The Essay: Sudden death
In films and literature, the act of dying is always accompanied by a summing up, a lesson learnt, a sense of closure. Douglas Kennedy discovers that, in real life, endings are rarely that neat and tidy
Saturday 03 July 1999
By nightfall, however, a hint of coolness descended upon this corner of Far North Queensland - and you suddenly discovered a renewed capacity for alcohol. Night was the only real time you could drink in the rainforest - something I found out my first day there, when I downed a beer in the absurd hothouse heat of noon and felt as if I had walked straight into a sucker punch.
I was staying in a wilderness lodge situated smack dab in the middle of the Daintree - one of the few extant rainforests still left on the Australian continent. It was located two hours north of the town of Cairns. To get there required negotiating a very bad road which was unsealed for the last 60 miles. A short ride on a barge was also involved - as you had to forge a river, the banks of which were used as sleeping quarters for the local contingent of crocodiles. The further north you travelled into this jungly void, the less sky you saw - as the canopy of the forest was so dense that it closed in over you. As light receded and a nocturnal soundtrack of sinister ornithological cackles broached the silence, you found yourself thinking: this is, verily, a haunted Eden.
The lodge in which I was billeted was located somewhere in the midst of this forest primeval. There was a main lodge building and six simple cabins, all built on stilts, all eco-friendly, all the brainchild of a 60-year-old former property developer from Brisbane I'll call Jack Hamilton (all names in this essay have been changed). Jack was the archetypal Australian bloke, writ large: chummy, beefy, beer-gutted, no hint of reserve. His wife, Joan, was also welcoming - a thin, spindly woman who, five years earlier, had followed her husband into this back-of-beyond hinterland with the idea of creating a wilderness lodge in the middle of nowhere.
And now, the lodge was finally up and running. It was gradually establishing itself as a unique retreat - though, when I was there it was still low season (right after the Daintree's annual bout of monsoons), so the only other guests were a honeymoon couple. They were called Chris and Alice. They were in their mid-20s - a nurse and a podiatrist from Melbourne. They were pleasant - but I didn't try to engage them in too much conversation. They were on a honeymoon, after all.
I was keeping a low profile: bush-walking in the morning, holing up in the relative cool of my cabin after midday to work on a new novel. Around seven at night, I'd stroll over to the main lodge for the first drink of the evening. I'd come equipped with a book to keep myself company. I'd greet the honeymoon couple with a nod. Inevitably, however, they'd call me over after dinner to join them for a beer.
On the night in question, Jack also sat down with us. We downed a couple of bottles of Cooper's Ale, then Jack said: "It's my round," and headed off in the direction of the bar. I turned back to Chris and Alice. We started discussing - I remember this with total precision - the vast number of bones in a human foot (well, Chris was a podiatrist). Then, out of nowhere, came this dull thud, followed by a deeply eerie sound: a strangulated inhalation of breath. It was a loud, startling gasp - like a contorted howl lodged at the back of somebody's throat. Suddenly, I found myself staring at Chris and Alice, wide-eyed. Within a nanosecond, we were all on our feet. Racing over to the bar, we found Jack collapsed behind the counter.
His face was blue, his legs were kicking wildly. He was having a massive heart attack - and we were in the middle of the fucking jungle.
Alice quickly snapped into ER mode. Crouching by Jack's side, she smashed her right fist into the centre of his chest, and started administering CPR. Barking instructions, she ordered her husband to clear Jack's air passage and commence mouth-to-mouth. Then she turned to me.
"Find his wife. Find out if he has any pills or if the lodge has a defibrillator. And find out where the nearest fucking doctor is."
I did as ordered, running into the living quarters at the back of the lodge. I banged on the door. Joan answered it. She went white when I told her that her husband was in the throes of a major heart attack. Instantly she pushed passed me, racing towards the bar. I followed, hearing her scream when she saw her husband, collapsed on the ground. Chris and Alice were still administering CPR, the night silence punctuated by Alice's rapid-fire instructions. Joan became incoherent. I took her by the shoulders and said: "You've got to tell me: where is your defibrillator?"
"What's a defibrillator?" she howled.
"OK, how about pills for his heart condition?"
"I'm the one with the heart condition. Jack's always been fine."
"And your doctor?"
"He's in Port Douglas ... "
Worse and worse. Port Douglas was 100 miles away by unsealed road.
I ran to the reception desk. I picked up the phone. I called the operator and asked to be put through to the local flying doctor service. The guy on call there explained that, as it was night - and as the only local airstrip was a field - landing after dark in this corner of the Daintree was virtually impossible. But he gave me the number of a nearby district nurse. I dialled her frantically. She was a pleasant, laconic woman. Yes, she knew the lodge. Yes, she knew Jack and Joan. Yes, we should keep on administering CPR until she got there - which might take half an hour, as she'd have to ring up the ferryman to get her and her car across that crocodile-infested river.
