What it’s like to die

His oldest brother was the first to toss a handful of J’s ashes at the base of some tall eucalypts in the Toolangi state forest.   His sisters went next and then the in-laws, including me. Even the grandchildren had a go. We dug deep into the plastic canister where the chalk white and grey grit of J’s remains rested heavy and took a handful of him, then tossed it to the wind.

Some stuck to the bark of the mountain ash.

IMG_0692 (1)We transformed this scattering of J into a photo shoot of sorts, as people do these days, not out of disrespect but because it seemed a good way to keep his memory alive.

No one else would. His partners had long ago deserted him and he had no children. Not that any of us knew. The only ones loyal to J right up to the end were his sisters and brothers. But by the time this ritual of final release took place there was no sadness left.

J was the youngest and had wasted his life on a belief that he had the gene for alcoholism. It gave him the excuse to drink and smoke twenty-four hours a day and to replace the alcohol with morphine when the cancer that ripped into his jaw took away his tolerance for any other sustenance.

J had wanted to offer his body to science, but no one wanted it, given his flesh and bones had started their long descent into decay well before he died.

After a few halfhearted attempts at treatment, the doctors left it to the palliative carers to make J’s death endurable, and endure it he did.


Shortly before he died, Dennis Potter spoke on the radio about his life and anticipated death, again from cancer. He was reconciled to the idea, though it gave him a strange new hold on life, he told his interviewer. It made him aware of the importance and inevitability of time.

‘Life can only be defined in the present tense,’ he said. The ‘nowness’ of things is all we can rely upon. We can never be certain about the past. It changes with our memory and recall, and the future is unpredictable, as yet unformed, but not the present.

To illustrate, Potter described the blossoms that had just erupted on the cherry tree outside his door, as the ‘blossomiest’ of blossoms, so lush, so fluffy, so fragrant, so magnificent. Why had he not noticed them before?

Death, Potter said, puts us back in touch with the present in the same way as when we are children. The present is always with us as children in that moment-to-moment experience of being wholly absorbed inside an experience, whether it is one of terror – and there are many terrifying moments as a child – or of bliss.

‘If you see the present tense, boy, do you see it,’ Potter said. ‘And boy, can you celebrate it.’

During the interview Potter searched his pockets for a cigarette, half apologised to his interviewer and joked that he could do as he pleased now, as far as taking in poisons, but not everyone was happy.

He told the story of a time when he pulled out a cigarette somewhere in a café in America, and the look on the waiter’s face, as if to kill.

‘In America it’s easier to draw out a gun than a cigarette.’


It comes upon me in a flash that sensation from my childhood, unattached to specific memories just a flash, of light, of colour, of smell. A sensation that erupts when I remember the newness of things, the tiny flowers on the diosma bush outside my garden, pink baby’s breath, the smell of the Rockman’s doll I unwrapped on my eight Christmas, baby sized and pink in its nakedness, as if I had magically given birth to my own baby but experienced none of the pain, only the exultant joy of welcoming this new creature into life.

This sensation relates to newness, and now in my sixties, no longer new, I cannot expect too many of these, not in the way of childhood. But I look forward to their return when, like Dennis Potter, I anticipate moving into this new space called death.

As Phillip Adams quips, ‘I hope I’m awake when I die. I want to know what it’s like.’


Final diagnosis and first post

A tub of yoghurt followed by two horse pills is my breakfast these days. All washed down with one or two cups of tea.

IMG_2396Don’t be fooled by the size. These ‘horse’ pills are bigger than you think.

By the time one of them hits the back of my throat it turns sideways, even as I put it into my mouth pointy end forward.

To swallow one is to gag and then gulp down mouthfuls of water before they finally settle somewhere in my stomach.

I feared I was on the control dose, by the absence of taste. They taste like nothing, just the faint tang of plastic, but the woman who asks me questions and runs me through tests told me the pills are made in a factory to certain specifications and all the pills, whether the real thing or the control, are made to taste the same.

I had hoped I’d be on the real thing, not the placebo.

I had hoped I might observe remarkable changes in my cognition, in my memory, in my ability to perform these Lumosity type tasks that the researchers set every time I visit the Swinburne University where the tests take place.

The pills are meant to contain a mint extract, and the hypothesis follows that this extract will improve cognitive functioning in people over fifty.

I haven’t noticed any deterioration, but as for improvement, there’s none there either.

I agreed to participate in this study, not only for the altruism of giving back to the community via scientific research, but also because they offered an MRI as part of the procedure.

A free MRI. I can establish once and for all that my brain is okay.

In the waiting room at the department for psychopharmacology, the drawing board near reception is filled to the brim with notices of rooms for rent and requests for participation in other research projects.

There are many that deal with so-called mental health.

‘Do you know of or live with someone who suffers from bi-polar disorder? We’d like to talk to you as part of our research into the condition.’

I cringe. I have an aversion to the use of psychiatric jargon. People use these expressions often these days. So and so has bi-polar, as if it’s a concrete and physical disability, like being born blind or suffering from cancer.

So and so has depression. I much prefer people turn these nouns into verbs. I reckon it’s more helpful and meaningful to say, ‘So and so is depressed’.

It has something to do with the reductive nature of these psychiatric categories. When used as nouns they speak about a person as a category.

When we say someone has lung cancer, in our mind’s eye we hone in on the horrors of the cancer, the difficulties of breathing.

We might ask the standard stereotypical question where lung cancer is involved, ‘Did she smoke?’ but we do not assume more about the person. The person still has an identity that goes beyond their diagnosis.

But when we say someone has schizophrenia, for instance, it’s as if their identity is subsumed under the label, and they cease to be a person beyond their diagnosis.

We like to label people and things. It helps us to get a grip on them, but it’s dangerous as well.

The fantasy seems to be if you get the diagnosis right, correct treatment automatically follows.

I’ve been running through reruns of that TV series House, about a grumpy doctor and diagnostician who works in a busy New Jersey hospital.

The stories tend to be formulaic and dramatic. They start with someone unexpectedly falling ill, or having an accident. The person is rushed into hospital and for some strange reason, generally to do with difficulties in diagnosis as to the cause of the problem, Dr House and his team are called in to give a diagnosis.

They start off with hunches based on symptoms, then treat according to those hunches, one of which invariably leads the person to have a heart attack, a stroke or some other major episode in which we are led to believe this person will die.

The person rarely dies, only survives and amazingly, the next day they discover the real cause, which might be a tumour, or some internal bleed, or some unspoken decision on the part of the patient to confess to having done something he or she hadn’t owned up to earlier, like taking cocaine, or LSD or some other illegal substance that’s made them sick.

House’s philosophy is that patients always lie.

The body, on the other hand, obeys certain procedures and from time to time the camera peeks inside, via fantastical imagery of what goes on inside a blood vessel, a pumping heart, or wasted lungs.

Is it that people lie? Or do they omit information or construct a story around events so that they don’t disappoint their loved ones, or don’t get into trouble with the law?

People, myself inclusive, reinvent themselves in order to present their best selves, or their worst selves if that’s their inclination, but in any case, it’s an attempt to reconstruct some sense of themselves that meets the needs of the moment.

I’m reconstructing my identity with this move, and I’m fearful some won’t recognise me.  Hopefully you do.


In any case, whether you’re here from my old place or visiting for the first time, welcome.