John Close - life / outro

On the morning of Monday May 26th, Michael and I got up from John's carer/guest bed at 4am and showered and breakfasted. We knocked on John's bedroom door at 5am and his cheery smile greeted us, as it always did in the morning. He had made careful plans - no food since Saturday, no laxative Sunday night, no bowel-stimulating leg exercises Monday morning - to avoid needing to open his bowels again. He had taken pain-killers on Sunday too, for the first time in ages, for their constipating effect as much as for their principal function. He had more on Monday morning first thing.

He had selected a long-sleeved grey stripy top and I suggested the joggers that looked most normal - all of them had been adapted by opening up the front seam to create a fly. This particular pair still had an overlap - most of them just had abutting material that often gaped open. Getting his trousers and boxers aligned correctly was crucial, of course!

Having hoisted him out of bed and dressed him, we did a bit of filming as John had a breakfast of pain-killers in a smallish amount of water - he wanted to reduce his need to pee too. Margaret and Peggy arrived at around 5.20, having been brought by Peggy's lovely son Ed who was going home and back to bed (hopefully!) before a Bank Holiday Monday day's work at Tesco.

John was cheerful and comical, as always, despite the hour and the occasion.

The taxi arrived at 5.30 as promised and John was 'loaded' into the vehicle - he was offered a lap-type belt but declined it until we got moving. He must then have felt unsafe as he asked the taxi to stop at the top of Noon Layer Drive and it was added.

The journey to Luton airport was uneventful - misty fields and low sun made it poetically beautiful. John's right leg was very painful and the 30 minute journey seemed very long. At Luton the disabled spaces were coned off and we had to make do in a very busy car park. Into the terminal at around 6.20 - our 90 minute check-in time meant we should have arrived at 6.25 so we were ahead for once! - and there was already a long queue. John was not afforded priority treatment there and we joined this queue, finally checking in at around 6.50. We were told that John and I would travel in the ambi-lift and the others would have to take their chances - 'free' seating means a tremendous scramble, of course. Our two boarding passes therefore had a gate - 9 - and a time - 7.15 - but Michael, Margaret and Peggy's did not. They came with us though, as you'd expect. Gate 9 was almost deserted and was very noisy - a security bleep every few seconds and a fully-functioning PA speaker above us (and a low ceiling which made it extra noisy).

7.15 came and went and eventually someone asked us to come with them for boarding. 'Can we come too?' asked Margaret and we were told yes - hooray! We piled onto the lift at the back of the ambi-lift, John and I first and then Michael, Margaret and Peggy, and sat down. John was strapped and secured into place (which did not happen in Zurich, by the way!) and we drove all the way round the plane. As the vehicle stopped we were told that Michael, Margaret and Peggy had to get onto the plane first. (Poor Peggy was acting as a pack-horse as we took hand-baggage only to reduce delays but there was a lot of it and she was carrying most of it, so it seemed to me!) John was then transferred to an 'aisle' wheelchair, narrow and with very little refinement. I pointed out that he could not keep his feet on the very narrow strap provided so, after lifting him bodily between wheelchairs, a wonderful woman at his shoulders and a man at his legs - 'careful with that right leg, it is very painful' - he was supported and steered onto the plane through the door on what would be the passenger door behind the driver in a car, right behind the cockpit. I followed, clutching the 'Important Documents' folder and John's transfer/slide board (which we didn't need at any time and which we accidentally left behind in our hotel room…) We had been told about the ambi-lift but no more. It would have been very helpful and reassuring for John to have known exactly what to expect. I was so naïve that I wondered aloud if he might be allowed to stay in his wheelchair throughout the flight! As it was, the transfer was accomplished very well indeed and John commented on it, saying that it had been 'good' and that it even seemed to have cured the pain in his leg! [By that time, his bum hurt from sitting for so long without his Ro-Ho cushion, so it was very little comfort!] We sat in the front row of seats as there was room for the transfer there: as a result, all of our baggage had to be stowed in the overhead lockers but the advantage was that there was plenty of room to lift John and to give him water. John had the window seat in order to be out of the way in the event of an emergency. Margaret and Peggy sat in the row behind us with Peggy in the window seat.

