now I was here,
They were unlocking the door just for us and there was no turning back.
The chill became intense as we entered the actual mortuary. I instinctively wanted to put extra blankets over my son’s lightly covered vulnerable body, a mother’s protective nature still active, even after death,
We found ourselves in a little chapel-like room with rows of pews and seats. At the top of the room I noticed a baby’s wicker bassinette sitting on a stand and drew back in horror,
A mortuary official appeared just in time and reassured me that it was empty at present but that they were awaiting the arrival of a baby from one of the wards,
I nodded through chattering teeth, unsure whether it was the cold or shock that was causing my body to shiver and shake so much,
My son’s gurney was wheeled and put in place beside the baby’s bassinette and we were told they would leave us to have some time with him. We were assured we could stay as long as we liked,
Sitting next to my son, I stared at his cold, lifeless body, unsure of as to what to do next,
The cold seeped through my bones and my body convulsed in shaking
No tears fell, my body numb and in shock,
I let my eyes wander around the room and thought of all those children who had gone before my son and those that would go after him,
This room stank of death and the horrendous grief of those left behind,
This was Death’s domain and I could feel his long cool stare as he watched us from behind,
Death reached out with his thin bony fingers and touched me in an attempt to comfort,
Chills ran up and down my spine and I turned to face him,
Written on his face was the loneliness of his job and the acceptance of always being misunderstood or blamed,
Death had not killed my son, it was not his fault. It was the cancer. He had only wanted to end his suffering,
Death told me to go home for this room was for the dead and not for the living,
Assuring me that he would look after my son, he knew exactly what needed to be done; he had much experience and practice behind him.
Death stood beside me as I kissed my son’s forehead and bade him goodnight. Walking away slowly I reached the door and turned around,
Death was still staring at me with his knowing ghostly look’
Before I left, I wanted Death to know that I would see him again sometime, and now that I knew him, would not worry so much when he came to visit upon me in the future. Death I do not fear, it is pain and suffering that is worse than any death.
And so, we left Death to carry out his work. It was time for us to go home and back to the living once more. My work was done and I would have to find a way to carry on.
Godspeed my precious son, Godspeed. xxx