The moment I hung up the phone, Alice yelled: "Douglas, get over here now. Chris is flagging."
And with good reason - because after five minutes of giving Jack mouth- to-mouth, Chris was winded. So I bent down, pulled open Jack's jaws, and covered his mouth with mine. But before I could exhale, he started to gag. White bile exploded out of his mouth into mine. I spat it out on to the floor, feeling sick. Jack's mouth was now brimming with chalky vomit. His face had turned the colour of a bruised plum, his eyes were as glazed as a lake in winter. People often talk about "a clean heart attack". This was the first one I had ever seen. It was not clean.
I forced open his jaws again. I plunged my finger into his mouth, and frantically began to scrape away the congealing bile. Alice, meanwhile, was still pumping his chest. Suddenly, she stopped. She reached up and touched a pulse-point on his neck. After 10 seconds, she looked at me and quickly shook her head. Then she sat slumped by the body, her face in her hands. Chris put his arms around her. No one said anything. I stood up, and reached for a bottle of Jack Daniel's behind the bar. Unscrewing the top, I used the bourbon as mouthwash, swilling it around my cheeks in an attempt to expunge the foul taste of Jack's bile. I spat two mouthfuls into the sink. Then I tipped the bottle back and drank. I needed alcohol. Badly.
Joan began to shout at us.
"Don't stop! Don't stop! Keep trying. Keep ... "
Alice stood up and held her. Joan let out a wail: a visceral, harrowing, heart-rending wail. I later learnt that she'd met Jack when she was 18. They had been married for 41 years.
I leaned over and handed the bottle of bourbon to Chris. He drank. Alice kept holding Joan. I sat dazed on a barstool, staring blankly into the jungly night. The district nurse eventually arrived with two ambulancemen. She knelt down by Jack's corpse. She looked him over.
"There's nothing you could've done, even if you'd had a defibrillator," she said quietly to me. "He was dead by the time he hit the floor."
Within an hour, the police had arrived. They took statements from each of us. Jack's two sons - both of whom also lived in the Daintree - showed up with their wives. They were men my own age. They looked as I imagined I would look, facing the death of my father.
They were stricken beyond belief. Utterly lost.
Chris and Alice invited me back to their cabin. The bottle of Jack Daniel's accompanied us. We sat there in silence for a very long time. Finally I said: "Quite a honeymoon."
We sat around drinking. Shock began to set in - the sort of shock that renders you numb, devoid of conversation. After half an hour, I excused myself and returned to my cabin. I didn't turn on the lights. I just flopped on to the bed and stared up at the shadowy interplay of the overhead fan. I had around half a litre of Jack Daniel's sluicing around in my bloodstream. I felt completely sober.
I hardly slept that night. At dawn the next morning, I walked back to the main area of the bar. Transportation was arranged for me and the honeymoon couple back to Cairns.
Before we left the lodge, Joan came out to see us. Her eyes were red, her face drained of all colour.
"Thanks for trying," she said quietly, before heading back to her quarters.
We rode in silence down to Cairns. When we arrived, I shook hands with Chris. Alice gave me a fast hug.
"We won't forget the Daintree in a hurry, will we?" she said.
"No," I said. "We won't."
I checked into a hotel. I went down to the pool. I spent an hour swimming laps. Then I changed into shorts and a T-shirt. I walked over to the Esplanade fronting the Pacific. I found a cafe. I ordered a beer. I looked up. After several days in the Daintree, it was good to see the sky again. Especially such a cloudless sky. A breeze blew in off the ocean, tempering the tropical heat. I took a deep breath. The air was sweet, And I found myself thinking: It is good to be here, drinking a beer, staring out at the lapping surf of the Pacific. I finished the beer. I ordered another. The sun was now on my face. I blinked into its incandescent glow. The waiter arrived with my bottle of Cooper's and a fresh glass.
"Beer okay?" he asked.
I looked up at him and smiled.
"This is the best beer I have ever tasted," I said.
He stared back at me, bemused.
"It's just a beer, mate," he said.
I raised my glass and took a sip.
"That's right," I said. "It's just a beer."
This incident took place just over three years ago. But I can still recall every detail of that night with frame-by-frame precision. It was the first time I had seen a man die - and you don't expunge something like that from your brain in a hurry.
But now, whenever I replay the entire dreadful scenario in my head, the most unnerving thing about Jack's death was its banality. One moment he was a sentient being. The next moment he was meat. As he walked to the bar he was a man who - like all of us - carried with him an entire history. Within 60 seconds, that history was over. All his ambitions, all his disappointments, all his pleasures, all his fears - all wiped clean in an instant. And he never saw it coming.
