‘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.