Friday, 16 November 2012

'Cyril' – A Postscript

'Cyril' – A Postscript

It turns out things weren’t quite as bleak as I thought they were.

I hadn’t missed the funeral; it had just taken a while to arrange. And I was able to get time off work to attend it, and the committal.

There were more people there than I had expected: a gathering of, mainly, neighbours and nurses and social workers. Mr Mohammed was one of the pall-bearers. There were no relatives.

One of the hymns was ‘I, the Lord of Sea and Sky’, which includes the lyrics:

I the Lord of wind and flame,
I will tend the poor and lame.
I will set a feast for them.
My hand will save.
Finest bread I will provide
Till their hearts be satisfied.
I will give my life to them.
Whom shall I send?

Here I am, Lord. Is it I, Lord?
I have heard You calling in the night.
I will go, Lord, if You lead me.
I will hold your people in my heart.

[Daniel L Schutte, b 1947]

The words serve as an inspiration and encouragement; and a gentle reproach…

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Elegy for 'Cyril'

Last month an old man died: I shall call him ‘Cyril’. He was my neighbour.

He was from the Caribbean: I don’t know which country. I don’t know his surname. He had a wife, I believe, but they had separated many years ago and were not in contact. On very rare occasions an adult son would visit, but not stay.

I do know that he used to work as a welder, for many years in a local factory – now closed down. Some people say he used to work night shifts, and that this was why he was most active at night and often slept during the day.

During the ten years or so that I have known him he has never been away, never been on holiday, In fact he very rarely left his house, except to go shopping with a battered old shopping trolley.

He kept the front of his terraced house tidy, until near the end, painting the windowsills and the top of the wall around the tiny front garden (which was filled with a mixture of wheelie bins, boxes, and odd pieces of hardware).

Most frequently, though, he could be found on his front door step, or at the gate in front of his garden-terrace house, generally dressed in a chaotic assortment of the sort of clothes one might expect to garden in, (or in some cases to sleep in). He would greet passers by (everyone seemed to know him) and was keen to chat.

His conversation was of the style that is generally referred to as ‘holding forth’: he was not a good listener. His main theme was the extent to which a wide variety of persons and institutions had ripped him off in various ways: banks who had stolen his money, plumbers who had walked off with his tools, relatives who had let him down. Everyone he encountered seemed to be ‘boogers’, as he put it, out to exploit him.

Despite this, he was generally affable and friendly to me, and to the other people who stayed to talk (or, rather, to listen). He was something of a hazard if one was going out and in a hurry, as there was an implicit expectation that one wander across to ‘say hello’, an activity that might cost ten minutes or more. I sometimes used to peer nervously from my spy hole, and wait for him to disappear indoors before venturing hastily to my car.

He liked to know about everything that was going on, which did mean that our street had a sort of one man neighbourhood watch, but, on the other hand, also meant that I couldn’t receive a single houseguest without comment and questions. When indoors and awake, he would frequently stand at his upstairs window peering at the world outside, and unashamedly watching me as I pottered around in my study, which always left me feeling a bit unsettled, as it would have been the height of rudeness to draw the curtains.

About a year ago Cyril was diagnosed with lung cancer. He told me (proudly, it seemed) that the prognosis was poor and that he was expected to die from it, which indeed he did.

The initial period of the illness seemed to mainly consist of a new opportunity to identify new targets for his complaints: nurses, social workers, care assistants.

It did seem, initially, that he had some cause for complaint. A promised, and much needed, oxygen cylinder and mask failed to arrive for weeks. However, it soon became clear that things were a bit more complicated.

Apparently the house had been found to be cluttered and messy, to an extent that left no room to safely install the oxygen tank. Worse, the house was filthy: mouse droppings lay deep over every surface, the fridge and freezer were full of decaying food. Some workers, understandably, refused to visit.

Enter, stage left, ‘Mr and Mrs Mohammed’, Cyril’s next-door neighbours. They took it upon themselves to clean his house for him so that the carers and nurses could visit, and so that Cyril’s needs could be addressed. This was a literally thankless task: Cyril resented their intrusion into his home, his life, and when Mr Mohammed bought and fitted a new fridge-freezer to replace the previous noisome monstrosity, Cyril was convinced that he had overcharged him for it: in fact, the fridge was considerably more expensive than Mr Mohammed told him, and he had withheld the bill to protect the old man’s pride.

The scene was now ready for the caring services to take full control of Cyril’s life. The oxygen cylinder arrived, a rota of home carers started to visit. It was decided that Cyril would benefit from improved kitchen and bathroom facilities, and the builders arrived.

For a while Cyril continued to appear, occasionally, at his front door, ready to rail against the injustices visited upon him. More often, he would open the door and flap it open and shut, moaning loudly as he tried to fill his dying lungs, as unashamed of this as he had been, in the past, of gazing keenly across at me in my study.

Then he stopped appearing. I never saw or heard him again.

He was admitted to hospital, where some neighbours visited him. He should have stayed, should have died, in hospital, but he complained that he wanted to go home, so his wishes were complied with, and home he went.

I continued to see the flickering light of the TV in his downstairs front room, and the procession of carers in, and out.

Then one day Mr Mohammed came over to me. He told me that he had heard Cyril banging on the party wall. He had gone over and found him, soiled and hungry. The home care worker had failed to attend, and he had been left, unfed and lying in his own shit, for 24 hours. Mr Mohammed cleaned him, and fed him. I later saw a visiting nurse, and raised my concerns.

The next day he was seen at his front door, shouting and begging for food.

The next day he was dead.

Mr Mohamed told me and another neighbour that he hoped to find out the day of the funeral, so that we could attend, but either he was unsuccessful or he forgot to tell me. My understanding is that none of his family expressed an interest in attending. I believe that a social worker took his ashes back to his Caribbean home.

I’m not writing this to complain about how he was treated by the authorities: I believe, on the whole, they did their best for a difficult old man in difficult circumstances. I think I am mainly writing this because I think his life, and his passing, should be acknowledged.

But I am also writing this because I am ashamed of my part in this story: my complicity in a society that allows someone to die like this.

I do not, on any significant level, grieve for him, very much. My life goes on, much as before. He was a walk-on part in the play of my life. I don’t think anyone will be grieving for him much. He was not very useful, liked but not greatly loved by his neighbours, and as he died he watched the small castle he had built around him get dismantled, piece by piece, until there was nothing left.

The manner of his death diminishes me: forgive me, Lord.

Rest eternal grant him o Lord, and let light perpetual shine upon him.