Cancer, my parents both died of it. A sister fell prey to it but survived only to take her own life two decades later. When I took a call from one of my sisters to tell me that my younger brother Martin had terminal cancer, I immediately made plans to go up and see him. There had been no chance to say goodbye to Rebecca, this time it would be different. The news was crushing, particularly as it came within four months of Rebecca having died.
I spoke to him by phone, his voice was rasping. I found it difficult to make him out. When I arrived in Twinbrook with my two children and a close friend, he sounded much better, even if auditory clarity was aided by face to face and the absence of tinny phone distortion. The time he gave to my children moved me. We had a heart to heart, free from sentiment. He was dying and could live with that. There would be no intervention by way of chemo or radiology. His illness was too far gone for any of that. Of course, we discussed the option of assisted dying: the choice would be his not the state's, the assistance would be provided regardless of what the state held. He said the only thing that worried him was the ten minutes he felt might trouble him as the brain shut down. He wanted his last thoughts to be peaceful so for that reason when the consultant spelled out his fate and asked him if there was anything he could do Martin answered: make sure there is no priest whispering nonsense about devils and demons in my ear. He had no time for clerics or their superstitious beliefs. He found their hovering around hospitals a distasteful exploitation of the vulnerable.
Martin was acutely intelligent and immensely well read, although there was nothing of the academic about him. He was earthy and refreshingly lacking in airs and graces, being at ease with the ribald and the raunchy. A few of his book recommendations I now have on Kindle and intend reading. They were works about science and evolution. He enjoyed delving into the origins of life and the universe, and always remained open to ideas other than religious ones. Every time over the years that we spoke on the phone he would discuss something about life, its purpose, origins, the great question of why we are here, always to conclude there is no meaning outside that which we create for ourselves.
Throughout my imprisonment he would visit me: a jail smuggler, endlessly bringing up the capsule of tobacco and other blanket protest necessities. He was always there for me. On my first parole we sat up into the small hours drinking; later paroles would see us do the pubs.
The loyalists tried to kill him in a girlfriend's house in Dunmurry in 1994, one of the assailants later dying courtesy of his own bomb detonating prematurely along the towpath. Martin avoided death because he could think on his feet. The detectives who came out to the scene were indifferent. The uniformed cops displayed a more understanding attitude. One asked him if he had been able to disarm the loyalist would he have shot him. When Martin replied yes, the cop told him he was right.
Martin was the brother Rebecca had decided to text minutes before she ended her own life. It was two hours before he checked his phone. He blamed himself but there was no basis to that. Nothing could have prevented Rebecca's suicide at that point. Yet it would have an impact. The headaches he was suffering, he put down to the stress of Rebecca's death and delayed doing much about it. A friend eventually forcibly placed him in his van and took him to the hospital where he was diagnosed with cancer of the lungs and brain.
He married his long term partner in the Royal Victoria Hospital. It was the same day as the Markle-Windsor wedding in London but we termed his the real Royal Wedding. His partner was Catholic and he acceded to her preference for a religious ceremony. We siblings bantered him that he had lost his marbles but stood around respectfully while the priest performed the ceremony. When the priest asked if he could call and visit him Martin said of course. As soon as he left Martin said, he will never see me, I'll be dead. While uttered in jest he appeared close to the end and at one point we were concerned that he might not make it through the night. I told him to go when he wanted to, and to divest himself of any misplaced sense of obligation that he had to hold on for the rest of us. He rallied and was moved to the Marie Cure Hospice in East Belfast. I had been there before, when a brother in law had succumbed to cancer. Abandon Hope all ye who enter here.
I visited him on a number of occasions. The first time I stayed the night with him. It was the evening Liverpool lost the European Cup Final, which we listened to rather than watched: the TV was not working properly. He was an avid Arsenal supporter and loved the major competitions. Weeks later on a Sunday afternoon we would sit and watch the World Cup game between Mexico and Germany. I promised to bring a bottle of whiskey which we would sip and share during the next game. He told me he might get out for a few hours later in the week to spend some time with his wife. On Tuesday I took the call from my sister to tell me he had died.
The fifth in a family of nine children he was the third to die. Pauline, Rebecca and Martin in that order. Being the oldest, I remember all three being born and dying. Pauline is the only one to have been buried, parents and siblings all opting for cremation. Leave the land to the living echoes the collective family sentiment.
On a beautiful sunny Friday afternoon, accompanied by my wife, son and daughter I spoke at his cremation service in Belfast as did one of my sisters who delivered the main eulogy. She had been unrelenting in providing comfort to him. It was a humanist event minus the celebrant. We both referred to his lack of religious faith, his love of live and his unflinching belief in the procurement of knowledge. My then 12 year old son helped shoulder the coffin into the Roselawn chapel. I jested that it would be practice for carrying me.
My sisters and brothers were devoted to him as he approached the end of his life. As well as his wife and children, his close friends Robbie and Raymond were with him to the end. Their collective commitment eased his passage from life immeasurably.
I am not philosophical enough to view death in the way that a character in Gil Courtemanche's breath-taking novel, A Sunday By The Pool In Kigali, did - just something that we do some day. But it is not a mere cliché to say it is part of life. Something that cannot die simply cannot have lived. The ability to die is the one indispensable condition of life. Death is the price of life. Martin died knowing that, and in the end was content to let go. He had lived a life in which he had done much more good than harm. That knowledge rather than Heaven was his reward.
Anthony McIntyre blogs @ The Pensive Quill.
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