Dream 16th of December 2022
I’m undergoing surgery, but instead of scalpels and sutures, the only stitches involved are in the tiny tapestries the surgeon places upon me.
“This is the final one,” he says, “but I have to warn you,” he pauses, “if this goes wrong it could kill you.”
It’s key-shaped, a crooked black line at the end of which there’s a circle and as he places it on my arm I wake up, to find I’m shivering uncontrollably, and my legs are verging on cramping. I try to relax, but it doesn’t help so all that’s left to do is ride it out and after 3 minutes, it tapers off. The last time I felt this way was the night before sepsis almost killed me in 2017. I take this as a message from my depths, “time is running out.”
* * *
Testing – Part 1 – May 2023-
I’ve just hit 58 and the National Health Service here in the UK offers several cancer screening services. So, I did one of the tests, posted it on Wednesday and 2 days later a written reply came through my letter box.
* * *
First Days in Halls and College – Part 1
Mum parked outside Ralph West Halls, and for a minute we looked on at those who were already moving in. The scale of change taking place for me right then was completely obscured by the mundane practicalities of this metamorphosis. Those ahead of us went back and forth between their cars and the building, the parents fending off feelings of loss while their kids hurried ahead.
I got out of the car first and made my way to the main entrance where a small, slightly stout black man greeted me. In a strong, slightly high-pitched West Indian accent, he asked for my name, checked a clipboard, and said, “Ahh, yes, I have you here, Mr Smith, you’re on the first floor. Hold on, I’ll just get you your keys.”
Mum walked over, looked at the man, pointed at me and said, “I’m with him, I’m his mother.”
The man laughed, “Oh, madam, I thought you were one of the students.”
Mum laughed too, half wanting to believe him.
“Here, here are your keys,” the man said as he passed them to me. “Take this lift to the first floor, and when you get out turn right, your room will be along the corridor.” He looked at me to see if I’d understood, then went on, “There’ll be a meeting in the main canteen at dinnertime, which will be at 6. The canteen is just down that corridor.” He pointed and looked at me to see if I was confused, which I was, “It’s very important you come to it. You’ll be introduced to the wardens, and they’ll go through the induction with you. You got that?” I nodded convincingly, thanked him and then we made our way to the room.
As we opened the door there was a single bed against the wall to the right, a desk in front of the window to the left of the bed, and a sliding door just to the side of where we stood in the doorway. Mum opened it, “Ooh, that’s very posh, a built-in cupboard and a sink,” She looked out the window, “I think that’s a bar across the way there, at least you haven’t got a boring view, and that must be Battersea Park beyond it. Can you remember going to the funfair there with Colin when you were about 5?”
I laughed, “Yep, it’s where I shot the prizes on the rifle range. I thought they were the targets.”
Mum laughed while John scratched his head, and nervously laughed too, adding “I’m glad I wasn’t there”
Mum raised her eyebrows slightly and interjected, “I don’t think the funfair is there anymore, there was a bad accident, and it closed soon after. Anyway, we better get your stuff from the car.”
For the next hour Mum, John and I moved my belongings in, then mum gave me a hug and said she wasn’t far if I needed her. I went downstairs to wave them off and as they pulled away I felt a swell of sadness as well as a little anxiety. I didn’t realise it then, but mum probably cried as she drove off, just as I would do too, 31 years later when I’d drop my sons off at their college. I don’t talk much about my kids here, mainly because that’s for a later book if ever I write it, plus they might not appreciate me invading their privacy, but I’ll tell you a little about them before I go.
Feeling lonely wasn’t new to me, but as much as sorting my room out should have helped alleviate it, everything seemed imbued with sadness. Thinking a bit of music would help I set up my little cassette player first and pressed the play button. The sound quality was awful, but I didn’t care, there was something in the songs that provided a sense of connection and right then that’s what I needed.
I hadn’t managed to unpack everything by 6, which was a relief as I didn’t want to be faced with nothing to do when I got back later. I looked out the window across to the canteen below the bar and saw a queue of people holding trays so I grabbed my new keys, turned off the light, locked the door and made my way.
* * *
Death – Part 1
Beginnings and endings weave themselves around each other in ways we’ll only come to understand as we feel ourselves move between them. As a child I was aware of death, I’d seen other children in the hospital and care home disappear and was told it was because they’d died. Later, in my early teens, I became interested in the philosophical, metaphysical, and religious beliefs surrounding death. Possibly, being so conscious of my own mortality led me to live as rich a life as I could in my early years, and as I got older it became an even greater drive.
Outside of motivating us to live better lives, offering relief to those who are suffering, and making room for others to experience life, it’s hard to see death in a positive light. Not only does it fill us with fear about what it will feel like to die, or be separated from those we love, but for all concerned, whether they have a definite belief in what lies beyond or no idea at all, the element of not knowing is a very hard thing to bear. Still, whatever we believe, death strikes at the heart of who we are and much of what we do, think and feel in life.
