On Death

Dying is possibly one of our most human acts. Yet, it’s generally not something that people talk about unless they have to (and sometimes not even when they have to). Death is not usually an event that people take the time to really mull over, to meditate on, to envisage as a moment in their life like any other or indeed to envisage it as one of the most seminal and important moments in their life that can influence their entire the being. German Philosopher Martin Heidegger, unappologetically argues that if we are to be “authentic” human beings then we need to confront our own finitude. We need to live in the knowledge of our “being-towards-death”. He writes that for our “inauthentic” selves, the self that avoids the reality of our own finitude, death is constructed as an actuality rather than a possibility. This construction renders death as an event that is not really our own, that cannot be shared by others and thus conceals death from us as something that happens to us.  I often think about my own death. I realise this sounds morbid (well… not according to Heidegger)  and my more socially aware self wants to recoil from this sentence. Nonetheless, it is true. I have often played over in my mind what my death will look like, sound like; at times even smell like (it’s a nurse thing to think about smells!). 

I think of the moment of my death as an anticlimactic event.   At my last breath my chest rises a feeble centermeter or two, my open mouth makes one final grab at the like a suffocating fish on dry land and my acidotic breath leaves my pale cool physicality for the last time.  The toxins of dying have flooded my vessels and there is not great battle or fan-fair – it  happens, just as it’s meant to. But perhaps what interests me the most about  this scene is that I cannot see anyone beside me during this event. In fact, I wonder if  I actually want anyone to be with me when I die. I have often thought about this and on numerous occassions  have decided that I do not want company.  This is not based in the desire to spare other people from the event or save some last thread of self-digity by not being exposed to others in such a vulnerable time.  Rather, if indeed dying is one of our most intimately human acts, then arguably it is something we can only do by ourselves, a communion (no religous pun intended) with ourself. With others present (milling, watching, holding, talking, touching) the act of dying is morphed almost into a goup event – something which at its heart it connot be. But even as this there is another uncomfortable part of me that whispers “maybe you’re wrong”. Maybe your delluding yourself…. 

The notion of dying as a communion with oneself is a thought that sits in stark contrast to my years of experience nursing people who are dying. Many fear the thought of dying alone.  For some family members the thought of their loved one dying alone is worse than the death itself.  So what do we fear the most death or being alone in death? I do ponder whether the thought of being alone with our own self  at death – the very time which we have deluded ourselves will actually occur  – frightens us to our core? Moreover, perhaps for those family members/friends that sit in vigil, the process of sitting alongside another while they are dying reinforces a way of thinking about death as an actuality that happens to another rather than to oneself.

 

The Dangers of Coveting Competence

I am fearful of not appearing competent. This is one of my biggest fears and it looms over me to varying degrees. The notion of competence, of being competent, has formed a core foundation of how I have understood myself probably since I had the capacity to be self-reflective. If you look up the word competence the Oxford Dictionary defines is as “the ability to do something successfully or efficiently”. Personally I’d prefer the definition to be reworded to replace “or” with “and” – but this is a small quarrel that I am sure the curators of the Oxford English Dictionary would have no interest in. I genuinely feel a sense of joy and comfort when I read the synonyms for competence – “capability, “ability”, “capacity”, “proficiency” “skilled”, “proficient”, “aptitude”, “mastery”, expertise” and my personal favourite “adroitness”. I think if I was to have a tombstone it might read (in what would certainly be an exercise of posthumous self-indulgence),“She had an adroitness in all that she pursued”.

However, the problem with the unrelenting desire to appear competent is that it fuels an uncomfortable, glaring awareness of one’s own shortcomings, which is accompanied by inexorable cognitive dissection of those pockets of vulnerabilities, which of course at any time could undo the coveted competent you.

Let me provide an example. I am currently leading a 2-year multi-site project with a budget that is worth more than 6 years of my salary. The process of setting up and leading a project that relies on numerous other stakeholders and their intersecting interests feels to me like trekking through a familiar landscape. In fact stepping into the project, from what had become a largely clinical role in my organisation, felt like putting on a well worn, comfortable, old pair of runners. In essence, this role is not new ground. However, such familiarity does little to quell the moments of sheer panic that hijack my inner cognitive workings, when the mere (and yes, I realise unlikely) possibility arises that I may appear incompetent to my peers in something I am a fucking specialist in!

So at the first project team meeting, which was really a meet-and-greet and general update, I entered the room with my dear friend – The Looming Fear of Incompetence (which from now on will be referred to as TLFoI). We – TLFoI and myself – had a pile of agendas, a PowerPoint presentation ready to go and a rather “no-nonsense”-looking Gantt chart for distribution. So being the professional that I am, I greeted the team members who had come from near and far and then proceeded to “hold court” explaining my unpredictable propensity to become motion sick on Sydney trains.

