Tag Archives: death

Ofra Haza, Yemenite Songs and Little Elf

Little Elf has a thing for an Ofra Haza album I found in a British Heart Foundation shop. Partly it’s the music, which she loves to dance to (I say ‘dance’ but I seem to do most of the work), and partly it’s the album cover which is understandably fascinating for any Disney Princess obsessed six year old.

Yesterday evening, everyone was back late from Cubs and Woodcraft Folk and I agreed she could sit up and listen to one song (“Oh, alright. Two.”) before going to bed.

Yemenite Songs is a curious beast. Ofra Haza was a Yemenite Jew and the album was promoted as a return to her roots. But the production is a sometimes harsh mix of early nineties digital beats and metallic clatter cut through with traditional string instruments and PCM synths. But Haza’s astonishing voice is at the centre of it, soaring, shimmering, weaving and winding…It’s a gorgeous, passionate set of performances, full of energy, tragedy and hope. I’m not surprised little elf picks it down from the record shelves so often.

This evening, she started asking some of her favourite questions.

“What country is she from?”

“Israel. She’s a Yemenite Jew.”

“Is she still alive?”

“No. She died quite young. It was very tragic.”

“How old was she when she died?”

“Forty two.”

Little elf contemplates this for a moment and snuggles a bit closer to me.

“So she was younger than you?”

“Yes.”

“What did she die of?”

Ah. Complicated and yet not complicated at all. She died of complications brought on by her being infected with HIV*. How to explain AIDS to a six year old? Carefully?

“She was in hospital after a miscarriage…”

“What’s a miscarriage?”

“Well…Sometimes a mother loses her baby at a very early stage…I’m not really explaining this very well…”

Thankfully, little elf changes tack.

“Can I see pictures of her?”

So we get out my iPhone and look at pictures of wonderful, lovely, inspiring Ofra Haza then watch some film on YouTube of her performing at the Montreaux festival in 1990.

“She’s very beautiful,” little elf says.

“Yes,” I say. “She was.”

*There’s a good piece by Peter Paphides about this.


Heart Attack And Vine

First of all, the heart attack.

My sister and I are having one of our rare conversations. Our mother (natural for my sister and adoptive for me) is in hospital after a suspected heart attack at her day centre. She’s been living with my sister for about six years and Sister is showing the strain.

It turns out that it isn’t so much a heart attack as a consequence of the extreme levels of calcification of her already battered heart valves. They can put in stents or replacements but there may be side effects for someone of her age (89 next week – as usual, I’ve forgotten her imminent birthday) and poor health.

“What kind of side effects?” I ask.

“Oh, you know. A stroke. Death. That kind of side effect.”

From anyone else, that would be a joke. It’s possible Sister’s developing a black sense of humour. She once answered the door to a man who asked her what her crutches were for (no longer needed, thankfully). He had a broad Liverpool accent so the conversation went something like this.

“Are you alright, love? What are the crutches for, la?”

“I have chronic continuous pain syndrome.”

“That’s too bad, chick – what does that mean, then?”

My sister fixes the man with a dead-eyed glare worthy of Charles Bronson in his prime.

“It means I’m in continuous pain.”

(Two beat pause.)

“That sounds really bad, love – can you sign here?”

“That was funny,” I said when the man had departed, quite quickly. She looked at me blankly.

“But I am in chronic continuous pain?”

Anyway. She isn’t now. She is, however, an Anglican deacon studying for the priesthood and is professionally determined that our mother is going to a better place. We agree that I’ll take a day trip up North and see our mother with Sister as an escort. For my sake, not our mother’s.

Our mother is upright and perky.

“There was a lovely chaplain. He came in during rest time and sat with me for ages.”

“That’s nice.,” says Sister.

“The heart man was very good. He says they could give me an operation that’ll give me years more life.”

Sister rolls her eyes.

“But the other two consultants both say that the risks are two high and that your quality of life afterwards wouldn’t be very good.”

“But why shouldn’t I live a little longer if I can?”

“But aren’t you going to heaven?”

“Well, yes. I hope so.

“So does it matter when you go, then?”

“But if I could have a bit more…?”

