‘The democracy of death’

For this past week I have sat for many hours at the bedside of a dying man. I have sat and watched and waited for this man, my husband’s brother, to take his final breath.

Between us we kept a constant vigil. We sat. We watched over and waited for this man who had never married, who had no children of his own and who apart from his sisters and brothers had few other meaningful associations in the world.

I was not there when he died but his sisters and one brother stayed with him till the end, determined that he should not die alone.

This man had lived the life of an alcoholic, in and out of detoxification centres, constantly on the road, and often in trouble with the law.

I sat at one remove but I was not alone in this. Even his two sisters, who maintained the most consistent and loving presence in his dying days, seemed at one remove, not so far removed as one of his older brothers, who had refused to have anything to do with the dying man on the grounds it was his own fault for the life he had led.

But the other siblings, all four of them, felt differently. They would honour this brother and the parents who bore him however far he had run off course.

A sanitised representation of death from 1959.

It was my own brother who asked me to take the photos. ‘I’m curious he had said. I don’t know what dying looks like.’ Typical of my brother, I thought, this curiosity about the way things work. But I share this curiosity, which I fear I can only feed if I stand at one remove.

When I told my husband on the telephone about my brother’s request, my husband also asked me to take photos. He was overseas himself and could not be there in those last few days.

He, too, wanted to see something of his brother’s dying, but his desire comes of fraternal feelings, not mere curiosity. When my husband sees the photos I expect he will cry.

My sister in law, the oldest sister, sat the longest. She came each morning early with her knitting and stayed late. She knitted a child’s cardigan in bright colours, while her younger sister quilted, stitching together a grey coloured backing onto vivid patchwork.

The oldest brother visited from time to time. This brother was perhaps closest to the dying man, but this brother found it hard to sit and watch as his youngest brother disappeared.

I came to take my husband’s place. I came to help his sisters say goodbye to his youngest brother.

And I told myself it was okay to take these photos. It was okay to provide a record of these last few days for those who could not be there.

My sister in law suggested we take photos of the quilt that lay atop the dying man. Uncanny, this quilt. My sister in law had made a batch of quilts several years ago, which she had given away to charity. One or two of these quilts had found their way into the hospice in which her brother was now dying.

And here in room nine on the bed which they had allocated to him, my sister in law came again across the quilt she had made twelve years earlier. It pleased her to think that her quilt, in soft blues and greys, flecked with red, might now warm her brother as he lay dying.

My sister in law sat knitting alongside her dying brother’s bedside and I clicked my camera trying to capture the essence of this man through his face. My sister in law reminded me of the women who sat beside the guillotine during the French Revolution.

She laughed when I told her this. It made sense to her, watching and waiting for her brother to die, not complicit and yet feeling guilty somehow that her little brother should leave this world before her.

Only one of her other brothers did not visit. He lives interstate, but physical distance was not the issue. He wanted little to do with his dying brother because he was angry.
‘It’s his own fault,’ he said. ‘Look at the way he lived.’

The photos show the image of a man whose face is taut, the cheek bones etched onto skin, a grimace, a look of sadness. The nurses kept him free of pain. The medication was potent. My brother in law was almost oblivious to our presence. His eyes closed, his mouth slack. But I sensed he knew we were there.

I have the photos transferred to my computer screen, images of a dying man and I think of the controversy over Annie Leibovitz’s decision to photograph her partner, Susan Sondheim in her dying days. In the Guardian, Emma Brockes writes about the controversy surrounding Leibovitz’s decision to publish pictures not only of Sondheim but also of her dying father, to demonstrate ‘the democracy of death’.

How could she do this? people asked. What gave her the right? How could she make public to the world these images of a once proud and beautiful woman, broken down into a body that represented only death and decay? Shocking pictures that haunt the viewer and remind us of our mortality.

How would I feel if such images were taken of me, not simply without clothes as it were, but me without the advantage of skin and flesh and hair and carefully applied makeup – not that I wear much of that these days?

How would I feel?

I cannot say.

Perhaps it is like childbirth, this dying time, when other things matter far more than appearance.

Our bodies become the vehicles for our essence and in our deaths nothing can touch us anymore.