It’s a paradox then that given it’s such an integral part of who we all are it’s such a deeply taboo subject. Perhaps this has been made worse in more recent times because in the past when people were ‘officially’ certain about what happens after we die, it was far less of a contentious subject. Nowadays, however, the mainstream view is a very uncertain one, so consequently, there’s a sense of there being little point in broaching the subject in the first place.
Along with death lying at the heart of life, there’s love too, and accompanying both is the universal human desire for divine beings to exist. Humans throughout time have intertwined the themes of love, death, and existential survival within their religions, and come together as large communities long before they did so for any other reason. Places such as Göbekli Tepe in what is now Turkey drew multitudes of pilgrims to them over 11,600 years ago, thousands of years earlier than cities were formed as a consequence of changes in farming methods.
When Adam and Eve took a bite of the apple, maybe the first mouthful of knowledge they experienced had a maggot at its core, and with that came the taste of death. Then, as knowledge permeated their minds, it was the bitter tang of mortality that, no matter how hard they tried, they just couldn’t escape. Fortunately, not wanting to overwhelm them God kept the notion of taxes for a later date.
* * *
May 2023 – Don’t know much about Genealogy
For the last week or so I’ve been delaying finishing writing this chapter and instead spending a lot of time on one of those genealogy sites building my family tree. So far I’ve got back to the mid-1400s and now want to find out more about their lives. If ever there was an illustration of endings, as in the past and those who’ve passed away, interweaving with the future this must be it. Although I’m glad they didn’t all write a 46-chapter book like some. If I ever write the next volume of this, I’m sure some of their stories will come to light within it.
* * *
First Days in Halls and College – Part 2
A short glass-panelled corridor on the ground floor ran back from the left side of the lifts to the canteen, which carried on the glassy theme, so much so we’d all come to realise that to passers-by we were quite an exhibit. Just ahead of the dining room entrance, a large open tread wooden staircase led up to the bar above the kitchen. As I entered I joined the queue, grabbed a tray, and was soon served a school dinner-type meal, which as you know, I was rather partial to. I then took a seat at one of the more populated tables and said hello to my fellow newbies.
Soon after finishing our meal, and still chatting about the colleges we were going to, the manager of the Halls, Peter Hartnell, got our attention and introduced us to the main wardens and their student counterparts. As he went through the dos and don’ts and reassured us they, the staff, were all there for us if needed, I couldn’t help but notice the Student Wardens had a slightly menacing air about them. As we’d get to find out, they were the enforcers, and it was always best to keep on their right sides. When Peter brought the meeting to a close, one of them, a Welsh guy who was built like a contender to the Strongest Man on Earth, invited us to visit a nearby pub with him later that evening. Not wanting to sit in my room alone I tagged along and ended up crossing the fairy light-adorned Albert Bridge, then ambling up to The Cadogan Arms on The Kings Road. After a few drinks we made our way back and I, along with about 10 others, had an impromptu party in a room that belonged to a guy who looked and sounded like an army officer. For a minute I wondered if I’d accidentally signed up for an armed forces boot camp. But when the drink and marijuana joints were handed around I felt reassured I was indeed among other art students. Of course, drinking, and smoking joints probably happens at boot camps too, but I didn’t know that then. Anyway, I took a small paper cup of beer which I didn’t like, and when offered a joint I shook my head. I’m sure they were assessing me as much as I was them, and although I enjoyed the camaraderie between us I really didn’t feel like I connected to anyone there which kind of accentuated the loneliness when I got back to my room. I may have been aware it takes time to find those we feel comfortable with, but my loneliness had no patience so as I went to bed that night I wondered what the hell I’d gotten myself into.
* * *
Death – Part 2 – The Inescapable Truth
Teacher: “Four billion years from now, the increase in the Earth’s surface temperature will cause a runaway greenhouse effect, heating the surface enough to melt it. By that point, all life on Earth will be extinct.”
Student: Did you say 4 million or 4 billion?
Teacher: 4 billion
Student: Phew… That’s a relief.
* * *
Moment of Death
The medical definition of “time of death” generally focuses on the heart or respiratory system no longer functioning. However, for most of us, it’s likely to be our consciousness ending that truly marks our passing. Outside of the brain being completely destroyed in one go, it’s very likely to continue functioning even if in a minimal manner for some time after we take our last breath. Exactly how long is still a contentious subject, but in some cases, it may be for just a matter of minutes, while in others it could survive far longer, hours even.
Beyond the issue of brain activity recent research has found that for days after a human dies, certain biological processes continue, even at a chromosomal level, so in a way, those parts of the body are still not technically dead. So, when it comes to the moment of death, it’s very unlikely to be a moment at all, but instead an unravelling of multiple parts.