It’s uncomfortably like a patient mother remonstrating with a young child about the dangers of too much cake. Mum changes the subject.

“There was a lovely chaplain. He came in during rest time and sat with me for ages…”

“Yes, mum,” my sister says. “You’ve told us that.”

“”The heart man was very nice. But I think he’s too old to do the operation.”

Unwisely, I try and explain that there’s a whole team that makes the decision. It gets complicated. We hear about the chaplain again. A nurse provides us with a fistful of booklets about the particular technique this consultant has been trying to sell our mother.

“I suspect an enthusiast,” I tell my sister, and she agrees. The stats suggest an 80% survival rate after one year. They don’t tell us a) how ancient or otherwise these survivors are and b) how likely they were to carry on living anyway. We aren’t encouraged. We try to explain the stats and procedures we’ve just learned about to our mother and decide to leave it till the full patient conference next week which Sister will make sure she attends.

Then I prattle bravely about my children (whom mum barely remembers) and my job for an hour. At one point, she points behind us.

“Do you think those things on that trolley are for sale? They look very nice.”

We both swivel in our seats. She’s pointing at the coronary emergency ward crash wagon. It does have quite an attractive set of little IKEA-style red drawers.

Later, I reach St Pancras and buy a bottle of moderately posh red wine. That would be the ‘vine’ bit.


Being 50

I’m not actually 50 but I’m practising. Doris Lessing reckons that “For the last third of life there remains only work. It alone is always stimulating, rejuvenating, exciting and satisfying.” Henry Rollins contemplates the tree line, always getting further away. Leonard Cohen just looks it in the eye and laughs from the bottom of the well, covered in the “filth of the butcher”.

At 50, my father was contemplating retirement. I now wonder whether he admitted a kind of defeat – certainly one might argue that his life ended a year later and he simply drifted pointlessly on for the following 30 years. I think that would be wrong in many ways but his, well, settling for nothing in particular still baffles me. Retirement is never likely to be an option for me. Supermum’s father worked up to almost the day of the his death and it seems like a better option. I’d written ‘noble’ but that seems unfair to my own father, for all the difficulties between us.

He might have pointed out that there are many different kinds of work.

There are days when I tell myself that I’m tired but I remember tired days at the age of 10, 15, 20, 25…days when I wanted to lie down and stop. At fifty (or approaching fifty) one is grateful for the chance to get up again and start.

I’m lucky. Getting up and starting is still a blessing for me. I look forward across hopefully many years and copy down the words of an old Chinese poet, again thinking of supermum’s father and a last afternoon surrounded by his wife, daughters, grandchildren. I suppose what I’m saying is that I hope for the same and to not be ready for “the long journey” until a few days beforehand but to then be as ready as any man can be.

In yesterday’s winds I was happy to begin my long journey,
But today in all this sunlit warmth of spring I feel better.

And now that I’m packed and ready for that distant voyage,
What does it matter if I linger here a few days longer?

(Po Chû-i (CE772-846), translated by David Hinton)


Caspar was a good cat

A few months ago, Tilly, our 18 year old female cat, vanished. She’d just had a successful operation on her thyroid and had once again begun ranging far and wide around the gardens out the back of our flat. She was also stone deaf. We waited – her disappearing for one or even two nights hadn’t been unusual in her prime – but eventually it became clear she wasn’t returning. We suspected a fox, or a car, or that she’d simply got lost and adopted by someone. Either way, she was clearly gone. I grieved but she’d always been an independent little soul and somehow I let her go relatively easily.

But Caspar, just as old but suffering from arthritis and borderline dementia, missed her a lot. He began to roam around the hall outside our bedrooms miaowing plaintively at all and any hours of the night but refused to leave the kitchen during the day. He started to go downhill fast. Up to the age of about 15, he’d savagely fought off all comers and as long as Tilly was lurking in the background, he’d still hissed and made it clear he wasn’t to be messed with. Now, he hid from other cats and sometimes spent hours in his litter tray. He slept more and more. His fur fell out along his backbone and he walked more and more slowly, getting himself tangled up in everyone’s feet.

“Poor Caspar,” Little Elf would say. She’d stroke him then try and wrap him in a towel or blanket and he’d be too dazed and tired to run away.

