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We answer death with life

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True enough.

True enough.

I really wanted to write something cheery and amusing this week to perk up your week but then my stepdad died of cancer and, well, the breezy mood never quite materialised.

As I've mentioned before, his name was Sean Flannery, a somewhat notorious Sydney journalist, who made many friends and a handful of enemies during 69 years of life you could safely describe as extravagant.

If you'll indulge me, however, I'd like to squeeze some small understanding out of his passing and the greatest democracy of all: death.

I don't think I'm alone in wanting to avoid death - or at least minimise my contact with it - which is probably why half of you have stopped reading this column already and headed for the comics.

It's challenging being in a room with someone who knows they are going to die very soon; it's uncomfortable on one level, but also quite precious because you know your words with them may be your last.

So you tend to cut the bullshit and get down to the things that matter in conversation and, strangely, that's when you discover it's not words that count, it's just being there with them.

Sean knew his time had come a few weeks ago and, as was his wont, tried to make light of his final journey so we wouldn't worry about him.

Still, many times over the past few months I had to push back against what felt like a natural desire to avoid my stepfather and his suffering because it was so distressing.

As is often the case, what is difficult is also greatly rewarding, because in the time Sean and I spent together, we both came to know that being loved and cherished in your final hours is as much as any person can hope for.

Sean's final months were made all the more special because of the devotion of my mother, Julie, who nursed him through his decline and held to her promise he would die at home. It was a magnificent gift.

My aversion to death is not uncommon, and it could also be why Westerners, when faced with the demise of a loved one, so often drink themselves silly; to blunt the harsh reality of our common fate.

This was certainly the case at my stepfather's wake, a truly debaucherous affair, of which he would have been justly proud and quite disappointed to have missed.

The thing I've learnt about death, through the passing of Sean and my father Gus, is it's the fundamental boundary that constrains humanity because it makes us appreciate life, its brevity and sweetness.

Death is the bottle that holds the wine of life and it is through the prism of mortality we gaze at our existence. We know death is there, all around us, waiting, and that's why the wine is so dazzling, because it cannot last forever.

The late Steve Jobs once called death "the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

As I rested my hand on the cooling chest of my stepfather, I realised that, whether I liked it or not, my brother and I had to fill his shoes because he was now walking another path.

In his own way, I think Sean wanted to help guide us as we shouldered that responsibility, so in his last days his conversation turned increasingly to his grandchildren; wanting to know they were happy, safe and loved.

That was the beginnings of the wisdom he left me with and I hope I can pass to you; we answer death with life.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here.

His name was Sean Flannery, a somewhat notorious Sydney journalist, who made many friends and a handful of enemies during 69 years of life you could safely describe as extravagant.

If you'll indulge me, however, I'd like to squeeze some small understanding out of his passing and the greatest democracy of all: death.

I don't think I'm alone in wanting to avoid death - or at least minimise my contact with it - which is probably why half of you have stopped reading this column already and headed for the comics.

It's challenging being in a room with someone who knows they are going to die very soon; it's uncomfortable on one level, but also quite precious because you know your words with them may be your last.

So you tend to cut the bullshit and get down to the things that matter in conversation and, strangely, that's when you discover it's not words that count, it's just being there with them.

Sean knew his time had come a few weeks ago and, as was his wont, tried to make light of his final journey so we wouldn't worry about him.

Still, many times over the last few months I had to push back against what felt like a natural desire to avoid my step-father and his suffering because it was so distressing.

As is often the case, what is difficult is also greatly rewarding, because in the time Sean and I spent together, we both came to know that being loved and cherished in your final hours is as much as any person can hope for.

Sean's final months were made all the more special because of the devotion of my mother, Julie, who nursed him through his decline and held to her promise he would die at home. It was a magnificent gift.

My aversion to death is not uncommon, and it could also be why westerners, when faced with the demise of a loved one, so often drink themselves silly; to blunt the harsh reality of our common fate.

This was certainly the case at my step-father's wake, a truly debaucherous affair, of which he would have been justly proud and quite disappointed to have missed.

The thing I've learnt about death, through the passing of Sean and my father Gus, is it's the fundamental boundary that constrains humanity because it makes us appreciate life; it's brevity and sweetness.

Death is the bottle that holds the wine of life and, it is through the prism of mortality we gaze at our existence. We know death is there, all around us, waiting, and that's why the wine is so dazzling, because it cannot last forever.

The late Steve Jobs once called death "the single best invention of life. It is life's change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new."

As I rested my hand on the cooling chest of my step-father last week, I realised that whether I liked it or not, my brother and I had to fill his shoes because he was now walking another path.

In his own way, I think Sean wanted to help guide us as we shouldered that responsibility, so in his last days his conversation turned increasingly to his grand children; wanting to know they were happy, safe and loved.

That was the beginnings of the wisdom he left me with and I hope I can pass to you; we answer death with life.

Sam de Brito's latest novel Hello Darkness is in bookstores now. You can follow him on Twitter here.

44 comments so far

  • I rather think that alcohol at a funeral reflects the community of the deceased's mourners. At all the funerals I have attended it has been strictly tea and cakes. When the majority of mourners are elderly ladies anything stronger elicits a strong clamour for the kettle.

    Still I have just returned from attending a funeral interstate and reached for alcohol the minute I got in the door which was quite unlike me. Had to search to the furthest reaches of the pantry to find the cooking sherry.

    Commenter
    Eva
    Date and time
    November 21, 2011, 4:58PM
    • Sam, great piece of writing. Sorry to hear about your old man.