Yes, you did read the previous sentence correctly.

This monologue was sparked by two intersecting events; the presence of an enormously over-catered lunch (that of course I would not be partaking in – due to my waves of nausea) and a somewhat misplaced belief that I could shed TLFoI with some “down to earth” chat. However, it soon became apparent that motion sickness was not the great equaliser it promised to be. So with a carefully inserted segue, which I would rather forget, we transitioned to the meeting proper. It started well, I thanked the team members for attending, provided a brief overview of what we would talk about and reiterated some of the comments that had been shared through our email trails about the exciting opportunities that the project offered.

And enter…TLFoI!

What I should have done next was reach over to the laptop that sat about 30cm away from me, performed a decisive arrow-down and started the PowerPoint presentation. This I did not do, instead I disclosed to the group that I was “quite nervous about the meeting”. This statement, if not subjected to further conversation may have just evaporated quietly into the ether, however it did not have such a chance, as I then launched into musings about the fact that I was not usually nervous about such meetings and was quite confused about this and what it all meant. Yep, they got to share in my cognitive fusion as well!

Thanks to the generosity and kindness of my colleagues, one pointed out that my nervousness reflected the importance of the work we will be doing and another reassured me that I was “amongst friends”. In response I thought “thank you” and “fuck off LFoI!”

On reflection (the cringing sort that you can only do post the event on the train home), my disclosure could be construed as an attempt at setting up a sense of reciprocity with the group by revealing some of my personal self; my vulnerability, my nervousness. But as I fought back the waves of nausea from a second bout of motion sickness, further dissection led me to the realisation that this is a ruse that covers up an even more concerning subterfuge. This being that, by revealing a sense of nervousness, I may be forgiven indeed excused if the forthcoming discussions exposed me as less capable and competent than what others supposed me to be, or indeed what I supposed myself to be. I realise how manipulative this sounds, but I fear it is more manipulative to not write this out to completion.

So I arrived home after the meeting, which by the way was successful and very productive. As I changed into my more comfortable house uniform I thought to myself with a sense of contentment “that was a good day” and before I caught myself my next thought leapt into consciousness… “they’ve probably all got you pinned now as a high-achieving, type-A neurotic perfectionist”. It’s in these moments that you have to admit that you inhabit a battleground, where you struggle and engage in dirty skirmishes with the TLFoI and we will at times do things that may be better not done, in an attempt to placate the internal discomfort.

 

Dementia: the often unknown path

There’s no roadmap for living with or alongside someone who has dementia. When a dear friend was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s some 10 years ago, no one handed him or his wife any sort of roadmap for the journey ahead. This is precisely because there is no roadmap. While there may be the odd signpost, for the most part they are few and far between. For carers, living alongside a person who is living with dementia, life becomes an exercise in navigating the unknown. From the time that a diagnosis is made the unknowns accumulate. They rear their insistent little heads in the questions carers pose. ‘How long will this disease take? Will my loved one forget who I am? Will they forget their children/grandchildren/our friends? And as time passes …. Will I be able to care for my loved one at home? Will they have to go to a nursing home?’ The answers to these questions for the most part: unknown, unknown, unknown, unknown …. Unknown. Perhaps more than in any other time in history, owing to medical and social advances, we want to know the path that we will travel in our later years. In our post-industrial, highly-surveilled, medicalised lives we have been fictitiously led to believe that it is our right to have an ageing path that is clear and well-defined, even in the midst of failing health. However, if dementia elbows its way into your world, the inherent unpredictability of life (which we tend to unwittingly ignore), gives over in greater measure to the unknowns of this disease, which for carers, becomes increasingly impossible to ignore. Living with someone who has dementia can resemble walking blindfolded into a dense forest of exposed tree roots, low hanging branches and prickly bushes. Being a carer requires creativity to carve out your own path– your unique roadmap through the dense undergrowth.

 

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Career Disruption

I was filling out a very long and arduous electronic database about my research career today, a necessity to apply for certain competitive research grants.

One of the tabs on the database was titled “career disruption”. Basically,  in that section of the database  you outline reasons why your career may have come to a halt at some previous point in time, which may have  consequently impacted on your track record (in plain speak: periods of time translated onto a CV when  you appear unproductive in terms of obtaining grant money and publishing outputs).

Interestingly, on a variety of research grant websites maternity leave is cited as an example of career disruption. Clearly, illness or the like also qualify, however maternity leave seems to top the list of examples. The very fact that the word “disruption” is used  (not  for example “pause”) to me, raises question about the value that the research/academic community place on the role of women who choose to take time out to have children. I firmly believe in a level playing field and that the research careers of women should not be marginalised because they fulfil a role that society ultimately demands (motherhood). But can we still really allude to or refer to having a child as a ‘disruption’? Women seem to be caught in a Catch-22 situation.  On one hand, there is a pervasive social narrative that you need to have children to be a legitimate member of society (or at least not some sort of weird, highly career driven, responsibility shirking owner of a healthy set of ovaries, who will eventually regret her decision not to have children when it’s all too late). Yet on the other hand, if you do fulfil your maternal instincts and obligations, you will, if you are a researcher, be suffering from “career disruption”.

