January 12th 2018 was Auntie Bridie’s 30,695th and last day. She was in Tralee hospital. We gathered around her. We spoke of her wonderful character. We shared funny stories of her irreverent moments and of the many times she had spoken her mind to us or other family members. We hoped to avoid the inevitability of her death. When the nurse told us to expect it we said she had defied medical opinion before. And then she died.
There is no more privileged moment than being present with someone as they die. Here they are totally vulnerable. They are caught by the momentous split-second of their departure. If they are not alone their breath is awaited, and awaited. We who stand and sit around them hardly dare breathe ourselves as we watch for signs of life. Often we wait, long after the machines become quiet, and long after we expect to see the lift of the next breath. We still and stop as the beloved becomes something else, other than the person they were.
Death is the only absolute. There is nothing partial here. Death stands apart from other, pseudo opposites which are really points on a continuum – hot and cold, up and down, fat and thin. One can always plead hotter, downer or thinner. But not deader. Not nearly alive. To see a person move from life to death is the ultimate in intimacy; in privilege and potentially in accompaniment. They are the centre of the room. They are leaving all they have been, all they have seen; all they have held. They are going where none of us has gone. It is their moment.
In the moment of Bridie’s death the story of our lives changed. Something was added, or rather something was stopped. For most of us around her bed there was always Bridie. Always her home, her kitchen, her tea, her presence. Now her death brought changes we couldn’t imagine. It was an affront to our view of ourselves and the world. We said we couldn’t believe it. Our focus moved from the drama of her last moments to the drama of our loss.
So that’s the funeral. The drama of her life and the drama of our loss. A collision of memory, liveliness and the chasm of absence. A collision which exposes the inadequacies and needs of family members; stirs up old sorrow; brings people face to face with past and future, with love and loss. Not to mention one another. And, in Ireland, this is so swift as to be nearly merciless.
Enter the rite. Enter the pastoral minister. Enter the friends and neighbours. Enter the gravedigger, the undertaker and the priest. Enter the handshake, the whisper and the bell. Even as we are scandalised we step into this process, pulled and cajoled and eased by our people. They will not let us alone until it is done. Until the lid is closed; the coffin lifted and lowered; the smell of fresh earth; the sound of the sea.