Back in April I started to write a story called the Catastrophic Effect. I got as far as detailing my father’s death from lung cancer. I also wrote about how forty five minutes after hearing of his death my cousin called to tell me our uncle had committed suicide. Not only was it unusual to hear of such news so closely together, the second death was completely unrelated to the first for the uncle that took his life, was my mother’s brother and was incarcerated in a mental hospital in Glasgow so knew nothing of my father’s death. It was shocking news on top of my father’s death but only because it came so close on the heals of it.
My uncle had been desperate to kill himself for some months as he had great difficulty in coping with the loss of his brother and wife within weeks of each other. As a well healed and seemingly strong individual who held down a professional career for many years it was an immense shock for us to see his degradation into a babbling and angry wreck with suicidal intent at every turn. Nothing we did for him helped ease his anguish and he was like a wounded animal cornered in life with nowhere to go. He could not be reasoned with and was finally sectioned against his will in an attempt to save his life and see him through the worst of his fear and grief to a point where reason could once more be used to encourage him to want to live again. No one bargained for his utter determination to succeed and so on that evening he obtained a wire coat hanger, attached it to a light fitting and hanged himself. He didn’t actually die that night but was effectively brain dead from there on in until he finally got his wish and took his last breath two days later; Suicide – the long term solution to a short term problem.
In a complete contrast to this deeply distressing situation, another uncle was fighting the final stages of secondary bone cancer and desperately clinging to life for he wanted to live so very much, to carry on being here for him and us. The immense effort and pain he endured was deeply etched on his wonderfully kind and intelligent face making it enormously difficult to look at him and not want to sob your heart out just watching him lose the battle bit by painful and heartbreaking bit. But there were to be no tears, no remorse, no outward displays of emotion or recognition that he was dying for this would have distressed him and had us banished from the room until we could pull ourselves together. No matter how much pain he endured he fought the battle of his life with grace, bravery, courage and strength, with fortitude and a determination that had gotten him through life.
Here was a man who was born into poverty and hardship in the east end of Glasgow in the depression of the 30’s to a father who had been embittered and disabled fighting in the bloody battle fields of the first world war. He was a man of immense intellect and the first in his family to obtain a university degree. His heart was the biggest I have ever known and his compassion was endless for the poor and disadvantaged that he represented as a councillor for the poorest ward in Glasgow. He never forgot that education and a magnificent work ethic was his passport out of poverty and he worked tirelessly as a teacher and a councillor to help as many willing participants as possible achieve that same goal through the same opportunities that he had been given. He was my mentor, friend, inspiration, uncle and father substitute and shining light in a young life that had endured much violence and hardship at times. His and my aunt’s home was my refuge in times of fear. I studied science as my major because he was a scientist and I so wanted to be like him. He instilled in me a love of all things scientific and physics fascinated me. But mostly he infused in me an understanding that real strength in a man is the gentleness of spirit, the kindness and the ability to forgive that love brings and that bigotry, violence and hatred are enemies to be thwarted at all times. It was his utter belief that life was for living and living well that gave him his strength and deep need to survive.
So, here was a juxtaposition of incredible extremes; two men fighting their own personal battles; one to die and another to live.
I have no anger for the uncle who killed himself. I don’t know whether it is a brave or a cowardly decision to take your own life. I cannot enter his state of mind and find out what drove him; I can only try to understand that it was his wish, his right to do what he did with his life. Even with my psychological knowledge and understanding I cannot offer a plausible insight but I do hope fervently that he is at peace.
The week following my father’s death and uncle’s suicide was a flurry of detail, arrangements and communication with all who needed to know and be there to say goodbye. On the Wednesday we waved off my father, on the Thursday it was time to see off my uncle but on that morning, my other uncle died.
It was a bizarre netherworld kind of existence and everything seemed to enter a slow motion kind of reality. For a time I was angry that my other uncle lost his battle. Grief brought out the child in me and every fear I once buried, every injustice I felt bubbled to the surface. I raged at the world for taking my protector, mentor and friend but in time I came to realise life and death are bedfellows that must be lived and endured and that the natural cycle was indeed working as designed.
His funeral was a grand affair for my uncle was halfway through a four year tenure as Glasgow’s Lord Provost and Lord lieutenant to the queen. In the years before Scottish devolution, he was Glasgow’s leading politician and the Queen’s representative for all things royal in Glasgow. His death in office meant a funeral of almost state proportions was to be held. Police lined the streets, people turned out in their thousands to say goodbye to one of the most popular Lord Provosts ever to hold office and the press were there in their droves. It is my only experience of being photographed and filmed at every turn as we travelled with my aunt in the official car that lead the procession – a deeply intrusive moment in my life. My uncle was a practicing Catholic who was devout in his faith and the head of the Catholic church in Scotland, Cardinal Winning insisted on leading the service with a multitude of bishops in attendance. The Queen was represented by a minor royal and the service was magnificent in its dedication to my uncle and really quite beautiful. He would have been fair chuffed but equally humbled at the turnout and the depth of feeling that was emitted that day. It was a surreal experience seeing so many well known faces all in the same place.
I remained in Glasgow for a few more days for my mother was not entirely robust in her health and when you lose one parent, the surviving one becomes even more precious. The truly depressing news that her husband, my stepfather was in the terminal stages of cancer had been told to me by his son. My mother was unaware that he was dying and no one knew how to tell her for she had a weak heart - a legacy from a massive heart atack that she had suffered four years before. A few days later I returned home to England and immersed myself in work. I was full of confused emotions at the death of my father, the callous suicide of my uncle and the shocking loss of my dearly loved mentor. I had no idea how to work through such an extreme set of emotions and as usual, work was my salve. I carried on almost zombie like just going through the motions for it was all that I could do to get myself out of bed and showered in the morning. I carried on for a week and almost collapsed from exhaustion and grief on the Friday night, but glad that I had made it through the week with no major catastrophes happen in front of colleagues.
At 7.45am the next morning the phone rang, dragging me from an exhausted slumber. It was my step-father’s son. I felt my blood run cold as I waited for him to tell me he had died. I couldn’t understand what he was saying, I kept asking him to repeat what he had just said for what he did say just did not compute. My brain refused to take it in such was the god awful shock at what I was hearing. I could hear him speak and it sounded like he was a million miles away in a parallel universe with his voice just seeping through.
I collapsed onto the floor, dropping the phone as I did so. My life felt like it was ending before me and I didn’t care, welcomed it, prayed for it, was ready to make sure it happened. I ran to the toilet and threw up over and over again as I sobbed and wailed and cursed God for taking her. My mother had died exactly one month after my father.