Reflecting on this, even if I did have children, on principle I wouldn’t fill in this section on the database. However I do wonder, in the absence of me having children that would ‘disrupt’ my productivity, whether I could explain my few years of very lean outputs (basically no productivity) in that same section on the database as “life”. I wonder if this would be considered ‘legitimate’?

Realisation: I have a 4 plus-D parent

My mother returned to work when my twin sister and I were 7 months old. At this time we went into the very capable and strict but loving care of “Nanny”. A woman who would became effectively a third (though non-related) grandmother for my sister and I, and later, our brother. I have always known my mother to be busy and to be working. True to form, even now in her 70s the busyness has little abated! We all hope this is the year she at least shifts back a gear.

For 15 years our mother owned and ran a hairdressing business. She worked in the salon for nine years before my sister and I were born and another six years afterwards. Her returning to work, at 7 months post our arrival, was definitely a financial choice for my parents; not a lifestyle choice. The salon, named Chezanne, was one of a number of locations that formed the geographical landscape of the early lives of my sister and I. Even to this day I cannot imagine the salon without the distinct smell of perming solution (or to be more precise -peroxide) seeping into my nostrils. My mother (at least through my watchful eyes) was a queen of perms and the quintessential “set”. For those who may not know what a “set” is, the Chezanne version goes something like this. Think… ladies of middle age and up, with short hair, doused in a setting solution, wound around a dozen or so rollers and their heads encased by a stationary hair dryer (which in hindsight held a striking resemblance to an intergalactic helmet – see Mork and Mindy episode at 58.06mins click here). Once the hair was dry and after some coaxing and backcombing, the end result was a crown of curls, finished off with an aerial dump of ‘final net – extra hold’.

I have many times over the years fondly recalled my visits to the salon on a Saturday morning, when I was perhaps 5 or 6 years old, where I would make cups of tea for clients and sweep up mounds of hair off the salon floor. I can clearly remember my mother buzzing between two or three clients and capably holding conversation with them all. Yet to my horror it was not until today that I seriously thought about what a unique woman my mother was. To my astonishment, emerged the realisation that, in addition to her domestic roles (which to my embarrassment I have unconsciously prioritised, as the lion’s share of her ‘lifeworld’), my mother was not just a hairdresser she was also a businesswoman, an artiste and client relations manager. As the businesswoman – I can vaguely remember material evidence of this –supply orders, books with lined margins that outlined product costs, a fat appointment diary and the odd apprentice. As for the artiste – well anyone who can tame perms, mould French rolls, and sculpt beehives; as well as any number of other impressive creations (which she can still pull off, as evidenced by my ‘updo’ at my brother’s wedding in recent years) at least in my eyes ticks the artiste box. Undoubtedly she was also adept at client relations, having had a loyal clientele; many of whom visited our home after she sold the salon. Indeed this is no small feat in a country town where little remains sacred for long.

Businesswoman, artiste, client relations manager…. I actually have to say these words to myself a second and third time after the thought initially formed, because they felt so unfamiliar. Reflecting on my childhood days, I can with little effort conjure up images of my mother as busy, tired, hurried and at times harried. Our father often worked away during the week – again a financial necessity rather than a lifestyle choice. Images of my mother coming home from her paid work and having to grind through further unpaid hours, almost certainly more taxing than those spent at the salon, easily take flight in my memory. But to think of her in the aforementioned tripartite ways, seems all but alien. This leads me to wonder; that perhaps for those whom we are most close and connected with, because of the very nature of this connection, we spend little time interrogating the seemingly familiar and taken-for-granted understandings of the other. As children, the world that we observe around us and which we ultimately go on to recall in our adult years (as imperfect as our recollections may be) is but one facet of a wider reality, often unexamined and unexplored. I often think of myself as curious by nature. This curiosity has often catapulted me into a vast array of interests and sources of exploration (Heideggerian philosophy, gothic architecture, Foucault, physical exercise often verging on the extreme end, personal training, yoga, Hinduism and Hindu goddesses – just to name a few). Yet my abject lack of curiosity about one of the people most dear to me seems akin to a criminal act. The realisation that knocks me to the ground from which I have to scrape myself up with a mouth full of dust, is that I have until now only managed to see as my mother in 1-D or at the most 2-D, rather than the 3, 4 plus-D character that she really is.