Finally, I got up one morning and noticed a wound in his shoulder with something white sticking through. Bone. I cleaned up the wound as best I could and supermum took him to the vet. The vet called me and told me what I was expecting.

“The muscle over his shoulder blade has completely wasted away and it’s literally worn through the skin. I can stitch him up, but it’ll happen again. And I think there’s something more going on.”

“Do you think…?”

Pause.

“If it was my cat I’d wonder if I wanted to put him through another operation with all the stress and trauma it would involve.”

I booked the afternoon off and came home. Caspar was sleeping on his favourite rug in his corner of the kitchen. Normally, he’d wake up with a kitchen full of people moving around him but he slept on. I confirmed the appointment and carried him there. In the vet’s (thankfully empty) waiting room, I lifted him out of his catbox and he unloaded a full bladder over my lap before settling into my arms. The nurse provided a lot of sympathy and paper towels and then we went in to to see the vet, another cat lover.

I signed the paperwork and they left us for ten or fifteen minutes. Caspar would normally be struggling to escape from the table or get back into his box but he lay comfortably on the soft cloth they’d provided with his head resting on my hand. I thought of the the first time we’d met him, half-grown and eight months old in a cat rescue home in Norfolk. We’d put him in the box they’d provided and he’d shredded it, horrified at being locked in. When we’d got him home, he’d hidden under a bed and cried, only coming out for food. It was three days before he emerged to explore and meet our other cat. Tilly had immediately swatted him on the nose and hissed, then run away but Caspar followed her around patiently until eventually she let him share a sofa and even an armchair. After a few weeks, we’d see her lurking a safe distance behind him whilst he faced off against the local gangsters.

He grew into a big, classic black British moggie, solid and muscular. He’d never kill mice – just catch them and look puzzled until we rescued them. Or until Tilly got to them – Tilly had no truck with vermin.

Caspar was already asleep again. He’d had enough and really just wanted to check out, Tilly was gone, he couldn’t fight, the house was full of children and he could hardly walk. Enough, I imagined him saying, then reminded myself that two hours earlier I’d been telling supermum not to project rational human thoughts and regrets onto a cat.

The vet came back and gave him the injection. Almost immediately, he stopped breathing. There was a little tremor and I suddenly became aware that Caspar was gone and that the thin bundle of fur and bones beneath my hands was just a reminder. The vet left me there for another half hour and I thought some more and counted the notches in his ears. The nurse brought me some tea. Then I said goodbye and went home.

I’m still seeing him in the corners of our house and I keep seeing Tilly at the far end of alleys and disappearing over walls. I suppose I always will.


The unexpected half-life of a Neil Young T-shirt seen at Hyde Park

I bought a Neil Young tour t-shirt at the Birmingham National Exibition Centre gig in September 1982, nearly twenty seven years ago.  It must have been good quality – it (and the the other one I later acquired from the woman I was seeing at the time) have seen service at gigs, as pyjamas, stuffing for make-shift pillows and countless hot washes that would have devastated lesser garments.

Yesterday, I saw Neil at the Hard Rock Calling festival in Hyde Park.  He was, of course, fabulous (and he even brought out a Beatle – the recently divorced one – for the encore of ‘A Day In The Life’ which I really didn’t think could be credibly played live).  There were also tour t-shirts and I particularly liked the rusted out look of the one with the ‘Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere’ slogan.  I nearly bought one but something held me back.  It wasn’t the price (though they were pretty steep) – it was the plangent symptom of mortality they unexpectedly represented.  At the age of 46, if I buy a new Neil Young tee now, there’s a serious chance it’ll outlive me.

I thought about this a fair bit on the way home and changed my mind.  Today, we’re off to see Bruce Springsteen at the same location and, as the merchandise stands cover the whole weekend, I’m probably going to buy one – call it a Yeatsian an act of defiance.  I explained all this to supermum.

“Yes,” she said patiently.  “You know, my grandmother started talking about dying on a regular basis at some point too.”

“Just before she died?”

“No, ages before that. She was 102 when she died, anyway.”

I’m definitely getting the t-shirt.