On the flight, John looked out of the window and enjoyed the scenery until it disappeared under clouds, pointing out boats on the channel and other things. I lifted him in his seat once and gave him some water once but for the rest of the 90-ish minutes we just sat. He wrote some things on his organiser (including 'you can have my seat on the way back' - and I did!) and Michael did some filming but mostly it was just sitting, with Margaret and Peggy's hands coming through between the seats to pat his shoulders (he put his hand up to pat back) or ruffle his hair (and mine!) Take off had been awful - my least favourite part of any flight - and John had held my hand as I wept terrified tears. I only told him when we were on the ground, buckled up and waiting for the last passenger to board, that I hate flying! His comforting hand was wonderful, as was Michael's on the other side of me. At Zurich (landing very good, there had been some but very little turbulence) the aisle wheelchair and ambi-lift procedure was repeated, equally kindly, and we were driven across the apron (right word?) to the terminal building, hitting every bump and sleeping gendarme/polizei around. The ambi-lift was my first hint that Switzerland, being a non-EEC country, was not quite as wheelchair-friendly as home: John's brakes were applied but no extra strapping was used. At the terminal we were whisked through very efficiently (there was much unexplained saying of John's name in the first official place, but none after that) and in no time at all we were in arrivals. There was Mr Minelli - I had not seen a photo of him but I knew it was him as he came over to meet us, smiling and with open arms and extended hand. He greeted John first and made it plain that John was his first concern, then shook all our hands in turn. He had ordered a wheelchair taxi which hadn't yet arrived so, whilst waiting for it, Michael took John to the loo. Second wheelchair-unfriendly point - no disabled loos with the 'normal' ones in arrivals. It took them a while to find it, on the second floor and half full of cleaning materials and equipment.

Mr Minelli was charming, kind, intelligent and dressed as follows: brown leather sandals, white socks. Unremarkable brown trousers. A white zip-up shirt with a brown paisley cravat and a brown suede jacket. He was lovely and chatted to Margaret, Peggy and me as we waited for John and Michael. The taxi arrived and the driver was a young, chatty, smiley man. The taxi was only big enough for John (with some alterations to the basic format - he needed the inclined ramp so he was further in), Michael (in the passenger seat) and me, beside John's feet behind the driver. Margaret and Peggy travelled in Mr Minelli's far from new red ?Renault estate car.

We drove out of the airport and into and then out of the city's edge. Very soon we were in lovely countryside: John looked around and approved of what he could see. It was very beautiful - long fields of green running up to the trees' edges then hills beyond. We drove through a couple of little villages with huge farmhouses whose wide eaves sheltered stacks of logs for the winter's fires. Old wooden doors and window boxes gave these houses a picture postcard appearance and I kept wanting to take photos. I didn't, but held onto John's left foot instead.

Eventually we turned off the 'main' road and headed up into the hills. On the way we had some lovely if brief glimpses of the lake behind us. We passed a couple of fields of big soft creamy coloured cows wearing bells around their necks. We were heading for Forch and Mr Minelli's home.

I wondered if this was a rare privilege, afforded to John because of the brevity of his visit to Switzerland, then realised than many people die the day they arrive because of the logistics - one's last night should be spent in one's own bed, after all, not tossing and turning sleepless in a hotel which has been difficult to get into and out of in a wheelchair and is tough to use too. There was a lift (a pater noster) up to the first floor, a real piano nobile. There was casual seating for eight arranged at a low table entirely covered with books, papers and photos: books lined every wall - art, history, law - except one where a collection of ornamental teapots was displayed. To the right was a huge collection of videos with an arched entry beyond (it led to the bathroom, I later found out, as well as to the stairs down to the office). Mr Minelli and I travelled up first then John came with Michael then Margaret and Peggy. Eventually we were all assembled and Mr Minelli invited us to sit at the large table (seats 12 comfortably) just inside the large floor to ceiling window with its impressive collection of pot plants. He offered us 'monk's' tea which we accepted, having had a sniff of the pot it was stored in. When it came, weak and black, it was lovely. He put out a plate of palmiers too which Margaret, Peggy and Michael welcomed. John wanted indigestion remedy and pain relief as well as a little plain water. (Taking him to the loo later was fun - the door was too narrow and he used his pee bottle whilst sitting in the corner of Mr Minelli's hallway!) The lift is there, by the way, for when/if Mr Minelli has need to use it himself.

We all sat round the table and Mr Minelli told us that there were some formalities to go through. He asked for evidence of John's identity (I had brought enough with me - one worry dealt with!) and then asked John a series of questions about his physical and mental health. At the question 'are you tired of life' John paused and thought. His reply, when it came, surprised me initially: he said 'no' and indicated that he was simply tired of living in that useless body. Mr Minelli asked the four of us to give our names, addresses and phone numbers in case the authorities needed to contact us. He then left us alone for a short time while he typed up the information and photocopied John's documents. We sat and chatted and John looked tired. He kept asking what the time was, anxious that the next stage, the appointment with the doctor, should not be missed. No chance of that - Mr Minelli was very organised!