Personally, I hope for this sort of death - sudden and near instantaneous; a form of spontaneous combustion which will whisk me from the temporal to the eternal with the minimum of anguish or pain. Preferably, this abrupt transition should happen in my sleep, when I'm a fully compos mentis 97- year-old. But if it comes before then, let it be over before I know it. I don't want time to get my affairs in order. Or to muse at length about what I have - and haven't - achieved in my life. Or to throw a party and say goodbye. To descend into Mafia parlance, I simply want to be taken out.
Of course, the idea of taking stock or squaring up the accounts before dying inevitably touches an elegiac chord within us all. We all love a good death scene (like Mimi's in La Boheme), just as we all love a good five-handkerchief cancer movie (like Terms of Endearment or the recent One True Thing). Because, of course, in the heightened emotional landscape of a cancer movie, the dying person usually imparts some knowledge, some deep truth, to those he or she is leaving behind. There is a summing up. Familial wounds are healed. Unconditional love is expressed between all protagonists. There is a lot of hugging. There is a lot of growth.
Worst yet, there is closure: that most spurious entry in the psychobabble lexicon. By its very nature, closure implies that profound emotional wounds can be neutralised; that some sense can be made from life's most traumatic experiences. Call me a jaded middle-aged male, but if my 44 years have taught me anything, it's that life is a messy, convoluted business - and one which we never get right (no matter how hard we try). We attempt to know ourselves. We usually end up ceaselessly confused as to why we behave the way we do. We crave love. We mess up love. We struggle for some sense of relevancy to our short time on the planet (and often try to define it through professional accomplishments or material gains). But even success doesn't stop us from having those four-in-the-morning thoughts about the transitory nature of everything.
And lurking behind our every move is the knowledge of our own mortality. It gives life its edgy disquiet, its tenebrous underside. Death is always in attendance - to remind us of our pointlessness, our frantic need for faith, or conviction, or some modus vivendi to get us through the day. Death is the ultimate memorandum that everything is final.
And how we also secretly crave some sort of wisdom, some sort of grand existential insight, as we approach the final curtain. Evelyn Waugh got it so right when he noted (in one of his diaries): "We are American at puberty. We die French."
No wonder, therefore, that popular culture often dresses up the idea of a protracted death in romantic raiments. The wasting-away horrors of cancer, or Aids, or any other terminal nightmare, suddenly seem more palatable when there is a lesson to be garnered from the agony; when the dying person has sage moments of clarity about l'art du vivre. Whereas, of course, the brutal reality of a lengthy terminal illness is usually one of unbearable physical and emotional pain, of dashed hopes and deepest fears, and the gradual dismembering of one's personal dignity. To steal a very French line from a very French writer, Andre Malraux: "Death is not so serious. Pain is."
Perhaps that's the one and only lesson I drew from seeing Jack die.
Though the prospect of dying is a haunting one, the act itself - the passage from being to nothingness - is so damn simple. When life ends, it ends. You're here. You're not here. And the show moves on.
Jack Hamilton's death was fast. Neil Potter's was also fast. It was over in around four minutes. But unlike Jack, Neil knew he was dying for 19 years.
I only met Neil once - on a hot Tuesday afternoon in August 1988. I was travelling through that spiritual junkyard known as the Bible Belt, gathering material for a book that was eventually called In God's Country: an account of a three-month trawl through born-again America. It was the penultimate day of my journey -- and I was spending it in the town of Columbia, South Carolina, in the company of a one-time villain turned evangelist named Zack Leonard. Once upon a time, Zack was considered one of the toughest dudes in the Carolinas: a gent who had spent a total of 27 years in the slammer for a wide variety of offences, including armed robbery, assault with a deadly weapon and homicide.
During a period of solitary confinement, Zack underwent something of a Pauline conversion, after reading the autobiographical testament of a hood named Nicky Cruz, who changed from being a street-gang heavy to a fully-fledged member of the God Squad. The next morning Zack fell to his knees in this solitary cell. "I pleaded for forgiveness," he told me. "Asked Christ to change my life."
Four years after this "rebirth", he was granted parole - and became an ordained Baptist minister. When I met him in 1988, he was running a prison ministry - a job which sent him constantly to the state penitentiary in Columbia. Every Tuesday, he spent several hours ministering to the men who resided in that ultimate voyage of the damned: death row. And on one such Tuesday he allowed me to accompany him on his rounds.
The Central Correctional Institution at Columbia, South Carolina was a series of low, squat buildings; a grim architectural relic of 19th-century brutalism. After passing through a labyrinth of metal detectors, sliding electric gates and ill-lit corridors, we stopped by a solid iron door fitted with a peephole. Zack rang a bell, an eye appeared at the peephole, the door opened, and an armed guard ushered us into Unit CB2 - death row.
