Old John died recently. He was crossing the rail line beside our suburban shopping centre when the boom gates came down and he was trapped on the tracks, unable to move forward or back.
John had an illness, a little like Parkinson’s, and as it progressed his legs would often seize up, anchoring him to the spot. If it happened in the supermarket, he would lean on his shopping trolley and wait until his legs ground into gear again. But if he was crossing a street, cars tooted impatiently and people who knew him—and many did because he’d become something of a local icon—would rush to his rescue.
He died at 10.30 on a Saturday night. It was a cold night and no one was eating at the restaurant tables on the footpath where he crossed, and the waiter who usually helped him was busy inside.
John loved live music and he was heading to the bar on the other side of the track where he liked to have a drink and listen to the greats–Glen Miller, Benny Goodman, Artie Shaw—often with his little white poodle on his lap.
What can I say? I hope he had a heart attack and died before the train rounded the curve in the tracks. Before the driver tooted the whistle as drivers do at that spot—as they did for my grandson when he was little and we used to stand by the track and wave. I hope John never felt the impact of hard metal on flesh: I hope he died of shock.
I went to his funeral. I knew him no better than many but I once rescued him at our local beach when his legs seized up and he was marooned in the shallows.
At the beginning of the service, the organ pumped out Chattanooga Choo Choo. My heart lifted. And although the priest began by mentioning John’s tragic death, he went on to emphasise the wonderful life he had lived. I liked that. And I liked the way he asked us to include the train driver in our prayers.
I discovered that John and his late wife had been great dancers. Friday and Saturday nights were play nights when they put on their glad rags and went dancing, and judging by the photo in the funeral booklet, they cut a sharp twosome, he in his white tux and she wearing satin and lace and high strappy sandals.
As a boy, John had sung in his King’s School choir and later at Canterbury Cathedral. We sang All Things Bright and Beautiful and despite not having the best voice in the world, I belted that hymn out for John. Because in the country town where I grew up, the Catholic priest only came once a month and, thanks to the Methodist Sunday School which I attended on the weeks in between, I know all the words of all the good hymns.
Yet around me, there were fairly timid murmurings so perhaps in our secular world, hymn singing is a dying art. Not that I blame anyone for giving organised religion a big miss, what with all those wars and paedophiles. But it’s a pity about the hymns.
So we had some more prayers, and a lovely eulogy, and then we sang The Lord Is My Shepherd. And while I was belting that one out too, I was thinking of John and how everything comes to an end and how absolutely impossible it is for us to grasp.
Because, even though I’m getting near the tippy end of the scale, I would love to be around in another hundred years to see how our world might have changed. To see racism defeated, because surely by then every race will have inter-married, which is happening already, at least in my family!
My husband is originally from Poland. My son has a Chinese girl friend. (Now I watch If You Are The One. You wouldn’t believe what I’ve learned about China.) My step-son’s partner is of Aboriginal-Indian descent. My step-daughter married a Jewish man.
We’re a right little United Nations and seem to get along as well as most blended families. And, despite the dire warnings of Cory Bernadi and his like, men are now marrying men and women are marrying women, and I mostly have no fear of where any of it might lead. Somewhere better, I hope.
And surely in a hundred years we’ll have cures for cancer and dementia, and perhaps we’ll be venerating old age and wisdom instead of cutting ourselves up to look like puffer-fish versions of the person a surgeon thinks we once were.
And surely by then we’ll be kinder and more compassionate to ourselves and our planet. Surely poverty will be eliminated because we’ll have learned to re-distribute wealth. Surely, hopefully, we won’t be killing ourselves as we are now.
Well, you have to hope, don’t you?
John’s funeral concluded with Amazing Grace. Maybe they lowered the base line because we made a reasonable fist of that one too. We followed John’s coffin and his tearful family, out of the church, had a cup of tea in the foyer and took a red rose from the flowers on the table as we’d been asked to do. A framed photograph of John’s much loved dog stood next to the flowers.
As I sipped on my tea, I realised I was now seeing John as a man who lived a full and interesting life, not someone who died tragically under a train.
It made me think how old people—and those of us getting there—become terribly invisible. How the wonder of our lives—and whose life hasn’t been wonderful and joyful and tragic and incredible?—is so easily lost and forgotten. How we are so much more than the manner of our dying.
It also made me think that when my turn comes, I hope I’m one of the lucky ones and I go quietly to sleep in my bed.
Behind me, I heard someone tut-tutting to the priest about what a terrible tragedy it all was. And the priest, in a kindly but slightly perfunctory tone said: ‘I’d rather go like that, than spend years in a nursing home, wouldn’t you?’