I do not post the photos here out of respect, not so much for the man who is now dead, but to his siblings who live on. Like Leiboviz, I have agonised over this decision, wanting to share the face of death with you, but unlike Leibovitz I am not a photographer. My photos, I fear, do not constitute art.

Initiation

My mother wears the tiniest of earrings in her lobes, tear shaped drop pearls or minute balls of precious stones coated in gold and held on thin gold tangles. Even now her earrings strike me as a feature of her aging, her determination to hold onto life and all its possibilities reflected in those jangling ornaments.

My mother did not always wear earrings or any other jewellery for that matter, apart from her wedding ring. She tells the story of how in Holland during the Hunger winter of 1945 a farmer tried to get it from her in exchange for some potatoes. She refused.

My ‘movie star mother’: no need for jewellery then.

I think back and I cannot visualise my mother wearing a necklace or a bracelet, certainly not earrings. There are no jewels on display in her photographs, no efforts at adorning her body with trinkets of beauty. Nor did she wear much makeup, other than her trademark smear of red lipstick whenever she went out – if only as far as the local shops – and the dusky pink of her compact powder. She dabbed the puff against her cheeks and on her nose, her hooked nose. Aquiline, she said, like an eagle, and a sign of aristocracy.

More recently my mother tells me her brothers used to say she was Jewish because of the shape of her nose, which I too have inherited, though perhaps not quite as pronounced as my mother’s.

It seems odd to reflect back on the meaning of such a taunt in those days, especially given what happened during the second world war.

There is some evidence that there was a Jewish grandmother in my family of the great great variety, going back several years but my mother does not talk about such things these days.

Still I enjoy the idea of hybridity. I enjoy the idea of having all manner of ancestors in my past, all varieties, multiple races.

Purity does not sit well with me. The notion of a pure breed. It feeds our tendencies to see ourselves as superior or inferior for no other reason than the colour of our skin, the shape of our noses, the nature of our hair.

I suppose I could add a touch of madness to the list of inherited tendencies. Not that I think madness is carried in our genes, maybe a predisposition towards it, but madness needs a certain environment in which to flourish. On top of which in the primitive recesses of our minds, in the dim dark corners of our dreams, I reckon we all sport a little madness, and a good thing, too. It adds to the variety and the creativity that make up our lives. Without a quirk of eccentricity, not too much, not too dominant, our lives would be all the more dull.

I was telling you about my mother’s passion for jewellery. Mine is greater. I prefer silver to gold, not just because of the prohibitive cost of gold, but more because of the blue in silver. Blue is my favourite colour. The blue in silver, its watery properties, its potential coldness, they all appeal to me in a way the warmth of gold does not.

I did not always have this passion for jewellery. It came on when I was in my early twenties, when I decided what a thrill it might be to wear earrings that hung free from my ears.

In those days I lived next door to a nurse. She offered to help me with the job of piercing each lobe with a thin sterilised sewing needle. There were not the signs in chemist shops then, signs that touted for business in the piercing of ear lobes. Most people – and there were not so many who wanted or wore pierced ears from my memory – took themselves to the doctor for the procedure, but as in so many other matters to which I take a fancy, I wanted my ears pierced then and there.

It is striking how quickly the pain of an event subsides and disappears from memory, rather like the agonies of childbirth. They say women need to forget the degree of pain quickly otherwise they might not go back for more babies after the first.

My friend the nurse cleaned my earlobes with methylated spirits and she plied me with alcohol. In those days I did not drink much by way of alcohol and my choice of the stuff was limited to the likes of crème de menthe and cherry brandy, sweet and hardly efficacious in the process of dulling pain, but I had taken what today are called shots of creme de menthe and waited to feel numb enough and drunk enough to withstand the pain.

It was over soon, but the nurse drove the needle crooked in one lobe and it forever causes me trouble whenever I try to attach an earring. In later years I had my ears pierced properly with a type of nail-gun in a chemist shop. My memory of that event is one of short and sudden, awful pain.

Why do we do it? Why do we inflict pain on our bodies purely for the sake of what some of us consider beauty? I cannot say. I only know that I would not allow my daughters to get their ears pierced until they could be certain of their capacity to endure pain. And all for the purpose of attaching baubles to their ears,in contrast to my movie star mother who waited until after her babies were born to be initiated.