Chris Sutcliff

Artist Man I am
10th Jun 2009

You already know how this will end.

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

Leonardo Da Vinci.

In every division of your cells, in the comfort of your bed or down the barrel of a gun, in every room in every town, at the top of a mountain or the bottom of the sea, your death is waiting for you with a purpose and a patience that is beyond your comprehension. There is no escape – and in that one fact is either the greatest of freedoms or the cruellest of prisons. I remember very clearly when we first met. At roughly the age of eight, during a long, insomnia ridden night whilst on holiday with my family, I comprehended for the first time that death was forever – anti life – a black nothingness that would separate you from the world until the end of time. I felt what it was like to be immobile and lost in the unfathomable dark but still conscious and aware, more terrible in my imagination than the real thing could ever be. I woke my Dad with my crying and when he asked me what was wrong I blurted out that I was going to die. He asked me if I meant right now and I said no, but one day I would. He told me to stop being silly and to get back to sleep, he said ‘everybody dies’ and then he went back into his room. It was four o clock in the morning.

‘Everybody dies’. Kind of a strange way of dealing with a petrified child don’t you think? Confirming their fears as absolute truth and then merrily leaving them to think about the horror for a bit longer. ‘Yes Christopher, there IS a monster under your bed and it will probably rip you limb from limb before your screams wake the rest of us up, Goodnight!’ Perhaps death is the only subject that should not, or cannot be diluted for anyone. I read somewhere recently that, as man is the only animal that understands that one day he will die, that knowledge can move him to some of the greatest acts of heroism or human dignity as well as reduce him to the lowest acts of cowardice. I read this and I realised that I have not yet confronted death. I’m not really sure how to. I am worried that this will leave me susceptible to cowardice and this is not how I wish to be, certainly not how I wish to think of myself. Here’s an interesting question – if you knew the time, place and cause of your death, would you live your life differently to how you are living it now?

Death has been with me recently for two very different reasons. My Grandma had a stroke a couple of months ago and has since been doing a sort of hospital tour of the North West. Up until the stroke she was a very independent person so this whole experience has been frustrating and undignified for her – as it must be for the thousands across the UK who go through the same thing. My family and I went to see her last weekend at a nursing home where she was awaiting the final all clear to be allowed to go back to her own home and look after her self once more. Nursing homes trouble me; I know all the good they do but still I cannot shake the thought that they are a convenient place for us to put our dying relatives because our western culture keeps us all working so hard that we cannot take on the extra burden of looking after our own parents at home before they leave us forever; they are how we hide from the truth of death. The place was (of course) really nice and as you’d expect amongst the host of people just sat staring into space there were some real characters there. One lady who was particularly sprightly informed me she was 97 years old and kept doing a little dance for my bemused 4 year old niece. My Grandma appeared to be tolerating her with an annoyance that was too tired to manifest properly. Another old bloke was shuffling up and down and messing with his false teeth, extending them way out of his mouth and then retracting them back in again, it was all oddly childlike. My Grandma looked weary and bored and very resigned to what was going on. The next day, my Dad would accompany her and some sort of health representative to her house so that she could prove her independence by getting in and out of bed and using the bathroom. My Dad explained this to her and she looked at him in exactly the same way as a child looks at you when you are explaining how they have to behave at an adult’s party or something. She is 92, widowed twice (three times if you count her ‘friend’ of ten years, Fred), has got over a broken hip, bowel cancer and repeated angina attacks and now beyond anything else in the world absolutely cannot wait to die. She is a prime voluntary candidate for euthanasia. We are all rallying around her trying to prolong her life in the same way that you squeeze more and more toothpaste out of an empty tube and yet, to her, death is a sweet release that cannot come quickly enough, an elusive friend with an open invite to pop in for tea. Why are WE so afraid of HER death when it is the one thing she prays for? As of yesterday, she passed her ‘entrance exam’ and is back home at last. Providing she can stay there long enough to die peacefully and with dignity in her own bed then she will have won the fight. She is the only person who I have ever met that has taken the fear and the sadness from death and turned it into a blessing. I have absolutely no idea how I will feel when she goes. How do you mourn somebody who lived a full life and then got what they wanted? The answer is you don’t. When you grieve, you grieve for yourself.

Next week I will be 32 years old. I’m not panicking about that but here is an interesting thought – at some point in my thirties, I am likely to hit my halfway point. That’s if I’m lucky enough to live to a reasonably old age. I am always a bit surprised at myself as to how quickly my mind jumps to my own mortality. When I catch a cold I’m dying, I get a bit of a headache it’s the beginning of an aneurysm, and trapped wind is acute liver failure. I had a sharp stabbing pain in my kidney’s the other week and in mounting panic I ripped my shirt off to check the area and discovered that it was the corner of the washing instructions label in my shirt that had been poking me a bit. What I appear to be petrified of is that my death will be the opposite of my Grandma’s – a screaming, exploding violent death that leaves the bitter regret of unfinished work in its wake. I was at a party with my mate Mark the other day and the fact that the patronage was younger than us was enough to have him thinking of his own mortality and to launch us both into a long drunken conversation about our grand exit. So, it’s not just me, we’re all at it. I have shaved my hair down to the scalp for the last ten years but at the moment I am growing my hair for a bet, so whereas most people find their grey hairs one at a time I have suddenly been presented with a fair selection of them all at once. The weight of time is altering me. I also realised the other day that my face is changing again, the same as it did in my early twenties, early teens and early childhood. As morbid as all this sounds it has created a certain amount of deep appreciation within me for what has gone before and also a certain amount of urgency for what I feel I have left to do. So is this death? A slowly creeping change that has been with us since birth and stays with us always so that, when hopefully we are old and our work is done, we embrace it with all our heart and follow it wherever it leads? That doesn’t sound so bad. In fact, that sounds like a perfectly acceptable curtain call.

So, if you knew the time, place and cause of your death, would you live your life differently to how you are living it now? I wouldn’t. It isn’t death that makes my life acceptable. It’s the other way around.

by Chris
Posted in Words

One Response to
“You already know how this will end.”

  1. Röb says:

    However it happens I’d want it to be massive. Something ridiculous like when that waiter in the simpsons has that accident chain reaction. It’d have to be on film too.

    (thought you’d woken up on the goth side of the bed for a while then)

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