Last week I flew to Belfast to interview a dying man. A macabre beginning to this particular blogpost I know. I went with some trepidation.
The facts speak for themselves: At 23 years old he had been diagnosed with terminal brain cancer, he had received radiotherapy to give him three extra months of life and steroids to prevent him from having seizures. The steroids sucked the calcium from his spine causing three of his vertabrae to collapse. His bones were crumbling, as were his ambitions, hopes and dreams. Two years on he has outlived his diagnosis and wanted to tell his story to the magazine.
My imagination ran wild. After all, he is dying. Like the song Remember his name by Jurassic5, would I be able to sense the presence of death around him?
My daddy knew him, yo, he met him at a hotel
My homeboy Johnny, kicked it with him in a jail cell
A lot of people met him with a female
Doing real well, connected with the drug sales
The rich and the poor, for better or worse
The last and the first, walked the earth, but can’t avoid his turf
Would he be pale, thin, wan, weak, feeble, skeletal? Would he smell strange and rasp when he spoke? Would his skin be leathery and yellow? And the answer was no. Because like light and dark, death and life can’t co-exist in one person.
One of my teachers used to tease us when I was at school for saying we were half-dead after PE. ‘You can’t be half-dead’ he’d say. He was right. Our interviewee appeared healthy and full of life, cracking jokes, walking us round his house, posing repeatedly for photographs, being super-helpful and completely lovely.
There was an article a couple of weeks ago in the weekend magazine of the Guardian about superstitions. Part of the story was about the recoil people feel about places where murders have taken place. The writer suggested that people don’t like to be associated with anything that reminds them of something particularly evil. I wonder if there is a similar recoil from anything or anyone associated with death.
So even though this guy is dying, he’s not dead. Not yet. And it would have been wrong and strange to treat him as if he were the walking dead. To recoil or tiptoe around him.
This is the fourth hospice I have visited while working for Marie Curie Cancer Care and my overwhelming conclusion is that you might be very very ill, sick with something that will kill you. But you’re not dead until you’re dead, until you take your last breath, your heart stops, your brain shuts down and nothing more can be done. And so you shouldn’t be treated like you are dead before you die.
Everyone deserves to live the best life possible for as long as they’re living it. And we should try and live our lives like every breath counts. Because we’re all living on borrowed time and we’re all dying. But we’re not dead. Not yet. And while Death’s not around, there’s nothing for it except to live, and to live as much as we possible can.