Life Before Death

jim mccool
8 min readNov 12, 2020
Autumnal scene — trees with golden leaves

When asked about religion, Mr. O’Connor used to laugh and say: I believe in life before death. And right enough, he used to enjoy a good time to himself. He got through a packet of ten cigars every week, more around Christmas time, and he would have a glass of whiskey of a night time, if there was football or anything good on the television.

It was only after he had the stroke that he began to overindulge himself, and Mrs. O’Connor was sure that it was as a result of his condition, this inability to know when to stop. She would say to him:

“Now, Pat, everyone enjoys a good time, but I think you’ve had quite enough… You can have too much of a good thing, y’know.”

But, of course, he wouldn’t listen. Nothing would do him but he would have to get another drink and then another one. Not that she minded so much, but it was the trouble he had with the toilet, and if he was to fall over, how could she lift him, with the weight of him? No, it wasn’t that she begrudged him a drink, for God only knows, it was understandable that he should feel like one after what he had been through. Such a fine big handsome man. And then.

It was pathetic, that was what it was. That was the only word she could find to describe his condition after the stroke. One day he was fine, full of beans and looking forward to their retirement together, and then bang, everything gone. She had thought that he was a goner. He was that bad. But, with the help of God, and everybody had pulled together — the neighbours had been so good. How could she ever thank them all? And she had her faith to help her, as she told Margaret, John’s wife: if I hadn’t have had my faith, well, I just don’t know what I would have done.

She was thinking about all this, about the recovery he had made, about the excitement she had felt getting him home from the hospital, about their days and nights together, now, him speechless and immobile, while she cared and fussed…

She was thinking about all this as the hotel staff were clearing the last of the plates away from the dining table. It had been such a lovely meal, and the presentation, well — had been just wonderful, that nice speech that John McDonnell had made, then giving them a lovely brass clock, inscribed ‘To Patrick O’Connor, from his grateful colleagues’. Pat had cried, of course, but this constant weeping was another symptom of his condition, as she had explained to those who had gathered around to comfort him.

If only he would stop. But no, he had had to get another drink and then another one. Frankly, it was embarrassing. He was drunk, red-faced and dribbling from the corners of his mouth, which she kept dabbing at with a napkin. All she wanted to do now was to get him home. Get him home and get him into bed and get him settled. They had stayed far too long and she was exhausted. A good night out was one thing, but this, this was far too much. It was just one big tumbler of whiskey after another, for of course, the lads from his work had wanted to buy him drink, they didn’t know any better, and him, he didn’t have the sense to say no. Such a fuss he had made when she had attempted to take some of the drink away from him. He had squealed like a child. The whole place had turned and looked. If she had had the strength, she would just have lifted him and went, but as it was, what with the weight of him, she had to wait, and whisper at him, nudge him, “for goodness sake, Pat.”

She was close to tears.

She was close to tears when John McDonnell came over. He asked if everything was alright.

“Well,” she said, “to be honest, I’m literally exhausted, John. I would just love to get this man home. If he keeps on at this drink, I think I might just go on and leave him here.”

And, of course, John had made a joke of the whole thing, going on about how him and Pat would have a night out on the town and Piccadilly Circus and Soho and all the rest of it, but thank God, he had enough sense to go and get their coats for them and still acting the cod, had helped Pat to his feet — he was desperate unsteady — and started off with him toward the door. When the rest of the lads saw this, they rushed over to help, most of them awkward and getting in the way of themselves. But, thank God, they were under way at last. Thank God, thought Mrs. O’Connor, promising herself that such an episode should never be repeated, practicing what she would say to Pat, once they were alone: well I hope you’re happy because you spoiled the night for the both of us that’s what you did and the doctor said you shouldn’t be drinking at all and honest to God Pat I thought you had more sense.

With three of the lads helping, they had got him out to the car park and into the car. It was difficult as he got his feet trapped in the seat belt and it got twisted. He yelled and you could have heard him in Croydon. One of the young fellas — “Ah’m very sorry, Mrs. O’Connor” — apologized, but sure it wasn’t his fault. Finally, with his good showerproof coat all hunched around his shoulders, they had got him settled, and the seat belt on him and they said “Take Care Now Pat”, and “All The Best Now Pat”, and John McDonnell had poked his head through the car window and gripped Pat’s hand, because Pat was weeping again, and gripped it tight, tighter, and promised that he would be round to see him very soon, maybe tomorrow evening, or the weekend.

