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  • Mike O'Driscoll

Not making sense of death.

Updated: Jul 22

"While I thought that I was learning how to live, I have been learning how to die."

Leonardo da Vinci.



Spoiler alert. This post is about death. If that disturbs, pass quickly on. I won't be offended. I haven't posted anything for a while, so apologies for that. Life, and its opposite, got in the way.


Last year I wrote a long piece about many of teh people I've known in my life who have passed away. Family, friends, work colleagues. Acquaintances. It was a longish piece, 10,000+ words but I don't know if it's a story. I tried to morph it into some kind of narrative, but whether or not it worked, I don't know. I shared it with one or two people. One was moved by it, the other distressed. I sent it to one magazine. I still haven't heard back from the editor. Perhaps he or she didn't consider it a story. I haven't gone back to the piece since. I guess I was afraid of the emotions it might stir. Writing it was both painful and cathartic. Maybe, I told myself, in the act of writing it, it had already served its purpose. No need to revisit.


But lately, that piece has been playing on my mind. Probably, because since I last posted here, much has happened, not the least of which was the death of my sister in law after a short illness. This was pretty hard, coming five years after the sudden death of her husband--not just a brother-in-law, but a close friend I had known as long as I've known my wife. We had shared many good times over the years, with Glyn and Gerry, family holidays together, weekends away in the UK and abroad, most memorably in Dublin and Rome. We had made so many plans for future trips together--a road trip in the USA, another through Europe to the south of Spain where they had an apartment in the off the beaten track city of Ayamonte, a funky border town on the Spanish side of the Guadiana River across from Vila Real de Santo António. They would retire there. We would visit them out of season, and they would come to stay with us in Swansea. We would see each other's children settle into their own relationships, perhaps start their own families, develop their own careers.


Some of these things have come to pass, but not all. Glyn was around long enough to meet his two grand-nieces, but not their brother. Neither he nor Gerry will see their own grandchildren when and if they come.


Life is hard . Losing people you love makes it so much harder.


Another blow was the diagnosis of an old friend with a rare form of early onset dementia. Although only diagnosed last year, Mick had, according to his partner, been displaying behavioural changes since at least 2016. I hadn't seen him since 2019, pre-covid, when he and Bev came to Swansea for the annual Gower Bluegrass Festival. Mick had played in bands all his life, rock and blues, and more latterly folk and bluegrass. He could pretty much play anything with strings, but had graduated over the years to dobro and/or double bass. He always loved playing live and going to see other musicians. He's a huge Steve Earle fan and got to see him in concert for the first time while visiting my sister in San Francsco soem 30 years ago.


I went to see Mick recently in Worcester, thinking that he'd be okay, perhaps a bit forgetful, sort of absent-minded. It was worse, a way worse than that. When he and Bev arrived at the bar where we had arranged to meet, he didn't know me at all when I greeted him. Nor did he know my wife. It was only through the patient prompting of Bev that some strands of memory connected Mick to the here and now, to the fact that we were old friends. I discovered that even recalling those he had seen much more recently, did not come easily. People he saw on a fairly regular basis at his favourite pub, were as strangers to him. I discovered how hard it was for him to follow conversations, especially, if there were more than two people involved. He seemed lost at times, like a child struggling to comprehend an adult conversation. And yet, most of the evening he wore that same smile, exuded that same cheerfulness I'd always associate with him.


It was good to see him but also heartbreaking. It was heartbreaking because when a friend who had always loved reading, who had introduced me to books that are still among my favourites, who loved to sing, who had a passion for movies, tells you that he can no longer read because he does not understand the words, cannot sing because he does not remember lyrics, and watches no more films because he is unable to stay with the simplest of plots, then it is the man who was my friend is being slowly erased. I fear how much more will be lost the next time I see him.


With Glyn, death came sudden, with no warning at all. One minute he was there and the next his family are gathered together in a room listening to a doctor tell us why switching off the life support was for the best. With Gerry, death came a little slower, but looking back, it was just a matter of months between her becoming ill and the end. At first there was hope, but we knew, the last month or so, what was coming, and yet we were still unprepared.


In April, a first cousin, Martina, lost her husband, a farmer in a terrible accident. They had been making plans for the future, passing on the farm to their youngest son, Martina retiring from her career as a nurse. Witnessing her grief, her utter bewilderment at the injustice of what happened, was difficult; seeing the love and comfort she received from her family, from her adult children, as well as the grace and dignity with which they supported each other, was a privilege.


We're just halfway through the year. There have been other losses and other reconnections. The story I wrote that may not be a story, is still there, in my head. Is it a story that needs expanding? Do these more recent terminations warrant inclusion? And if so, then what of those deaths still to come? What of my own? Will that one be the final entry? I don't know. Perhaps I will go back to it, try again to shape the narrative into something meaningful. I think that it is only by doing so that I'll be able to make sense of the loss.

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