When you see someone die, it changes you

Posted on March 8, 2014


Forgive the blunt title, I was going to call it ‘The Long Old Road’ but then realised no one would click on it.

The reason i’ve been quiet on here lately, is due to a few reasons… but mainly because I’ve just spent the last few weeks at the hospital, waiting for my grandfather to die.

I’ve only ever been around death on a few occasions. On 31st October 2004, a dead body washed up on the shore in Villanculos, Mozambique. He was a local fisherman. His boat had capsized in the night during a storm. He looked relatively young. His body was dark grey in appearance and swollen. Lucky for me there were other people on the beach, so I hung back and watched as he was discovered. 

A friend, Duncan, killed himself when we were at College, which really affected me because I saw him the night before and I had no idea what was happening when he gave me the contents of his wallet and he said ‘go buy yourself some booze with that’.

I was younger when my other grandparents died and was sheltered from the unpleasantness of it. My gran died when I was 18, and I didn’t see her for a good few months before it happened.

This time, age 34 and technically an ‘adult’ I felt duty-bound to visit my Maltese grandfather one last time. I wanted to be there.

I wasn’t quite prepared.

I don’t know how graphic to be, but i’ll do my best to do it sensitively.

Now, my grandfather was 90 year’s old. So let’s be real here, he was an old guy. His wits were still about him, he still had his humour and ability to smile and acknowledge you – which is what I got the moment I walked into his room, a hospital ward with around 6 patients laid up in bed in it. His face lit up, and he was clearly pleased to see me and my Dad.

But his appearance winded me like a taser to the chest.

Paper thin – beyond what i’d already seen him to be, which was already the thinnest i’d ever seen a person up close. He had burst veins all over his arms. His face, freshly shaved by the nurse that morning, was covered in razer cuts. He didn’t have his teeth in. His bones jutted out all over.

He’d been admitted for Pneumonia, so we had to scrub in every time we came onto the ward to avoid the spread of any germs.  There were so much fear that germs could finish him off I was washing my hands ferociously with antibacterial handwash, drying them with abrasive paper towels, and then gelling them with handgel, every time I so much as sniffled, cried, or touched anything that might have come in from the outside.

The trouble is, this protection from germs, meant that nothing could finish him off. So my poor old grandfather laid in his hospital bed in pain, till he could no longer eat, swallow or urinate, and his kidneys packed out and then his heart stopped beating.

Which took 14 days from the day he was submitted.

I was present for the final 6 days.

When you’re a part of such a profound moment as someone dying – there is no doubt. It changes you.

Suddenly the little things don’t seem as important.

People who used to bother you, become insignificant.

Insecurities fade away. I now feel stronger, and weirdly, more self assured. Witnessing something so powerful and important made me realise how fragile my ego has been, and that all along till now, I was still a child.

He had ‘three wishes’ he said.

He wanted to piss against a wall one last time, like a man [upon repeated cafeta fittings to find the right size].

He wanted to sit in a chair [after being bed bound for 7 days].

He wanted to taste Whisky one last time.

During my six days at the hospital, there were several ‘scares’. Moments of ‘this is it’ where we would all gather round, and pray to whatever god we believed in (in my case, it was ‘whoever’s out there’ and then i’d plea for them to take him peacefully and painlessly, by the end it was predominantly prayers of ‘quickly’). In one particular case, 5 of us (my Mum, Dad, and two Aunties) stood round his bed watching his delicate breathing, praying, tears streaming down faces, and I’m feeling an overwhelming surge of profound emotion from the realisation of it all. Then my grandfather, instead of dying, started snoring.

I wanted that to be my last memory of him – dying, but not quite ready to go yet. A perfect tribute to a man who fought in the second world war, and despite all odds (smoking 60 a day / having a penchant for daily whisky drinking, amongst other things), had kept on going.

But as the days started to merge, and ‘this is it’ became ‘this might keep going on for a while’ (and my family grew used to the 1 hour sleep shifts through the night to ensure someone was always watching over him); I passed over my responsibility of ensuring the caregivers got fed and watered, and on my last day in Malta, unawares of when the end might come, I went in to see him one last time before I had to fly home.

In his own room by this point (luckily someone else had checked out – I’m unsure of which direction), I took a long hard look at my Nannu, the guy who had been a constant in my life. Always the joker, the cheeky guy with a twinkle in his eye, he was thinner and smaller than I’d ever thought a person could be. Zonked out on morphine, the kindest thing the hospital could do for him at this stage, they’d supplied him with a drip through his belly as his veins had all been failing to support the weight of the thing. His cafeter was no longer producing urine – a small bag at the side of his bed showed a small pool of orange liquid which went half way up the tube. Still conscious I think (although un-acknowledging), what was in front of me was the last shadow of a man who had withstood the test of time.

Unfortunately that image will always be stuck in my head, a corpse really, but one with shallow breathing, a faint pulse, and a glazed look in his eye. I think it might catch me with sadness every time it does. But to have been witness to these last moments is beautiful, however ugly the visceral reality of it was. But my Nannu died, despite the uncomfortableness of some of his final days, knowing his loved ones were all present (and had flown over from the UK, which is an additional element of adulation for him); and when you’re the head of a family, a great grandfather, war hero and dignified gentleman who had to deal with spending his final 7 years in an elderly care home, and his final 25 years without the love of his life; I think I can genuinely say he would have died knowing he was loved.


Posted in: Journal