I had long-lived grandparents. And long-lived cats too, one was bought 6 months before my birth and lived to the ripe old age of 23. So I wasn't exposed to death at a premature age. Well, not directly anyway.
Five years before my birth, my parents had a baby girl who died at one month of meningitis. Of course I wasn't witness to this, though its shadow lay over our household, having lit the most slow-burning of fuses of guilt and recrimination that contributed to the eventual dissolution of my parents' marriage.
I can't remember exactly how old I was when I first encountered death from a distance. Our family were on holiday in one of the Spanish island resorts. A speedboat had ploughed towards two swimmers and the propeller had fatally sliced on of them. We saw the aftermath from our hotel balcony, that is to say we didn't really see anything. So my experience was aural really, all the buzz in the air of rubberneckers staring out to sea and a police recovery boat. One of the popular theories was that the pilot had been recumbent and was steering the boat with his feet. I can't even remember if we saw a covered stretcher or not. If we did, it certainly wasn't stained red by blood. Nothing to see here, yes absolutely.
The next occasion was also while on holiday, this time in a city. My parents were friends with a Suffolk County, NY pathologist and he gave us a tour of his workplace, including a small black museum. It was a pretty sanitised tour, I think because 14 year old me was present. However, passing an open door, I did see a man laid out on the slab awaiting autopsy. I wasn't walking right at the boundary of the door, so saw it from mid-distance in the corridor. The man looked plastic, unreal. Maybe it was the muted lighting in the room rather than his death pallor, but it was a death that left no impression on me, because it didn't look like anything corporeally human. No wonder people who come across dead bodies often mistake them first for shop mannequins. I've mused on this in my new novel "The Death Of The Author (In Triplicate)"
When I was 19, my father attempted suicide inside the family home. Again I had the unreal sight framed for me by the disposition of doors. He had attempted the act in the kitchen, which was accessed via a laundry room with washing machine and dryer. So I was looking through two sets of door lintels, that of the laundry room and then that of the kitchen. Added to this sense of the filmic, he was wearing an all-white towelling robe. The whole scene was like a black and white art movie. He had tried to open up veins in his neck and his head had fallen backwards, but the blood must have flowed down the from of the robe, because again, the incontrovertible evidence of blood wasn't visible to me from my angle. However, it became all too present when I was the one deputed to clean up the floor after he'd been taken to hospital. Our kitchen lino was patterned with orange hexagons. The blood when it landed was also hexagonal. I marvelled when a blood hexagon fitted entirely within a floor hexagon, like a kid's colouring book that stays within the lines. It was the way of protecting myself from the awfulness of what it all meant. It was my father's anatomical and medical ignorance that saved his life (plus the speedy response of the emergency services), since he had cut in the wrong, non-fatal location. As speedy as the ambulance crew were, they were beaten to our front door by two plain-clothes detectives who were responding to the 999 call of knife wound, before satisfying themselves it had been self-inflicted. A lot of this made it into my Kindle novel "Not In My Name", comparing the mindset of domestic suicide to that of suicide bombers.
And after that, my grandparents and pets did start dropping off their perch. I lost a teenage second cousin who had barely made it into teenagehood. I was in no position to process death beyond grief, which is not the same thing. We have the cognitive load capacity to process either grief or Death (as in our own future one), but not simultaneously. I am now 59 years old. My next book, almost complete, will be a consideration of death, as in my own, or anybody else in the first person, rather than the third person death embodied in the form of grief. There are books a plenty on grief, to go along with out personal experiences. There is no personal experience of one's own death and very little literature about it accordingly, because no one ever gets to come back and write up their notes on the subject.
We are so protected from confronting death head on. My experiences as above, maybe more down to happenstance, but for example I wasn't allowed into the pathology suite with the dead body, and I was forbidden to go closer to my father in the kitchen. But is it just down to circumstances? One of the question the book considers, is how much of our inability to comprehend death, is an existential (emotional) problem, or a linguistic one?
Watch this space...
In the meantime you can read my latest novel, "The Death Of The Author (In Triplicate)" available from the publishers Corona/Samizdat
A trine cycle produced by three authors. A Senior Investigating Officer is on his way to a fresh murder. In his crisis of faith, he questions the material nature of evidence and the abstract judicial system they are put towards as proofs. The somatic dead body signposts a crime scene staged with symbols of the divine interred in one of the four elements constituting the material universe. In part 2, a widow and a literary agent are having a heated phone exchange about the fate of her late husband’s unfinished manuscript. In part 3, an author is taking down all his sticky notes, twine and graph paper for the book he has just completed, as he ponders the next steps and tries to anticipate some of the questions that will be thrown at him. Where does he get his ideas from, a paradox when set against the unremarkable act of sitting down at a desk, sticking notes up on the wall, crossing them out again and lighting up forbidden cigarettes and hiding the evidence from his wife. In showing his mundane workings, we are asked to trace the leap into a work of creative imagination. Until his literary future too is threatened.
For more content on the novel go here