* * *
Dentist – April 2023
Tomorrow will be the 25th of April 2023 and at around 3:30 pm I have a dentist appointment, almost precisely 13 years to the minute my father took his final gasp of air. Last week, a temporary filling fell out of a tooth that had broken in half a few months earlier, and as it did, I felt a surge of dread. OK, most of that was to do with how much the dentist bill was going to be, but some was connected to the way we link the loss of teeth to ageing and death, even though ironically, it’ll be our teeth that will survive the rest of our body, possibly by centuries even. So, if you run your tongue along your teeth (if you’ve got them), you’ve just come into contact with your almost immortal self, that is, of course, if you’re not going to be cremated.
* * *
First Days in Halls and College – Part 3
The following day was a Sunday, so not only was it very quiet but there was no evening meal, just a high tea that comprised of a sandwich, cake, and a cup of tea. As we all looked at our minuscule meals in disbelief we chatted and I found a few others who were going to the same college as I, so we agreed to go together. The next day we met up after breakfast as planned and made our way, only for me it involved an almost unbearable amount of walking so that night I asked mum if she’d come and pick me up so I could get my bike. She offered to drive it up to me, but it had tall handlebars so wouldn’t have fitted in the car easily.
It felt a bit strange to be back home, even though I’d only been gone a few days. After a cup of tea and a chat, I made my way. While technically it was still summer it started to rain as soon as I set off and then to add to matters I got lost in Colliers Wood, as one does, so drenched, I went into a pub to ask for directions. Curious to see me cycle, a few of the customers came out into the rain to show me the way and wave me off. Even in Colliers Wood, there was a yearning to escape the mundane. When I finally got back to the Halls, I locked my cycle in the bike shed, and from then on and for the next 4 years I pretty much cycled everywhere.
* * *
Death – Part 3 – The Great Attractor
We are on a planet that’s orbiting the sun at 67,000 mph.
Our solar system is travelling at 137 miles per second.
Our galaxy is travelling towards The Great Attractor at 370 miles per second and at the centre of The Milky Way there’s a black hole, which like a large mouth looks as if it might consume everything in the Galaxy one day.
* * *
Facing Death – Part 1
I send a text to one of my students who’s recently had surgery.
Me: How did the surgery go?
Sylvia: Surgery not on, sorry, shaky hands, Looking bleak
Me: How awful, I can call now if you want
Sylvia: Yes, it’s pretty awful. Looks like I’m going to die next week.
I didn’t hear from Sylvia again, and sure enough she passed away 6 days later, but her son told me that during that time she came to accept her life was coming to an end with grace.
* * *
When death comes out of nowhere it’s possible we won’t be cognisant of its approach and for some that’s seen as a merciful end because the suffering is minimised. However, if people are conscious of their death being close then a lot comes down to whether they are able to come to terms with what’s just about to occur. Of course, given everyone will react differently it’s not just about time, but the individual’s personality, how long they’ve lived, the quality of their life and the nature of the death itself. All these factors will not only affect their own perception regarding the tragedy surrounding their death, but for us as well, along with the kind of relationship we had with them, it will influence the nature of grief we’ll experience.
* * *
1985 Near Death Inexperience
When I was about 20 I was cycling without holding onto my handlebars. As a cement mixing lorry passed by I hit a pothole and started to fall towards its large wheels to my right but as I did I managed, more by luck than anything, to grab one of the brake cables and correct myself. The two friends I was cycling with barely noticed a thing but for me, I knew that was a very close call. There were to be plenty of similar moments to come during my life and what’s more there may have been a lot more I was never aware of, but either way, death is always a lot closer than we think.
* * *
Facing Death – Part 2
When it comes to our own moment of death, there’s a very big chance we’ll be semi or totally unconscious because either trauma or modern medicine will have played their part. However, if we are conscious and experience pain it’s worth keeping in mind that this is the pain of life, not death, and we’re far more likely to have experienced greater pains previously, all of which we managed to cope with. On top of that, for many, fatal injuries are often not felt at all, in fact, lots of people’s last words are ironically, yet reassuringly, “It’s ok, I’m ok,” and for some, their body will release pain inhibiting hormones that may even be experienced as a kind of high. One person told me that when his heart stopped he knew he was having a heart attack, and slowly, like a light dimming, he painlessly became unconscious. Another said he felt a massive weight upon his chest, but still managed to walk several miles to the hospital. While I’m probably not reassuring you much, hopefully, you’ll at least take on board that death is not likely to be as unbearable an experience as you might be imagining. And anyway, perhaps our focus on physical pain distracts us from the psychological and practical preparations that may be of far greater benefit. To have spent time meditating upon our death, to have put our things and relationships in order, and to have lived the best life we possibly can, will all help us to let go in those last moments.
