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“Let’s dance. Put on your red shoes and dance the blues” - a good way to die

My father “lost his fight against cancer”. The truth is he didn’t even try to fight it, so one must assume that my father was “a loser”. David Bowie recently died from cancer too and danced his way to death.

Bowie went quietly. There was not a lot of talk about it; and rather than focusing on death, he chose to focus on life. Ever the consummate performer, he steeled “every nerve and sinew” to sing and dance till the end. That was my father’s choice too, as he was efficiently investigated and found to be palliative. He chose a low tech, minimal intervention death at home. He wanted to maximise his time with his loved ones and limit contact with NHS facilities.

My brother was the human hoist; my sister the eternal optimist; and I, the realist. I would ask helpful questions like: “Do you wish you were dead now, dad?” 

My father fought in life; against successive, corrupt Sri Lankan governments, then in the UK to become one of the first overseas university consultants in Glasgow. He fought for his patients and against the erosion of hospital beds and services. The result of this was a massive cerebral haemorrhage at the age of 60. He was not for resuscitation, and I asked, “Do you wish you were dead now dad?”

“If I am still alive, it is for a reason” came the curt response.

Defying science, (for we had seen him Cheyenne stoking), he fought again and limped out of hospital six weeks later.

“If you say, ‘run’, I’ll run with you”

“I’ll get radiotherapy if you want me to.” he informed us.

“This is about you, not us, dad”. 

I knew his mind only too well, a little something to give my mother hope when, as a family of doctors, we knew this was the last dance.

“What do you want?”

“I want to go home” he said, and so we did.

We celebrated several family events, the last of which was my nephew’s ninth birthday party, two weeks before he died. His wonderful, attentive general practitioner had put him on steroids for cerebral spread, as he had nearly lost his vision. The steroids had made him sing, “Happy Birthday” garrulously. He was unimpressed when this was pointed out by my dear insightful brother.

“Because my love for you, would break my heart in two”

My mother would not let him go and so he tarried a while with us. I prayed to my grandfather in heaven, “take him,” but he was not ready.

“Where are you going, my darling?” my mother cried.

“When is a good time to die?” he responded, as he held her hands. The answer was easy: “The day after me”. 

He was fully involved in organising his funeral, to minimise the stress to us all. I can remember as if it were yesterday, dad’s hairdresser coming to the house. He wanted to look good in “the box”.

“Your daughter has made a mess of your hair, Sam. I can keep coming to the house if you need”.

“Truly Caroline, there will be no further need,” he said.

We all giggled nervously, sarcastic until the end. I gathered the shorn, soft fleece..a keepsake for the grandchildren.

The days passed and we reminisced, drank malt whiskey each night, watching him pretend to eat, but we could see that he was suffering. We heard my mother say to her ancient gods, “This has to stop”.

The next day he finally accepted the morphine and took death by the hand. Forty eight hours later, it was over.

“Let’s dance to the song we’re playing”

That was ten years ago, following which I wrote an article called, “How to die”.

I wrote how my father had taught me that dying could be simple, but we complicate it. My siblings and I observed in the papers that proportionately more doctors die at home. Why should our patients not have this privilege too, if they want it? Perhaps we are not making it clear to them when hospitals have little more to offer. My sister says no one was interested back then; the time was not right. Perhaps they’ll listen now?

I changed career after my father died and became involved in “end of life care” and the hospital at home service.

A host of lovely volunteers and our glamorous blonde minister enhance the lives of our patients, singing and giving hand massages, painting nails and playing games…if they want it.

People like Bowie and my father knew how to die: “Life in your years …not years in your life ..Let’s dance”

S Sanders
Community Geriatrician


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