“As long as I have a want. I have a reason for living. Satisfaction is death.”
So said George Bernard Shaw. To us satisfaction is not death but we derive satisfaction from death, the death of others. I wrote about how I rarely attend funerals and explained the reasons why, but that is not to say that we will not use the instances of dying and of death to our distinct advantages. Indeed, where the spectre of death looms waiting to cut that last slender link between the person and life, with his sharpened scythe, our kind come crawling from the woodwork in order to avail ourselves of the copious fuel that is available. Should you see one of our kind re-appear after an absence, there is a reasonable chance that the sickly sweet smell of death has attracted us.
Should we learn that a family member or friend is about to shuffle off this mortal coil, then this presents a marvellous opportunity for our kind. To begin with, the façade can be maintained through demonstrating false compassion about the circumstances of the person whose demise is imminent. We know all the phrases to rollout to the procession of visitors and comforters who are drawn to the bed of the dying individual. We delight in keeping a vigil besides this person even though we may not have bothered with them in years. Should someone be as bold to question why we have appeared now of all times after remaining away, we will seize on such an unwarranted observation to castigate the questioner.
“How can you ask such a thing like that, at a time like this?”
“This isn’t about me; it is about Uncle Malcolm.” (How we say this with a straight face still surprises me.)
“You can talk, what have you done for her lately?” (Which will be asked even if we know that the questioner has been a total rock to the dying individual)
Our response will be designed to draw an emotional reaction and allow us to drink of the fuel provided.
We will provide the rudimentary appearance of caring, although it is all for show. We will of course leave the heavy lifting work to other people. We are not there to change the pus-ridden bandages or sooth the fevered brow. We will not clean up after someone soils themselves or spills food and drink down their front from shaking, tremulous hands. Not at all, but we will do what we do best and shower words of empty kindness, false compassion and fake consideration towards the ill individual. This makes us look good in the eyes of all assembled and their nods of approval and muttered thanks not only provides us with fuel but adds to the façade’s maintenance. We are a good stick for travelling all this way (we were coming anyway for another reason) and offering such eloquent words of comfort to all assembled.
Watch us as we move amidst family members, friends, colleagues and neighbours who turn up to see if they can help as we position ourselves as gatekeepers. Nobody gains admittance without seeing us first so that we may suck in the fuel that comes with such a heightened emotional situation. Tearful siblings, stern-faced uncles, bewildered cousins all ripe for us to send a pleasant and supportive comment towards, purely to receive their thanks, gratitude and approval.
We will not allow the person whose sands of time are running out to inhabit centre stage one last time as we camp on to their ground, usurping them through an exhibition of apparent concern and compassion. Watch carefully and you will see that we do not actually do anything for the dying person, that is not our role, there are minions for that and it is all beneath us. Instead, we see this as a chance to draw fuel and appear to be a supportive individual who is pulling everyone together and ensuring that the dying person’s final days are as happy and as comfortable as possible.
We have seen enough times what needs to be said in order to produce the tears, the slowly dipped head and the weak smile, the attempt to be brave despite the heavy sadness. Inside we do not feel this as we greet each person. We feel empowered at the fuel that flows. We hover by the bed, watching over the new arrival’s interaction with our charge, commenting on what we have been doing for them (in fact it will be someone else who has cared for them but we are content to take the credit) so we gain additional approval and thanks. We regard these visitors as having come really to see us, to thank us for our work, our generosity and our greatness, rather than the dying, shrivelled person in the bed nearby. Like some morbid cuckoo we appear and take over this person’s final act, claiming it for ourselves, our fuel lines snaking towards anybody and everybody who appears.
Of course there even remains the opportunity to draw fuel from the dying individual. Though they may look at us through morphine-hazed eyes and mumble medicated words which are difficult to discern, the tightness of their grip on our arm or hand tells us plenty about how they appreciate what we are doing. As their time on this world draws to a close, we still see the chance to pull some fuel from this person as we trot out the familiar platitudes at a time like this. We do not say them to convey comfort, but only to ensure that appreciation, gratitude and thanks comes our way and in turn fuels us.
As guardian and comforter-in-chief we position ourselves at the centre of everything during this period. We do little but direct others and issue our spoken commands and observations, all of which being self-serving. We will endeavour to create yet more fuel by leaning in low and listening intently as the dying person speaks, perhaps their last words as we nod and gently pat them with our hand, the chosen one for their final speech. We will take these words and use them to our advantage. Should the grieving widow, let’s call her Emily ask what her now departed husband said, we might dismiss his actual words and say,
“He said, tell Emily I am sorry for what I did.”
Her look of confusion at our false utterance will provide fuel. Alternatively, we might say,
“He said, tell Rose I love her so, so much.”
Her puzzled look as she asks “Who is Rose?” generates a further dollop of fuel.
Then again, we may pretend that some huge secret has been imparted to us and that we cannot say what it is in order to draw questioning and attention to ourselves.
Indeed, there may be instances where there is that last chance to draw some negative fuel, to make those dimmed eyes flare one last time in shock, hurt and confusion. An opportunity to lean in close and whisper a final caustic sentence, designed to consign this wretched person to spend their final moments in torment, unable to respond effectively, their grimaces and clawing indicative of the discomfort that has been caused by the parting savagery that has been gently spoken into their ear. A parting burst of negative fuel which underlines our sense of omnipotence that we can still achieve this even at a time like this. Such an act is usually saved for someone who we truly believe deserves it.
I have watched in my time a master practitioner at such behaviours. From silent child made to sit and observe, through to knowledgeable adult who can see straight through this veneer and who knows what is really being done. I have seen all these moves, actions and behaviours meted out by this supposed bastion of compassion and all the while I knew what was really going on.
I may not have copied all those behaviours extensively myself – usually because time has never permitted me to spend such days providing such a vigil – but I have seen it when younger and snapshots when older, as well as recollections from others which all fits together. I know what she does. When she arrives, immaculately attired, heels clicking away on the floor as she assumes centre stage, I focus on that click click clicking and know that the death watch beetle has arrived.
I have learned and I may yet choose to apply those lessons should the need arise, but I know for sure that I will seek that last fountain of negative fuel before the death rattle. I know who I will save my choice comment for in order to achieve that satisfaction from death.