Simon Mark Smith’s Autobiography
Tuesday night 27th April / Early hours Wednesday 28th April
“Welcome to the Orange answering service. Please press 1 to listen to your message.”
I press 1
“First new message, received at 5.40 am.”
“Hello, Mr Smith.” It is an exasperated voice. “I hope you have this phone with you. I do not know what went wrong. This has never happened in all the 35 years I have done this. It is awful. Your father wasn’t on the plane. I don’t understand we had him there on time, it seems they just didn’t put him on. We will get him on the next available flight.”
Sunday – 25th April
“Hello, Mr Smith” a foreign female voice comes over the phone.
“Yes” I am asleep and drowsy
I know it’s a nurse as I can see the hospital number on my phone
“Your father’s condition has worsened. If you want to see him we suggest you come soon.”
Doris and Ivan are old friends of my father. They are sitting next to the bed. We talk for a while, they talk to my father as if he’s awake but he’s not. He’s slumped, eyes half closed and taking little breaths occasionally.
“Do you remember Boris, do you remember when we first met” says Doris , and then going on as if he was nodding at her.
I walk out and go to the nurses’ desk where the nurse tells me his blood pressure has dropped below 90 and that’s why he’s in a continual state of unconsciousness now. They could bring him around but he has asked to not be resuscitated. I ask how long he’s got. “Maybe tonight, maybe tomorrow morning”
I ask about whether they follow The Liverpool Pathway protocol which is when the hospital and family recognise death is hours away and the priority becomes about making sure the person is comfortable rather than doing everything possible to keep them alive. Practically that means removing monitoring machines, taking out drips and other needles that aren’t involved in pain management or relief, and making the person as comfortable as possible.
The nurse tells me that they have done most of that but they are still “observing” him.
An hour or so later his friends have to go off and I am alone in the room waiting.
I get my laptop out sit down and say “I’m here Boris, you’re not alone”
I connect to the Internet and look up at Boris, his breathing seems to have longer gaps between each breath. I can feel the moment is upon us. I stand up, put the computer down and watch him.
The breaths are very small. I look at his face and notice his nose is becoming paler.
“Boris, I don’t know if you can hear me but I think you’re going now. I love you, we love you, we will miss you and never forget you.”
As I say this his eyes are still closed, he gasps for breath, slumps a bit and breaths no more. He is suddenly motionless.
A nurse walked past the room.
“Excuse me” I said “I think my father has stopped breathing”
She nodded at me and said she’d get something to check his pulse and slowly walked away. A few minutes later she connected some equipment to him and confirmed his pulse had stopped.
“I’ll get the doctor to come and confirm he has passed away”
She walked out, closed the door and left me in the room alone.
I kissed Boris on the forehead and stood for a while.
I called Doris, and then some relatives in Israel . As I got to the end of each call my eyes welled up and I could no longer speak.
As the afternoon stretched out a duty officer came in, checked Boris for vital signs, and pronounced him dead – they wrote down the time of death as 3:50 pm but actually it was more like 3:40 –. I asked him if he’d ever found anyone wasn’t dead and he said no. Then two nurses carefully washed him, redressed him and lay him flat. Finally some porters came to take him to the morgue, the nurses put him in a white body bag, placed a slip of paper in to a window on the bag and as I accompanied him in the lift to the basement and said goodbye he became part of the system.
Wednesday 28th April – Early Hours
My father died on Sunday, I was on a plane supposedly with his body on Tuesday night bound for Israel so he could be buried on Wednesday afternoon.
The previous day had been a series of duties. Go to the hospital to get the medical certification of death, then to the registry office to register the death, then to the benefits and pension office to let them know. Contact the funeral directors; drop off the body release form for the funeral directors; talk to the coroner’s office about giving an out of country certificate; Notify the people who run the home he lives in, and give notice to quit. Go to the bank to get control of his money to pay expenses – for now paid on a credit card (So far: £4000 for the flight, £4000 for the burial plot, headstone, and “eternal” maintenance and £500 for his body to be transported from the airport to the grave). There is a bit of time to grieve but not much.
Wednesday 28th April – 5.20 am UK Time 7.20 local time in Israel .
I have flown in to Israel , been picked up by my cousin here, tell her that as usual I have been fully checked over by El-Al security. “Tell them you have family here!”, Her husband says, “trust me I did” I laugh. Then a bit more seriously he says “they don’t even leave 1% room for error”.
On the flight I saw a family crying whilst talking to the pilot. Apparently they had a dead young man they were bringing back. I didn’t realise that they were probably being informed that he wasn’t coming with them. I had been asked by the security guards not to mention my father’s body was in the cargo hold as “some people are superstitious”.
And so the flight, looking out the window at hundreds of towns, looking like islands in a sea of black, the crap food – I kept what looked like a mousse till the end but it turned out to be hummus – and the achy feeling of my little legs not touching the floor – I asked for a foot stall but never herd back from the attendant. – But the landing was smooth and the audience applauded. And then there was the long walk to the baggage collection and passport control, the guilty walk past customs even though there’s nothing to declare and then freedom, family, a lift and sleep.
But before I could sleep came the call, Boris’ body wasn’t on the plane. For someone who valued promptness it was ironic that he’d be late to his own funeral.
* * *
Thursday 29th April 2010 11:45 a.m.
“Is it time?” I ask
“Yes I think so” says one of my relations.
We almost drive out of the Kibbutz, which has the appearance of a holiday village, randomly set out little white buildings, before we get to the armed guard exit we take a sharp left and drive along a dusty track up a hill to a copse of trees at the top of it.