      **
      Then welcome, silent world of shadows!
      I'll be content, even though it's not my own lyre
      That leads me downwards. Once I'll have
      Lived like the gods, and more isn't necessary.
      **

      Commenter
      tom
      Location
      sydney
      Date and time
      November 21, 2011, 8:19PM
      • "my brother and I had to fill his shoes because he was now walking another path".

        I like that Sam.

        Makes me wish my brother and I had a Dad, to have that feeling.

        Death is bloody scary unless you're a religious type and even then I haven't heard too many of them wanting to hurry up and meet their Maker.

        (for those of you who have young kids - I wonder if it's anything like meeting Mr Maker).

        Commenter
        Stormy
        Location
        Cumberland Oval
        Date and time
        November 21, 2011, 9:06PM
        • Indulge away Sam. Another beautiful piece.

          I lost my father nearly 19 years ago. I hadn't been home in 8 years and I had not seen him in 7. Thankfully I had turned up unannounced a couple of months before he died and I had the chance to spend some time with him. I was still twisted and bitter and it would be easy run a million 'what ifs' through my heart and mind but at least we had those few weeks. Not long after he died the strained and worn threads that held our family together finally broke for me and I have been estranged from what is left of my family for many years.

          Part of me is envious of what you had. Of what your family taught you, the dynamics of love and the openness of that love. My home and family could not be more different but when I read your words, your experiences that you so openly share it helps to remind me why I feel what I feel, why I strive for something better in my life. It is not perfection, as you so honestly noted about Sean but an authentic nature of heart and the spirit. Thank you.

          Commenter
          Patchouli Cowgirl
          Date and time
          November 21, 2011, 9:39PM
          • I had to give up going to funerals for many years just to save my sanity. I hate them. I hate the misery and grief and I hate the body lying there in the coffin in front of everyone. Luckily no one I knew well died until I was around thirty. Then suddenly there was AIDS and my closest friends, fine, generous, talented, joyful young men with whom I had laughed and loved, were falling ill and dying in droves. I went to their funerals, comforted their grieving partners, helped to scatter their ashes in places where we had all been happy together, wept as their names were read out at candle light memorials, and made quilts to record their lives. Then one day I realised had had enough of the rituals of death. Nowadays, if I dearly love the relatives of someone who dies, I will go to a funeral but it's a struggle. I have told everyone I know that they are not to have one for me, just throw a party and dance til dawn and sing that song from 'Jerry Springer the Opera'.. I wanna do some living, 'Cause I've done enough dying, I just wanna dance, I just wanna f' king dance. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1WJ_RAadnxU

            Commenter
            Big Dan
            Location
            Canberra
            Date and time
            November 21, 2011, 11:04PM
            • "Death is the bottle that holds the wine of life and it is through the prism of mortality we gaze at our existence."

              I like that way of putting it Sam. Without death life doesn't mean much ... it would be kinda endless torment ... it also frees us for bother with utility bills ... if I might share, yesterday had been the anniversary of my children's mother's death (we had been married, but not at time of death, if you wonder why i put it so convolutedly) ... it was a` while back ... I check with them ... nup, they didn't feel any need to remember the day ... so I was left with my own muddle feelings ... I wish (every fnuking day) she'd seen our children grow ... so philosophy aside about bottles, wine and prisms ... get drunk, wallow, feel pain ... if you can't when your love step dad dies, well ... if I drank Sam, i'd have one for you.

              Commenter
              Fluellen
              Location
              Melbourne
              Date and time
              November 22, 2011, 12:00AM
              • The western world has come to avoid death and try not to think about it, and in many ways has lost the coping mechanisms and understanding of it that our ancestors had. Other cultures are different, of course.

                A couple of weeks ago we had Day of the Dead, and in the process of setting up the ofrenda we came across a wedding picture of my parents, so young and joyous and in love, an indication of the good life they had while they were here. Mexicans seem to find it a lot easier to spend time with dying people, possibly because of this holiday.

                Commenter
                JEQP
                Date and time
                November 22, 2011, 3:59AM
                • "Death is the bottle that holds the wine of life." Neat. I really don't have any answer to the big D, except I've long felt it is largely a semantic issue and we would all be better off if the word were somehow excised from the language or at least given new meanings. Perhaps in this technological age we could all be rebooted. Or at least reformatted. Sure, we shuffle off the mortal coil (thank god - I'm tired of mine already), but that is the very least of who we are or were. I think more advanced cultures (not only, but often indigenous) have it right when they cut the big D down to size by immersing themselves in a world of the simultaneous living and dead. I don't mean this in a particularly religious sense. Just that we Westerners don't do it as well as we used to. For some cultures, the wake is never really over. I like that. My Dad ain't dead. And neither is Sean. They are just in the Cloud waiting to be downloaded when we need them. Sigh.

                  Commenter
                  tp
                  Location
                  Sydney
                  Date and time
                  November 22, 2011, 4:42AM
                  • I think death can also be a bad thing because we are forced to sell out earlier than what we might be.

                    But that can be a good thing if your idealisms are stupid. I know a lot of mine were.

                    Commenter
                    Fred
                    Location
                    Sydney
                    Date and time
                    November 22, 2011, 8:12AM
                    • A old Japanese proverb , First the Grandfather , then the Father then the child.

                      There is a natural order to life. To pass from this existence, after a long and happy life with the people who love you close is what I would wish for myself and for everyone.

                      The greatest curse by the Gods is that you out live your children.

                      Commenter
                      slowhand
                      Location
                      Sydney
                      Date and time
                      November 22, 2011, 9:01AM

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