I am thinking about writing the tale of, or angelus for Ann. I need time. The history of art weeps with pietas and depositions of Mary and other mourning women nursing the dead Christ. Where do we find the equivalent masculine image of a man cradling a dead woman? Yesterday, I lunched with love…or an angel of death which has set me off on this train of thought and my tale end of Ann.
By coincidence, one of the people consulting me today was an art historian. I asked him if my presumption was wrong and whether he could provide me with a painted image of a man cradling a dead woman. Fainting and swooning women are often represented by the Masters and as he remarked in Roger van der Weyden. I have not yet found an equivalent to the ubiquity of Pietas. I must check out Titian. So far the closest I have come, which is not close at all, is Ivan the Terrible and His Son Ivan on 16 November 1581 painted by Ilya Repin… I have just thought there must be one of Orpheus mourning the dead Eurydice. Anyway, yes that pregnant word, today is Sunday and back to my lunch and the tale end of Ann.
Ilya Repin Ivan the Terrible and his Son
On Wednesday I lunched with a young friend who curated John’s last two exhibitions. It is almost a year since we had a lunch just after his father died in unexpected and dramatic circumstances although he was suffering from a terminal and chronic lung disease. This time we were in discussion about the coincidence of the equally sudden death – only two weeks ago – of his uncle and father’s twin brother, almost to the year of his father’s death in 2018. They were recipients of the same genetic lung disease . We were talking about our experiences of staring death in the face, the sound of the unspeakable death rattle and our shared opinion that it is barbarian that so many people – despite the overblown promises of palliative care – are destined to die in unspeakable pain and fragmentation. Sitting beside his uncle’s hospital deathbed my friend had willed him to die; to release his last mocking breath and liberate his uncle from terrible suffering.
I can never think about death without reference to those sinister lines in Much Ado About Nothing, albeit a play that has never touched me. The moment when the sensual Berowne is held to trial and instructed by the Duke to go abroad, to ‘move wild laughter in the throat of death’.
While eating lunch our conversation was peppered with death. We both hate the denial and legislation of our society which will not allow people the right to choreograph their dying breath. We agreed that we were committed to dignity in dying. At which point W said he wanted to share a story. W stumbled into words and, as it seemed to me, now sitting inside a nimbus of energetic light, he spoke to me about the endgame of Ann…
His mind was still focused on images of his Uncle’s cruel deathbed struggle as he cycled from Hackney to Marylebone. He stopped at the red light and his eye was drawn to a confusion some metres ahead. An elderly woman who had stepped onto the busy road appeared to have slumped into the curb and was now struggling unsuccessfully to her feet. She did not have the appearance of a bag lady although she was worn and unkept. The detail W remembered was that her face was unwashed, her upper lip nicotine stained. She had tried and failed to stand up. Nobody stopped.
About suffering they were never wrong,
The old Masters: how well they understood
Its human position: how it takes place
While someone else is eating or opening a window or just walking dully along; (WH Auden Musee des Beaux Arts)
W parked his bike and leant her against his shoulder as he gathered the rest of her abject body away from the road and shuffled her towards the nearest low wall where she collapsed across his seated lap. Two elderly men passed by and then turned back. ‘It’s Ann’. By now it seemed that she had lost consciousness and was fallen limp across W’s seated body. ‘Yes, it’s Ann. She lives across the road in sheltered accommodation’. W struggled to produce his phone at the same time as he cradled Ann away from the noise of the highway, pinned to the wall by her weight. ‘I think we need an ambulance – here take my phone and call Emergency.’ He could hear her pounding heart while her worn body he continued to hold steady. One of the men crossed the street to the care home and soon a small crowd of elderly bystanders assembled to witness the street drama, muttering, ‘Yes, it’s Ann.’ There was no struggle, no death rattle, not even a whimper. Ann produced a solitary gasp. At the same moment W felt her body lose muscle as she sank deep into his torso. He knew at once he was now nursing a dead weight. Trapped, he held her tight. Nobody else offered to rescue or to resuscitate. Will felt Ann was comfortable; perhaps more comfortable than she had been for years. The ambulance crew arrived some minutes later and pronounced her dead. It had been a peaceful and loving death in the arms of a rescuing angel.