We get out the Landrover and walk in to the grave yard. It’s quite small, maybe 100 metres long and 30 wide. There are about 5 rows of graves. It is dotted with trees and mottled shadows. A group of people mull around a mound of earth. I approach them, they smile and we chat. We’ll have to wait, Micha, my father’s brother in law is late, some people want to start without him but I ask how long he’ll be, 40 minutes, I say if it’s ok with everyone else we’ll wait.
In time a blue car come speeding in to the graveyard, some of the people laugh, when it pulls up Micha is helped out of it. He’s an old tall man who can barely walk. He says as he kisses me 5 times “Thank you Simon. Even if I would have had to crawl on all fours I would have come”
Micha is given a seat and a plastic cup of water, he cries. Someone puts their arm around him.
A blue van appears, a group of men take out the coffin and carry it to the grave.
“OK, OK… shall we begin?” Says my cousin Ohad.
We stand up.
Micha speaks first. He talks quietly and pauses between sentences.
“When we were young children in Latvia Boris once looked at me and said “”You have slanty eyes””. So I picked up a stone, held Boris down and banged it on his forehead for 5 minutes. Boris my friend please I ask of you forgive me.
One day, after I married his sister, Boris came to see me off at the station. I was going to Moscow and it was very cold. Boris offered me his coat but I refused. As the train pulled away he shouted “”Micha”” I looked and he threw the coat through the window laughing, Boris wasn’t just a friend he wasn’t just my brother-in-law, he was a brother to me. I couldn’t have asked for better” Micha could not speak anymore.
My cousin Ohad took the reins
“There are many stories I could tell about Boris… I am going to say it in Hebrew then say it in English for you Simon even though you’re the only person here who doesn’t speak Hebrew” Everyone laughed. I didn’t get my father’s multi-lingual gene, nor his full head of hair one either. I did get the showing off and flirting ones though.
So as Ohad told one of many funny – almost legendary tales about my father I tried to think of what I would say.
Then my other cousin’s husband spoke:
“I used to visit Boris when I lived in London . He had a most interesting life. BUT I know that the most important thing that happened in his life was meeting Simon. Without it his last part of his life would have been very different. It gave him meaning. And we all want to thank you Simon for all the help you gave him.”
And then Ohad beckoned me to speak:
“I haven’t prepared this sorry. My father once said to me that sometimes he’d look at me and wonder if he was as stupid as me when he was the same age, and he thought the answer was probably yes. I hope I don’t fulfil that now.
Every goodbye is an echo of every goodbye and I know that when we meet like this it brings up thoughts about others who are no longer with us, but I also know that many of our tears today are happy ones as we remember the good things about Boris. [I start to struggle to speak, I don’t want to cry but I can’t stop myself]. What I can tell you is there was my life before meeting Boris and my life after, and the life after is better for knowing him. I’m sorry I’ll have to stop now.”
Someone put their arm around me.
Then the men of the family lowered the coffin and together, almost frantically, filled the grave. I wanted to join in but it didn’t feel right to do so, so I stood and watched. The grave was filled within 2 or 3 minutes.
Once the men got their breath back one of the religious ones said a prayer for Boris, then Bluma, Boris’ sister in law – Boris was being buried next to her husband – laid a flower on the grave followed by me. As I put the red rose on the mound I said “Doris and Ivan say goodbye and send their love” as they had requested I do on the phone that morning.
A bit later I placed a stone upon the grave too.
We dispersed soon after, washing our hands as we left the cemetery – another Jewish custom aimed at keeping life and death separate from each other.
* * *
The religious Jews have many rules about death and mourning. What I’ve been told is that normally someone does something called Shiva, which is essentially become a central figure for family and friends to visit during the 7 days after the death. During this time people bring stories to the person sitting Shiva in order for them to gain some insight in to the person who has died. I will be travelling to meet my relatives – a kind of home delivery service Shiva – over the ensuing week.
There are many rules that religious Jews follow, as I am neither Jewish nor religious I shan’t be following them however I did recognise that in many ways they help those left behind to deal with the grieving process. For instance every good thing the grieving party does is supposed to be followed by them saying or at least thinking that they did it to help the persons soul to be raised higher in a spiritual sense, likewise they should keep a candle burning for them for a set time.
I did say to the person who told me all of this that it rather left the destiny of the dead to be in the hands of a third party. To which she said the actions of a person’s life are dealt with in a different manner.
* * *
Monday 3rd May 2010.
Boris wasn’t there when I was a child and I’m sure I carry resentments because of that. He felt more like a friend than a father, but of course he was my father and in time I will find my own way of grieving the loss of my absent father and latter day friend. We had a connection, which of course goes on, but there’s still a loss but for now that loss won’t show itself fully.
I thought today that a good epitaph for Boris would be.
“He travelled far and touched many”
I’m sure he would laugh with me at that one.
Finally, as with most traumatic things in life, one is almost shifted in to a far more irrational world. And so it is with death. The person becomes very present in one’s mind, one finds one converses with them as if they are there and there is an almost automatic acceptance of some real connection with the person.
As I flew home – I was in a plane, I mean I haven’t got that irrational yet -, I lifted the blind to my window as we headed over northern France. I noticed a lot of clouds below as well as a plane we were slowly overtaking and another that crossed our path at a very fast rate below us.
I thought to myself “So if you’re there Boris show me yourself in the clouds”. I knew that even if I saw anything remotely resembling him it’d just be my mind “joining up the dots”, so I looked out the window and immediately I saw a cloud that looked just like him as he died. It looked like him sleeping. I watched it until, my head pushed up against the glass, I couldn’t see him anymore, I laughed to myself, and I imagined somewhere Boris laughed too.
Boris February 2010
* * *
End of chapter 17