Normally, Mrs. O’Connor loved driving these days, for she had used the bit of money from the medical redundancy to buy them a wee car, only a year old. We might as well make ourselves as comfortable as we can Pat, she had said, and right enough, it was a pleasure to drive, usually. But not tonight, for there was a drizzle falling, and the tiredness was wrapped around her like a thick blanket, a woolen tiredness that dragged at every movement of her arms or legs. Pat was dropping off to sleep, of course.

“Pat. PAT. Don’t sleep now. Wait. Don’t be going to sleep yet. Try and stay awake till we get home.”

She didn’t want him to sleep till she got him home, for it would make it all the harder, getting him out of the car, getting him in the house and getting the clothes off him. So she kept at him, PAT, PAT, keeping him awake as his whiskyed head rolled, eyes blinking open, shut. And she kept driving, squinting against the glare of the traffic, thanking GOD that she had been sensible and had bought this car, so reliable. The old one had always been breaking down and can you imagine that, on such a night.

It was hardly no distance, really, but she was still glad when they got as far as the end of their turning. Home. Pat was asleep, head bowed against the strap of the seat belt. Too much drink. Far, far, far too much drink. She parked as close to the front door as she could get the car, right up close to the step. Then she got out and hurried, opened the house door and switched on the hall light, so that it would shine out and she would be able to see to get him in. And then she opened the car door on his side to wake him. In the light of the car, as she bent over him, to release his seat belt, she noticed the dark map upon his trousers. He had wet himself.

Dragged. She dragged him in the house, his bad leg dragging behind them, while she cursed at him. And she had banged his head off the roof of the car, pulling him out. The weight of him:

“You’ll sit there and fill yourself with drink and how do you suppose I can lift you? I just can’t manage any more. The state of you.

That’s more washing for me to do tomorrow, and to tell you the truth, Pat, I’m just not fit for it any more. That’s the end of the nights out, for good, I’m telling you.”

They nearly fell at the front door step, and she had to lunge, wildly, for the doorpost, to steady them. 0h Jesus, if he fell on top of her… They would both lie there till the morning.

“Come along, come along, move that foot, for goodness sake. MOVE THAT FOOT, I’m telling you, that one, that one there, like the physiotherapist told you. Jesus, Pat, you’re not helping me at all, PLEASE PAT, try and walk yourself along.”

Grunting, they made it into the living room and headed straight toward the bed. There was no use trying to put him down on the chair, for she knew that onced she got him down, she would never be able to get him back up again. So they struggled on toward the bed, their bed that young Brendan had taken down from the bedroom, to make it handier for them.

Brendan was a lovely boy, Lucy’s youngest, a great help to them around the house, and always a great favourite of his Uncle Pat.

They struggled toward the bed, and too far away from it — but she just couldn’t carry him any farther — she pushed hard, and he stumbled heavily, forward and onto the mattress. She let him fall and he landed hard. And there he lay, face down and helpless, gasping.

To turn him over on the bed, she had to lift his legs, so she took his shoes off first, pulling them off without undoing the laces. And she cried. She cried, the tears dribbling down off the point of her chin, crying.

“You want to kill the both of us. If your friends could see you now and them filling you up with whiskey and DIDN’T I TELL YOU one or two drinks is more than enough. I’m just not fit for this. Both of us, both of us, Pat, will be in the hospital if we keep on like this. What sort of a life is this for me? Do you ever think of that? Do you ever think of anyone only yourself? Is this all I can look forward to, pulling my guts out? The state of you, you’re worse than a child.”

She straightened him in the bed, and began to tear the clothes off him, still wailing at him.

“JUST LOOK at the state of you.”

She undressed him, washed him, and bent double with tiredness, dried him with rough rubs of the towel. Then she went and got clean underwear from the hot press, and again awakening him, got him dressed for bed. And when she had finished, she looked at him, and he had turned himself in the bed, and was looking back at her. Looking straight at her. She wanted to get on and get herself a cup of tea, get a sit down, sit down in the big chair beside the fire, the big chair where she often fell asleep when she was too tired to get to bed. She wanted to get to the chair and just relax.

But.

But he was looking at her, and she stopped and stooped down over him. He was trying to say something, his lips moving. She stooped lower and bent closer toward him.

And slowly, slowly he said it, so that she could make it out.

“Sorry,” he said.

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jim mccool

Human-Centred-Design consultant, critical thinker, writer, researcher, storyteller, believes we can work together to find a better way to live.