The Almost-Final Picture Show
I’ve been thinking a lot about dying recently. Not my own death, you understand, but the idea of dying as a cinematic experience. Like many generation Y-ers, I grew up on a diet of television shows such as Michael Aspel’s poltergeist extravaganza, Strange, But True? and BBC1’s 999 (remember the episode where the kid gets a javelin through the neck?). But nothing fascinated me more than accounts of near-death experiences: the stories of people who saw their lives “flash before their eyes”, show-reels of their biggest moments playing as their brains were starved of oxygen.
I thought long and hard about the white tunnel and bright lights that were universally described. I sat glued to the screen as people recounted memories of meeting their future wife; of the birth of their first child (always the first, never the third); of proposing on the beach in Bali. Fluffy memories.
What never featured on these programmes was the bad stuff. There was no mention of divorces, car crashes or robberies. No guilt, the kind you experience, aged eight, on having creosoted your neighbour’s aviary when bored, with all the birds still inside. There were no recollections of arguments, or plain dissatisfaction. During the definitive moment of truth, the crap seemed to fall by the wayside: any remorse expressed in the build-up was removed from the billing.
Or was it?
If you ask any nurse working in palliative care, they’ll likely tell you it’s a star of the show. A few years ago, Bronnie Ware lifted the lid on deathbed mythology, first in her blog, Inspiration and Chai, and then in her book, The Top Five Regrets of the Dying. “When questioned about any regrets they had or anything they would do differently, common themes surfaced again and again,” Ware wrote. Things such as, “I wish I’d had the courage to live a life true to myself, not the life others expected of me”, or “I wish I hadn’t worked so hard.”
A quick Wikipedia search on near-death experiences – or NDAs as they’re also known – reveals a swathe of psychological research. In a 1981 study, James Lindley, Sethyn Bryan and Bob Conley recorded that 20% of candidates who experienced an NDA reported having a negative experience involving feelings of extreme fear, panic, anguish, desperation, regret, intense loneliness and desolation. “Hellish”, even. And yet, is it a revelation that people express regret in the face of death? Is it so surprising that our thoughts become reflective in our final weeks? I don’t think so.
Over the past couple of years, my grandmother has developed dementia. Her short-term memory is being eroded. In her worst moments, she lacks the clarity to relate thoughts such as those Ware witnessed. Instead, she has been left to rely on her long-term memory to express her feelings about the present – often encroaching on similar emotional terrain to the 20% Lindley and co interviewed. She pulls on the cinematic memories of her past to construct a language for now. And she has her own thematic loop.
I was 17 when I was introduced to the paradox of Schrödinger’s cat. In his famous hypothetical experiment, Schrödinger placed a cat in a sealed box. He also tossed in a flask of poison, a radioactive sample and a Geiger counter. So it went, if the counter detected that the radioactive material had decayed, it would smash the flask and kill the cat. But, crucially, until the box was opened and the status of the cat determined, the cat was both alive and dead.
Admittedly, it was all a bit above my teenage brain, but the experiment was designed to highlight the apparent flaw in the Copenhagen interpretation of quantum mechanics, which categorically stated that a particle existed in all states, until observed. The cat is simultaneously alive and dead – until it is seen.
Of course, logically, we can’t conceive of a cat that’s both alive and dead. So where does quantum supposition end? My A-level English teacher took this theory and applied it to the movement of time with regard to the incident at the heart of Ian McEwan’s novel, A Child in Time. “Can the present and past exist at the same time?” he asked us.
“No,” we replied. “Time – past, present and future – is linear and therefore mutually exclusive.”
He scoffed perhaps at our naivety, perhaps at how much we sounded like Dawson Leary. “How much time do you spend in the present?” he continued. “And how much do you spend thinking about the past, in memories, or in the future, dreaming? Are you not then in both the past and the present? At least cognitively?”
My jaw slackened.
In terms of physics, time moves constantly in a linear motion (sorry, Doctor Who fans). Memory, however, does not. And, sat in the living room of my grandparents’ house recently, I realised why.
“He said, ‘I want money’,” my Gran says very slowly. She narrows her eyes, sucking the inside of her cheek as she scowls at me. “Well. It wasn’t my money to give!”
We’re back in the 1940s and she is recounting the story of an attempted robbery during her tenure at the Post Office. One afternoon, whilst working alone in the shop, a strange man came in with his hand in his pocket, demanding cash from her till. Though (spoiler alert) he didn’t rob her – a neighbouring shop owner noticed him hanging around outside and decided to check she was okay – the experience has clearly stayed with her.
