My father's good death

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Kalamata beach ocean viewPicture a little girl in long-ago Melbourne. I am seven, and staying in my grandmother's suburban house. On a stormy night. The rain is drumming on the iron roof, lightning flashes intermittently, and a tree branch taps against the veranda lace. I know that next door the elderly Salvationist is dying.

'He's very near the end,' the neighbours had declared that morning. Suddenly this is a terrifying thought. The darkness clings like a shroud; the tapping inexorably measures minutes and seconds. Panic sets in, and horror overwhelms. I wail and bawl, thrashing about in the double bed, burying my head in the huge kapocky pillow, smothering and sobbing by turns.

A crack of light shows under the door. It widens, and then Nana appears, clutching her dressing gown, her wispy pig-tail hanging down her back, her striped pyjama-legs flapping above her slippers. She is all concern. Whatever is it, dear? A bad dream?

And I gasp that I am worried about, sorry for, the old man next door.

She is sympathetic, but immediately assured and firm. But it's nothing, dear, really, to be afraid of. He's quite happy and contented. He knows is going to our Saviour, don't you see? He knows that this is not really an end, but the beginning of something better.

I eventually fall asleep, comforted but not necessarily convinced.

My only concern with the old man's death, I know now, and surely felt then, was that it forced on me an appalled recognition of an end. For the first time I felt the dreadful dislocation of being only a speck in the universe, felt the grim sadness of brevity, of human limitation.

*****

The day my father died I was on a Greek beach. Such June days are among my favourites, for the crowds of high summer have yet to arrive. The days are balmy, a prelude to the real and scorching heat; the sea seems like a bolt of blue silk, just lightly shirred. On that day a couple of my favourite people were at the beach, too. Friends from England.

It seems strange now, but I don't suppose it was, really. That morning one friend and I had been discussing death. We told each other once again that the weighty prospect does not scare us. Well, not much; after all, we've had a not bad innings, now being within cooee of the three-score-and-ten.

Then we laughed, and agreed that not being scared is fine in theory. The actual practice might be quite another matter.

The actual business of accomplishing death; ay, there's the rub. We swapped our stories: that of my great-grandfather who went to his room for his afternoon nap and never woke up. He was 98. Another story concerned a Greek peasant who rode his donkey home from his olive groves, dismounted, and simply dropped to the ground: he was at least 90.

The Greeks have the concept of enas kalos thanatos: a good death, a death in which one simply ceases without pain, as my ancestor and the Greek peasant had done. Such are our comforts and our armour against the horror stories of young death, of agonising illness, of dreadful accidents, and hideous quirks of fate.

My phone had been switched off, but as I walked away at the end of an almost perfect day, I turned the little time-bomb on again. And it exploded almost immediately: my brother's familiar voice, that equally familiar tyranny of distance, with the voice bearing the burden of time and inexorability as well, for with this news came the realisation that we, in post-maturity, are now orphans.

Our dad was a month short of his 90th birthday. Because of his dementia it was difficult to decide what period of his life he was inhabiting at any one moment; there was a lot of a kind of mental slithering between events and stages, so that he was both our dad, and not. But at least he always recognised us.

Dad's condition had started to deteriorate, but two days before he died, he spent a couple of happy hours with his only son: they were building a model ship together. 'See you at the weekend,' Stephen said. He didn't. On Friday night the carer heard Dad snoring gently. When she looked in on him an hour later, he had stopped breathing. A very gentle crossing of the bar: a good death.


Gillian BourasGillian Bouras is an Australian writer who has been based in Greece for 30 years. She has had nine books published. Her latest, Seeing and Believing, is appearing in instalments on her website.  

Topic tags: Gillian Bouras, death

 

 

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Existing comments

Indeed a gentle "crossing of the bar" in your father's case. If there is such a thing as a good article on death, then yours is quite a gem. Thank you for sharing your intimate thoughts on this subject Gillian.
John Whitehead | 21 September 2011


Thank you Gillian. I always enjoy reading your articles. They possess warmth, dignity and a zest for life. You skillfully meld the Greek and Australian cultures whilst simultaneously maintaining their identities. Your descriptive passages evoke memories and make me feel a part of your story.I taught many Greek teenagers in my early career and felt blessed by their company. Our experience of death may not always be our choice, but God's ways are far higher than ours.
Dennis Miles | 21 September 2011


Isn't this the way we all want to go...
I'm so glad he didn't suffer...
di
di | 11 November 2011


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