I found myself in a vast, high-vaulted enclosure of cages and steel walkways. There was no air conditioning, no communal fans - so the heat was overpowering. The roof was around 80ft above me, turning this area into the ultimate echo chamber. The place was starved of natural light - it was all harsh fluorescent tubes and naked lightbulbs. There was a non-stop soundtrack of clamorous noise. After five minutes here, silence suddenly struck me as one of the most precious commodities imaginable.
The chapel was a small box of a room at the end of death row. It once served as a solitary confinement cell. Now a sign on its heavy steel door - God Loves Us - marked it out as a place of worship. A guard shouted, "Who's for chapel?" Cell doors opened. The men began to file into this tiny room. Before Zack's "service", I got talking with several of the inmates.
Almost immediately, they each began to tell me their story of the crime that had brought them to this living nightmare, this Ultimate Last Stop. Because, as I discovered, everyone on death row had a story - a story which they had to live with, a story which they constantly replayed in their minds day-in, day-out. And if you were an emissary from normal life, the inmates generally wanted to tell you their story.
Of all the stories I listened to that afternoon, Neil Potter's was the one that stayed with me. He was exactly my age - 33 in 1988 - rail-thin, wearing an American- Indian headband, carrying a notebook. He instantly noticed that I too was carrying a notebook.
"You a writer?" Neil said after Zack introduced us. "Me too. Writing a book about my life. About the way my case was twisted against me ...
"I've been here since '79. I wasn't accused of a killing, though - but of being an accessory to a killing, which down here is the same thing. I was 200ft away when the actual killing took place - when this woman hitchhiker that my cousin and girlfriend and I picked up got stabbed. Wasn't me who did the killing. Was my cousin. He's here too. Course my girlfriend got off. Prosecutor gave her immunity from justice if she'd testify against us. Which, of course, the bitch did.
"Been on the row now for 10 years. Had a retrial and a bunch of appeals, but lost all those. I've been sentenced to death three times now. And you know what really gets me; the state's probably spent millions trying to get me into the electric chair. But, instead of trying to kill me, why didn't they put all that money towards trying to educate me in here?"
It was quite an afternoon. Around four, one of the prison guards informed Zack that we would have to leave now. I shook Neil's hand on my way out, and wished him luck with the book he was writing.
I never was in contact with Zack Leonard or Neil Potter again. The only time I seriously wondered about Neil's fate was sometime in the early Nineties, when I read that the Central Correctional Institution of Columbia had moved into a spanking new modern facility, and that the state of South Carolina had retired the electric chair in favour of lethal injection.
Then, last summer, on a visit back to the States, I sat down for breakfast in a restaurant in downtown Denver and opened that morning's edition of The New York Times. On the back page a headline read something like: South Carolina Executes Convicted Murderer. The five-line story simply stated the facts: "Neil Potter, 43, had been executed the previous night for the 1979 slaying of ... "
The report pointed out that Potter had always maintained his innocence, saying that it was his cousin (executed earlier that year) who did the actual killing. It also noted that, after the lethal poison was administered, Potter was pronounced dead at 6.04pm local time.
I thought back to the previous day. I remembered exactly what I was doing at the moment when that chemical cocktail stopped Neil's heart. I was buying a Lego spaceship for my son Max in some air-conditioned, muzak- ridden shopping mall. I instantly recalled Neil Potter's face in my mind - even though it was 10 years since we had met. Ten years. So much had happened to me during that ten years.
My wife and I had had two children. I had published five books. I'd written far too much journalism. I had travelled a lot. I had moved house twice. I'd entered that long dark corridor called middle-age - and like all newcomers to mid-life, I'd thought a bit about the proverbial downward slope, and the whole business of dying.
Most of the time I simply got on with the business of filling time, as we all do. Because only by filling the time - by crowding our lives with the minutiae of existence - do we keep the reality of our future death at bay.
Whereas, for those 10 years, Neil Potter was confined by a 10ft x 5in cell. Unlike me, he didn't look upon death as a nocturnal terrorist, which one day would hijack him without warning. He had a date.
For 19 years, that date kept changing (thanks to appeals processes). But eventually, the postponements ended. The date was finally kept.
Sitting in that Denver restaurant, staring down at this five-line report of Neil Potter's execution, my mind began to race wildly. I hardly knew the guy - we'd talked for maybe 30 minutes at the most - but I still tried to imagine what his final hours were like. And how he coped during that walk from his holding cell to the death chamber.
At that moment, another image flashed across my brain: that 1996 night in the Daintree ... sitting at a table with Jack and the honeymoon couple ... Jack standing up and saying: "It's my round," then heading off in the direction of the bar.
Two final walks. Two deaths. One anticipated. One not. Of course, Jack knew it was coming. Just as we all do. He just didn't know when. No time for goodbyes, no time for regrets, no extended physical agony, no spiritual grappling with the idea of eternity. The plug was pulled. He was gone. The unexamined life may not be worth living ... but isn't there a lot to be said for the unexamined death? n
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