Tinyletter 15: A memento mori and an awful lot of coffee


At certain points in life, mortality has a way of clearing its throat and making itself known to the cabin crew.

For example, on my 30th birthday, I arranged to meet a friend in a pub, and while I was waiting for her to arrive, I realised I’d barged in on an Irish wake. I tried frantically texting to suggest another venue, but she got there before looking at her phone, and, by some bizarre quirk of fate, was immediately mis-recognised by one of the children of the deceased as having played the violin at the funeral earlier that day. Irish hospitality being what it is, they wouldn’t hear of us leaving, a problem compounded by the fact that my friend was rather enjoying the attention. Soon, I was drinking free Jameson’s and reflecting on being once decade closer to death, while she graciously accepted compliments about her virtuosity on the fiddle.

Cut forward ten years, and as I’m on the home straight towards my 40th (next Monday, since you asked), H lands in hospital with a ruptured appendix. Despite surgery, there’s still an infection, somewhere, somehow. Suddenly, all of life is changed. Hospitals have their own logic and timescales, and they demand that you fall into step with them. Tests come at odd times, their results only reported in passing, hours later. Information is handed out as a jigsaw you must piece together. I feel like I have to be on constant watch: this system feels deliberately impenetrable to me, and I don’t trust it.

He’s been in for a week now, and counting. He’ll get better, of course. It’s just hard not knowing when. There’s no convenient narrative to make sense of it all. And it’s like having one, giant memento mori land on the front lawn, and stare at you with its empty eye sockets for a while.

There’s a wonder to it all, too. Casualty on Saturday night was full of people quietly looking after each other. There’s gallows humour on the ward, men thrown together in hideous circumstances cheering each other on when they take their first post-operative steps and wincing at each other’s pain. There’s the team of friends and family who have mobilised to take care of both of us in this impossible time. It’s hard not to come out of it all feeling slantingly grateful for all of it. Yes, you are reminded that death will come one day, but also, joyously, that it hasn’t happened yet – and that, before the advent of all this terrible hospital machinery, it might have done already. More than that, you know that when it does come, life will continue to be ushered on by kind hands, rising up to catch you the best they can.

In his final days, my grandad lay in his hospital room, gripped mine and my cousin’s hands and laughed, ‘A little stay in hospital does you good!’ I now see what he means. I’ve been given a loyalty card for the hospital coffee shop, and I think I’ll ask if I can keep it when it’s full. I’m going to put it in a frame above my desk, the perfect memento mori for an age when mortality is an endlessly-deferred dream. I’ll take my free coffee first, though, because you also have a duty to keep going.

See you next week,
Katherine x

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