At around 1 we left the house in Forch and drove back down the hill side to Kusnacht, a lakeside village (although we didn't know that at the time) which was sleepy and quiet. The wheelchair taxi disgorged us outside a block of flats - no lift! Dr Hans-Ulrich Kull's consulting room was on the ground floor but up a short flight of stairs. John in his wheelchair was carried up by Mr Minelli (70 this year), Dr Kull (64) and Michael. Dr Kull made it clear that he needed to talk to John alone for a while so, having made sure John had his organiser and glasses, should he need to write anything complex for Dr Kull, Margaret, Peggy, Michael and I sat in a waiting room where we tried to make sense of patient leaflets (in German) about bunions and constipation and other mundane stuff. I really didn't know how long we sat there at the time - I think it was probably 10 minutes but it may have been 15 - but eventually the really heavy door (six inches of metal?) into the consulting room opened and Dr Kull asked for 'the sisters' so Margaret and I went in. I sat next to John and held his hand while Margaret sat beside me on the other end and I held her hand too. Dr Kull said how good it was to see us there with John and how sorry he was that John was so ill and other stuff before he started asking us about our attitude to what John wanted from him. We explained that we fully supported John's desire to die. He asked about family at home and we explained about mum. He asked about marital history and we explained that too. He then asked a series of questions about the progression of John's MND. I gave my best answers, checking the details with John. Eventually, Dr Kull seemed satisfied with the info we had given him and he said something like 'my first duty as a doctor is to preserve life, but I also have this extra duty I can perform here in Switzerland: I am ready to do that for you and I will write the prescription for you, Mr Close.' He left the room to do so and we three sat there, silent: John was tired (and probably very relieved to have passed this hurdle) and sat with his eyes closed. After another five or so minutes, Dr Kull came back with an envelope in his hand. 'This is the prescription which I will give to Mr Minelli' he said and escorted us out into the hall where we re-met Michael and Peggy. Mr Minelli arrived at the same time and, after another haul down the stairs and into the taxi, we were on our way to The Flat.

As we drove away from the surgery, I looked at John and said, in reference to a song which had been played on Saturday night (one which I had heard before) 'the fat lady ain't singing yet, but she's humming, as it says in your song' and he indicated that it wasn't his song! Typical of me to get it wrong… We drove on down the hill side, through more fields until we came to a busy road and the signs indicated that we were very near Zurich. Soon we were driving in heavyish traffic, Mr Minelli ahead in his red Renault (?) with Margaret and Peggy and the four of us behind in the wheelchair taxi. We crossed the Limmat river which flows into Lake Zurich and passed the market square. We saw trams and trolley buses as we drove on through the city. Eventually our driver said something like ' he's going the wrong way' as we shot down a side street. We passed neat blocks of flats with window boxes either side of a clean road with regular speed bumps and eventually stopped outside a non-descript block, creamy grey in colour, four stories high and with steps up to the front door. Mr Minelli indicated that I should go up with him first to prepare for John's arrival. Michael, Margaret and Peggy were to take our stuff to the hotel and walk back, (Mr Minelli had arranged the hotel for us) which would only take a few minutes.

I went up in the tiny lift with Mr Minelli who commented that John's wheelchair probably would not fit into the lift: he would have to take the one from the flat instead. He took it down in the lift and I ran down the stairs to see John in the corridor on his wheelchair with the other one beside him. He did his cut-throat action to indicate that he would not be able to take an active part in the transfer and I explained. Mr Minelli and the taxi driver (I think) lifted John bodily from chair to chair after I took the side of John's chair off. Erika Luley, the 'dying assistant', had arrived by now and went with John in the lift. She guided his feet as the door closed on them and I ran back upstairs. As I arrived, so did they. I now met Erika properly. She was tall, grey haired and stately as well as being hugely kind. John was wheeled into the flat and his own wheelchair followed shortly. She lifted him all by herself from one chair to the other and I then slipped the cushion under John - I hadn't had time to think about making sure it was in position before he was moved. She left us alone and John and I looked around. The room we were in was small, about fifteen feet by twelve, with a window across one end. This was low enough for John to see out of easily for half its width and too high for me to see out for the other half. There were lots of plants in front of it. Looking out of the window one could see across other blocks of flats to the tree-covered hillside beyond. There were two single beds on the left wall, different types - one possibly typically Swiss with flowers painted on the pale green painted wooden head and foot boards and the other more like a hospital bed. Both were covered with bedding, blankets in muted pastel shades and pillows. Above the bed nearest the window hung a painting of a nude done in bright colours and abstract in style. John found this painting funny, it was not to his taste at all! On the wall opposite the window hung a painting that may have been faintly biblical, allegorical - I seem to remember that it showed a man and some animals. The door into the kitchen led out of the wall opposite the nude, furthest from the window, and between the door and the window hung a painting of a typical Swiss country scene, with lush meadows and mountains behind. This was my idea of a good painting. I had put John's stuff on the floor under it, beside a z-bed (folded up) beyond which stood another wheelchair, also folded up. In the middle of the room stood a round table and four rustic looking but surprisingly comfortable chairs, arm-less and heavy. The table was covered with a tablecloth with flowers on it and in the centre stood a vase of flowers. