I used to think that if I imagined something horrible, then it wouldn’t happen. I’d anxiously predict car accidents, all the potentially deadly ways I could fall off things, or things could fall on me; a headache that’s actually an aneurism, a plane crash — my own death in a million different ways.
The reality will not be so predictable.
Our deaths will not be glorious. They will not be heroic battles against a disease. They won’t be a tragic accident so brutal that it ends up on the news. We are unlikely to breathe our last in a flaming ball of plane-wreckage.
As young people, we think we’re immortal. By the time we’re old enough to be diagnosed with one of those awful sounding old-people diseases, they’ll have found a cure, right? And maybe they will have.
We’re deathly afraid of comprehending the idea of not existing, of trying to reconcile ourselves to the pain and suffering that often comes at the end of life. We do our best to put it off with vitamins and yoga and juice cleanses and fad diets and wearing a helmet when we cycle.
Some of us will be lucky. Some of us won’t be. We don’t know what it will be like. But having spent enough time in NHS hospital wards watching the last flickering remnants of life going out, I feel like I have an idea (but I’m not a medical expert so this is all speculation really).
We might have eaten well and exercised and done everything right; never smoked, hardly drank, and still be forced to confront the worst news imaginable. Dementia stroke cancer heart-disease infection Alzheimer’s tumour haemorrhage aneurism pneumonia.
Hospital will become our new home. And everything about us will become grey. We will dissolve into bed-ridden lumps of human beings.
We will no longer be beautiful. We won’t be able to feed ourselves. Some of us will struggle to talk. We will need many, many different types of pills in order to stagger on. It will be degrading.
Our final weeks on this earth will involve many plastic gloves, plastic water jugs pouring cool water into plastic cups, plastic mattresses with sour-smelling detergent sheets, plastic wristbands reminding our nurses and ourselves of who we are, plastic food delivered on plastic trays.
There will be many tissues. Bright blue ‘modesty curtains’ as we delicately shit in sanitised bedpans. Our blood pressures and heartbeats will be measured obsessively.
Well-meaning staff in shades of blue and green will do their best to keep us alive as doctors deliver our families bad news. We will learn the names of pain medications, chemotherapies and treatments.
There will be state regulated wheelchairs and visiting hours that aren’t all that strict and more bleeping sounds than you can ever prepare for. It will be noisy.
We might need a constant supply of oxygen up our noses. We might need to be placed in large adult nappies. There will be countless cups of tea. Catheters will protrude from our genitals. Our food may need to be provided for us pre-softened. If we’re lucky, and still have a functioning NHS, this will all be done for us, free.
All skin looks yellow under hospital lights.
We won’t be worried about a wig if we lose our hair. We won’t care that our breath smells and we haven’t washed in weeks. We’ll barely know what day it is. Our careers will cease to matter (unless they could afford to buy us a nicer bed in a posher hospital). Our belongings cease to have use or value. Soon they will be a burden for our next of kin.
Our families will rally. Strangers will be kind to us. We’ll find solidarity in fellow patients. We will receive many pitying looks. And we’ll get more attention than we’ve received in our entire adult lives. Hurriedly bought grapes and disregarded gifts will pile up on the generic bedside table on wheels.
We will begin to smell like hospitals and raw humans. There is little dignity in this death.
It comes as a great surprise to most of us. We used to be brilliant. Or we never had the chance to make a name for ourselves.
We will remember our childhoods fondly and be jealous of youth. We might forget who our children are. We may forget how to sit up. Our brilliant, beautiful minds will still be within us, somewhere, screaming.
We will loathe our situations. It will be grotesquely unfair. We might begin to resent everyone around us, even though we know we shouldn’t.
We won’t deserve what’s coming to us.
There will be pain. Our faces will contort until a nurse ups the opiates. There will be much fuss over our comfort level, but it won’t help.
When it’s time to go, the nurses will turn up the morphine drips and our oblivion will be comfortable as our livers fail to process the drugs, and our bodies calmly begin to shut down.
Hopefully, we drop off peacefully into unconsciousness, surrounded by those we love. Or we may go moaning hoarsely into that good night.