* * *
Death Part 4
There are times when I’ve thought, “If I was to die now, it’d be ok.” That doesn’t mean I want to go yet, but it revealed to me on an emotional level that it’s possible to reach a state where we can let go. There were also other times when I imagined my last moments and envisaged not being able to breathe. As I did, the notion of a panic-filled few minutes came to mind and with it, the image of my mother’s face came to help me through.
* * *
First Days in Halls and College – Part 4
The next day I cycled to college and found I was travelling behind one of the tutors we’d already been introduced to, called Mike Priddle. As we cruised along Lots Road he looked over his shoulder, recognised me then smiled and attempted to pull away, but I wasn’t one to be left behind so peddling as fast as I could I kept up. When we arrived at the college we locked our bikes up and he laughed, and said, “I can’t believe you kept up with me.” As you can imagine I was rather impressed that he was impressed.
Mike was striking looking, thin, with Mediterranean olive skin and dark wavy hair, very full lips and deep-inset eyes. But what was most memorable about him was his teaching. He’d start the lesson off by reading a story, then give us something to draw that would not only be technically challenging, but emotionally too. Dead animals he’d bought from Brixton market would be his go-to and often render a bad reaction from some of the students, to which he’d ask, “Can you only draw things you can face? Surely it’s the things in life we find difficult we ought to be willing to confront.”
Ian Beck, who illustrated Elton John’s album Yellow Brick Road said of Mike that he never really recovered from seeing Stanley Kubrick’s 2001 A Space Odyssey, and after that, his artwork became filled with references to robotics and alienated states. He eventually moved to France, near the Spanish border, where just 64, he died alone of pleurisy and was discovered a week later by one of his neighbours. But for us, his students, he’d remain in our minds for the rest of our lives.
* * *
Sometimes I imagine what I might experience after dying and it tends to go a bit like this:
I’m walking up a steep hill. To my left is the sea which feels far below but I can’t tell if we’re at the top of a cliff or a steep embankment. The sun is low, casting long evening shadows from the people up ahead, most of them are sitting or half lying down as they chat to each other in small groups and take in the last rays of light.
As I approach the first of them a few stand up and walk towards me. I recognise my father’s voice, “It’s my son, Simon, hey Simon!.” A man approaches me, who I realise is Boris, but he looks younger, and then to my left, there’s Ann saying, “Oh Cherub, it’s so lovely to see you.” Just behind her, my mother is trying not to cry. As the three of them approach, I notice many other familiar people nearby. Some are smiling, while others wave. “Don’t worry,” Ann says, “You’ll get plenty of time to speak with everyone.”
Mum puts her arms around me, “I’ve waited so long,” she says, “I wanted to see you so much, but I also hoped you’d get a long enough life. Did you have a good life?”
I look at her and nod, “Yes, I did”
* * *
It’s often hoped that as people die they’ll be surrounded by their loved ones who’ll accompany them as they leave this world, and on the other side, those loved ones who’ve already departed will be there to greet them. Just as death and love are central to our life, so is reunion. Throughout our lives, we spend a lot of time trying to reconnect with ourselves, and those we have lost or become dislocated from, and in death, many believe we’ll become part of a light of love, or stardust once again, or reunite with our loved ones and God. As you may remember me mentioning before, even the word religion links, some believe, to the notion of reunion in the sense of it meaning “Re-connect”.
* * *
First Days in Halls and College – Part 5
Chelsea School of Art was spread over 5 buildings in West London, the one I was in was just north of Wandsworth Bridge, in an old school building called the Hugon Road site. So, I’d cycle over Battersea Bridge and then follow the river’s curve to the college. A few days after term started I received my Grant cheque, so I had to open a bank account. I chose one of the banks on Fulham Broadway and after doing that I went to a Kebab café across the road. What I didn’t realise then was this area was to become my home ground for the next 21 years and the kebab place, a regular stop off with friends late on a Friday or Saturday night. Eventually, many of the other establishments I’d visit in that area would disappear, the café outside the station entrance, the old station entrance itself, the posh Blue Elephant Thai Restaurant with its watercourses and bridges surrounding the tables, and even the Chelsea Football stadium would be completely renovated along with all the tiny shops that led from the station to its turn styles.
* * *
My friend Ian, said to me, when he knew he was dying in his late forties that the stars were souls waiting to get the opportunity to live. Still, it’s easy to speak of the miracle of existing when life has been kind but to those for whom it was a living hell it might not feel like such a gift. Yet still though, for many, even under the most hellish of circumstances, kindness, connection, and truth can bring a touch of that miracle back into their world.
* * *
Testing – Part 2
The cancer test result that came back so quickly was a positive one, apparently, that’s not good, so I’ve been asked to come in for further tests. As I read the letter, it repeatedly attempted to reassure me the likelihood of it being cancer is low, but I still felt a cold chill run through me.
* * *