Family Resemblance

The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)
The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)

Walter shook out his umbrella in jerking movements. “What a day,” Louisa said, stepping back to let him into the hall. She noticed he was wearing galoshes; Christopher would find that funny. In ceremonial style, Walter carefully arranged all his wet things on and around the coat stand and removed his sketch book from a damp leather satchel.

“Have you explained everything to them?” he asked, smoothing down his tweed suit. “Of course,” Louisa said, determined to be pleasant. She’d forgotten how blatantly he skipped social niceties.

“And they will cooperate?”

“They’re good girls Walter, you needn’t worry,” Louisa replied, her gaze criss-crossing his unlovely face. He was so like their father today with his bristly hair and manner. An image of the old man flickered in her memory, seated in his study, tilting his head so she could reach his cheek for a goodnight kiss. The last child of his third wife, even she could sense he was weary of playing Daddy by then. So different, she imagined, to Walter’s home life twenty years earlier.

A thump sounded from the dining room followed by muffled giggling and shushing. “Shall we?” Louisa said reaching for the door handle. She had issued strict instructions to the girls to stay in the room until she entered. Christopher agreed that it was time they stopped charging to the front door like hooligans every time there was a caller.

Nora was standing by the mantelpiece holding the lustre jug, her cheeks glowing pink, while Peggy and Maude sat straight-backed at the table. “It’s not broken,” Nora said, holding out the jug. Louisa took it from her eldest and touched her cheek gently. “Come and say hello to your uncle Walter.”

The girls lined up and shook hands with the visitor, looking angelic in their Sunday pinafores. Louisa was pleased to see the children were in awe of him and she hoped the feeling would last, keeping their behaviour in check.

Louisa waited for Walter to take charge but he stood as if in a daze, holding the sketch book to his chest. “How would you like to begin?” Louisa asked when the pause grew uncomfortably long. “Or would you prefer some refreshment first?”

Walter’s lips were trembling. “Could you ask them to sit at the table again? Perhaps they could gather at the corner and study something together?” He was almost whispering. The girls looked at their mother. “Here take this,” she said, pressing the jug back into Nora’s hands. The children followed his directions and Walter pulled out a chair for himself, positioning it by the sideboard.

Louisa glared a final warning at the girls and turned to Walter with a smile. “There. Should I leave you now?” Walter hesitated. “She’s just like my Gloria,” he said, staring at Nora. Louise looked and in that instant saw the resemblance and understood the loss for the first time. She squeezed his shoulder and left the room.

Inspired by The Lustre Jug by Walter Osborne (1902)

The fear of dying badly

Most journalists covering Swiss news will eventually be confronted with the issue of assisted suicide, legal in this country as long as the person helping does not benefit from the other’s death. This week assisted suicide organisations claimed that a state-funded research programme exploring the theme of death and dying was biased against their activities (a claim swiftly denied). I’ve written about this controversial subject before and it always makes me think, and wonder. Will this ever come close to home?

Last year I attended the World Right-to-Die conference in Zurich – as well as popping in to the protest counter-conference across the street, convened by a Canada-based pro-life & anti-euthanasia group. It was a long day. Around that time I also interviewed a woman who had helped her elderly mother pursue her wish to die.
You can read about that case here .

One speaker at the right-to-die conference made a strong impression on me and I grabbed a few minutes with him later in the hotel lobby. A palliative care doctor who looks after 300 terminally ill patients a year, he has more experience than most of the wishes of the dying. Up to 20 of his patients per year express the wish to avail of assisted suicide but only one or two of them actually see it through.

What makes a person who knows they will die soon want to intervene and end their own life? According to the doctor, there are two types of terminally ill people seeking assisted suicide. The first type is a strong willed, usually successful person who is used to controlling their own destiny. They reject the decline and suffering facing them and decide to end things on their own terms.

But for most people this doctor deals with, the main motivating factor is fear – fear of suffering and fear of being a burden to others. Terminally ill patients are not afraid of death, but of dying badly. They are terrified of dying in awful pain, gasping for breath – a fate that modern medicine can spare us. When this fear is taken away, by informing the patient about pain management and sedation on the one hand and reassuring them that professionals will be in place to care for them when the time comes, the suicide wish usually goes away too.

Assisted suicide now accounts for one in four Swiss suicides. Most of the people who go down this road are suffering from long-term rather than terminal illnesses. Suicide is usually carried out by taking a lethal dose of barbiturates procured with the help of an assisted suicide organisation.

As our population ages and excellent health care means people can live for much longer (but not necessarily well) with multiple illnesses, investing in the provision of good palliative care is one way to make sure assisted suicide remains a minority choice. But for those who decide they can’t take any more, there is comfort in knowing that there is a safe, humane and legal way out.

The Newspaper Hour

Beginning with the front page, Marta read out the headlines and waited for the nod. If there was a medical or health connection, Dr Cleary would definitely want the full article. The economy was also a must, although he tended to shout “mumbo-jumbo” angrily before she got the end. Politics brought on more heckling. He seemed to know all these people with their unpronounceable names intimately and he didn’t like any of them. The old man remained silent, his head bowed, during accounts of natural disasters or other senseless tragedies.

What made it tiring at first was that she had to pronounce everything right. He would interrupt her five times in a sentence. Inside she would be railing against him but she remained outwardly docile. On the Tuesday of her second week she deliberately forgot the paper but his disappointment was too much for her. She didn’t come empty handed again.

After reading through the first story, she would offer to do some housework but he always refused. Although the house was tidy, it needed a good clean. Marta considered switching with someone else. She was afraid someone might inspect the place and she would get into trouble. But all he wanted with his hour was the newspaper.

Three weeks into the job Marta made a stand. She struck a deal with him that the final fifteen minutes would be given up to cleaning. In this time she raced around with a cloth and disinfectant spray wiping down surfaces, speed vacuumed the hall, stairs and landing or swept and mopped the kitchen floor.

By the New Year the reading time had become less fraught and more interesting. Marta was getting to know the themes and the players. When she tut-tutted over the latest revelations about the minister for transport Dr Cleary chuckled. From then on they read and listened as a team. She would pour a cup of tea for herself and pause to take sips, enjoying his rapt attention.

On a mid-March morning Graham was passing the graveyard on his jogging route and stopped at the entrance. He pushed open the gate and walked down the hill towards the newer graves. It was a heart-soaring day, the first spring warmth in the air, the sky boldly blue. Could it only have been a week before that they had buried his father seemingly in the depths of winter?

All the what-to-do-about-Dad conversations were over. There would be no more late night skype calls from his brother in Australia. For over a year Conor had pestered Graham relentlessly, his anxiety multiplied by distance. A blind 79 year old man cannot live alone, he insisted, as if it were a known natural law. But Graham saw his father once a week and thought he was doing OK. He’s partially sighted, he would remind Conor. I organise the internet shopping. He doesn’t complain.

Graham turned into his father’s row, his sneakers compressing the soft grass. There was a child’s grave on the left complete with paper windmills and toy trucks. He hadn’t noticed it at the funeral but he hadn’t noticed much that day. The wooden crosses on the new graves were all the same. He assumed the last in the row would bear his father’s name but there was a new grave there and Dr John Cleary was now second from the end.

The funeral wreaths that still covered the mound of earth looked surprisingly fresh. Leaning against the thin wooden cross was something new. Graham leaned over to pick it up. In a plastic folder someone had placed that day’s Independent on the grave. Odd, Graham thought, Dad hasn’t read the paper in years.