“What would I have done?” she asks me, slumping back in her armchair. “It wasn’t my money to give.” Though more than 60 years have passed, this is a story I hear often. Very often. Today, for example, I will hear this story seven times before I leave my grandparents’ house. It’s not uncommon for her to revisit it 10 times or more.
“What would I have done?” she asks rhetorically. “What could have happened?” is what she really wants to say.
Like a "choose your own adventure" novel, she goes back to that terrifying moment again and again, thinking through the various outcomes that might have occurred. She could have been shot. She could have been killed. He could have taken all of the day’s takings. My gran turns the episode – from the moment the bell above the door alerted her to his presence through the seconds between his demand and her neighbour poking his head around the door – over and over in her mind, examining it from every angle.
There didn’t need to be a gun, nor an explicit threat of violence. Yet, in that instant, she realised how vulnerable she was: that she was alone and that she was at the mercy of a man who could (and might) do anything to her he wished. “I want money”. Those three words instilled real fear in my grandmother for the first time in her life. And now, in her late 80s, she’s trapped in the memory of this moment.
The cruelty of dementia is that when the mind starts to slip, it often becomes trapped in loops such as this. For my grandmother, the memories that she’s been caught in are ones that elicit fear, anxiety or shame. It seems no coincidence to me that those she is drawn to reflect the emotions that, in her more lucid moments, she likely feels in her current situation. But it’s difficult to reason with her, especially when a few minutes later, she’s forgotten your reassurances, or the logical conclusion she’d brought herself to moments before. Her cinematic memory is playing out; she repeats it again and again, as if she is saying, “I am scared now. What will happen to me?”
I consider my cinematic memories and, besides a mental snapshot of dancing in the living room as a three year-old to Lisa Stansfield’s, All Around the World, my earliest recollection is of my other grandmother’s death. Specifically, the moment I heard about nana’s death. Nearly 25 years on, it’s an episode I rewind to frequently. I was four and we were gathered in the living room wearing our school uniforms – my three siblings and two cousins. My aunt kneeled on the floor. I think she had her arms looped around my little brother’s waist. He was pink and sleepy. I remember the tears that stung my mother’s eyes and the excruciating discomfort I felt at seeing them all cry; the complete weirdness of it all.
As an adult, I still feel shame. I felt it stain my soul in that second, an indelible mark I cannot erase. My mother’s memory of this moment is close to my own. Crucially though, the drama of it is different for her: she remembers wrestling with her words; I remember the cabled texture of the sofa I stood leaning against. She remembers the acuteness of her grief; I remember the sour smell that clung to my school uniform from the classroom. I remember the embarrassment I felt when that giggle rippled from my mouth, but I don’t remember the hugs afterwards.
The truth is, memory is a self-centered thing. We are bound to our individual perspectives as the protagonists of our own dramas. Our eyes are not windows into our souls. They are the windows out of our very own projection booths.
The cinematic memory, as I understand it, is a memory that haunts us in life. Loss. Shame. Grief. To me, these are Catholic themes and when I think about these moments in which my grandmother is suspended, I see them as a liminal purgatory. Though they have a grip on her consciousness, it is not as great as that which is pulling from the ether. Are these memories an act of confession? Or are they merely testament to the act of living? Which will win the starring role and which the bit part?
It’s not always this gloomy, though. In my grandmother’s room in the nursing home, I stare at a picture of her feeding a miniature American pony – in this very spot. It seems the staff frequently bring animals in to see residents. “I can’t remember what they called it,” she tells me of the pony in her rich Northumbrian brogue. “I got a bit of a shock! I mean, imagine that in your house,” she laughs. We talk about the visitors she’s had. I read excerpts from a daily journal my family started for her. I ask what’s new in her world. They’ve bought a second cockatiel for downstairs, she says. The first is called Snowy, and this one is called Snowy too.
I doubt it is, but smile anyway. She might not remember my name, but she knows I live in London. She asks after my cat – “Is he getting anymore work?” she says, referring to his cameo as a model in a photo shoot for a magazine. (He wasn’t paid. Neither was I, come to think of it).
She tells us the story of my uncle unscrewing the bolts on the dining room chairs as a kid and how they’d all fall to the floor in fits of laughter when they collapsed under their weight. She shrugs, rolling her eyes as she remembers her youngest child taking a pencil to the family photographs and drawing devil horns on all the portraits. “Eeeh! What’s he like?” she laughs. Little shit, I think.
But I could be saying, “I am happy”. There is no room for regret. And perhaps, there is hope yet.
The Almost-Final Picture Show was published in Issue 1 of Somesuch Stories, available to purchase via Antenne Books.
Photograph by Creative Commons