Posted by: Linda Proud | July 31, 2009

The Long Vigil

I’ve been lying awake fretting that it’s only the end of July. I have never known such a long year, not since I was a child, wanting to be older than I was and seemingly stuck in a wet summer vacation without end. Wet, wet, wet. While I was out on the allotment in a break between showers yesterday, taking photographs for a competition with the theme ‘summer’s plenty’, I saw the first signs of rot. The tomatoes are blighted and the onions I strewed about to confuse the cabbage butterflies have gone to mush.

The reason the year is long is my mother. She’s spent most of the time in hospital in three long stints and nothing makes time stretch like repetitive activity, and there’s nothing quite so repetitive as parking the car and walking the corridors of the JR hospital on a daily visit to someone who usually does not know you are there. I occupied myself getting angry about things, and there was plenty of scope for that. She came home again, perhaps for the last time, Monday before last. We had had four lessons in hoisting at the hospital but by the second day of her return she was deemed doubly incontinent and bed-ridden, and by the third day I was sending a stool off for analysis as the horrible truth dawned, that she had been returned to us – knowingly – with a renewed attack of c. difficile.

Since then we’ve got ourselves into a routine of watching and waiting. At first David and I took turns in sleeping. He’d stay up until 3 at which point we’d swop watches. But we’ve learnt that when my mother screams, wails or calls for help, there’s nothing any human can do so we turned the baby monitor off and learned to sleep through it all. Until now. It’s 3am and I’m up for some unaccountable reason. No one is calling but my soul. Or is it my conscience?

‘Vigil’ is Latin for ‘awake’. According to the dictionary it means ‘a period of staying awake during the time usually spent asleep, especially to keep watch or pray.’ It’s that latter part that’s important, because my final clause of that definition is too often, ‘especially to sit with your head in your hands feeling sorry for yourself.’

I said something to one of the carers yesterday about waiting until Mum died and she looked shocked at my candour, but why pretend? This brittle, bruised, tiny little form who, every day, looks more and more like the figure of God in Philip Pullman’s trilogy, cannot survive much longer. It is not possible. The week they called us in to say our final goodbyes, back in May, was the week my cat died, a seemingly robust little creature not yet two years old. She just laid under a bush and died.

Do I wish my mother dead? That is the shocking thought I prick myself with every day. But why shouldn’t I? After all, she wishes herself dead. If she was my most favourite, best loved dog, I’d have put her down long ago to spare her any further agony. Her pain is physical, of course, but more it is spiritual, an existential misery that bursts out in screams of hair-tearing frustration. She has very little hair left.

Meanwhile I sit and wait, no longer sure what I shall feel when the wait is over. I try and pray but get taken with a fit of embarrasment before I can reach the end of any sentence. I am more vocal with God when I take him to task for his design of the human bladder. ‘What a mess that is and you think you’re so high and mighty, the great designer!’ At Art in Action a sculptor from India gave me a tiny figure of Ganesha. It was a cheap piece of tinsel that made the aesthete in me recoil. I mean, really, do they have crackers at Diwali, and did he find this in one of them? But the little plastic God painted silver sits on our dining room table and each time I spot him, I ask Ganesh to remove all obstacles, for that is what he is god of, the imposition and the removal of obstacles. It’s easier, you see, to pray to a little piece of plastic. It makes you forget, momentarily, that the person you are praying to is your own Self.

I don’t know why, in the great scheme of things, that my mother was revived after her heart attack. Has she learned anything since of use to her in her soul’s journey? It seems impossible. But it happened, the resuscitation. And now, thanks to a living will which is rolled up in a bottle and kept in the fridge (don’t ask me why), it won’t happen again.

Even so, even so, as I sit here awake in the middle of the night, I am ambivalent about the right to die, the hot topic of the moment. I often say to friends that, if the thought of the journey was not so horrendous, I’d have taken Mum to Zurich before now. I say that my views have changed. Throughout her life, Mum has believed in euthanasia – and she was never one to hold an opinion about anything other than ‘it’s all wrong!’. In her 80s she actually spoke to me directly about it. When the time came, would I help her? I said no, I wouldn’t. I had principles I did not wish to contravene. Anally-retentive bigot or what? What do I know about anything? Where are my principles now? But if it came to it, here, in England, could I give the nod? I don’t know.

This is my position at 3am in the morning at the end of July 2009. I am glad there is a debate. I am glad the law may become clearer if not actually change. I have great respect for the law. Many principles I’ve held in the past have been overtaken by the law and we always seem to be the better for it. [This is a slight divergence, but I’ve just finished reading Adam Nicolson’s excellent book on the translation of the King James Bible, God’s Secretaries, and he makes the point at the end that the language of that book, so beautiful it touches on the miraculous, is not only the product of a committe, but is also the product of men who didn’t think twice about martyring their opponents. Nicolson says such language, such religiosity, is beyond us now, who live in a society where tolerance is practised although not always achieved. So what we would rather have, poetry or sweetness of life? I can’t help but think that, as time passes and views change, we get more Christian, not less]. So in a cowardly fashion I shall sit back, wait for the law to change and then have no trouble in following it afterwards.

There is a school of thought, you see, which I’ve always subscribed to, which says that life is sacred and that every moment of it counts towards the next one. I do believe that. But what we’re faced with here, as we watch and wait, is a beautiful theory pitted against an agonising reality. Those men who, in battle, put their guns to their horses’s heads were not murderers – they were victims of love, the love that will do the worst to save the beloved any more pain. This, too, I think is in the great scheme of things and something our principles need to accommodate.


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