Magazine article The Spectator

Journey of a Soul

Magazine article The Spectator

Journey of a Soul

Article excerpt

When my grandmother died, a family legend grew up that, as she was breathing her last, her son, my Uncle Frank, the proverbial black sheep, was seen sitting beside her hospital bed reading the back page of the Daily Mirror. It was an outrage that confirmed suspicions in many quarters that Frank was entirely lacking in human decency. Many haven't spoken to him since. His reputation plummeted still further when, soon afterwards, after a protracted long-distance courtship with a Filipino lady half his age, he married a Russian. But for most of us it was the Daily Mirror story that put him beyond the pale. It has never been made clear to me whether we were outraged because he was reading, or because he was reading a tabloid, or because he was reading a sports page. I made sure, however, that when I visited Uncle Jack last week as he lay dying in hospital I left the paper in the car.

Originally Uncle Jack had gone to hospital for an investigation. He'd woken up shouting about a pain in his lower back. His gigantic doctor came and poked him with two sausage-like fingers then confided to us that he thought the cancer in Uncle Jack's prostate had spread to his lower spine. We loaded him into an ambulance ('Help! Help!' he yelled) which took him to the local cottage hospital, where he was allocated a bed on a six-bed men's ward.

Next morning I rang the hospital to ask how he was and I could hear him yelling in the background. 'He's been very abusive,' said the sister accusingly, the suggestion being that as a relative of his I was partly to blame. In the afternoon I went to visit him. The other patients, elderly men, looked either worn out or in deep shock. 'I don't mind,' said the skeleton in the next bed, 'but he does.' He indicated an L-shaped form in the bed opposite with the bedcovers pulled tightly over its head.

They X-rayed Uncle Jack, but because nobody was qualified to interpret the photograph it was sent away by post to another, larger hospital. A week went by. He was in too much pain to come home so they attached a morphine drip and gave him sedatives in a largely futile effort to keep him quiet. Towards the end of the week he contracted a chest infection, which quickly turned to pneumonia, and by the weekend his lungs were bubbling with fluid and we were taking it in turns keeping a vigil at his bedside. …

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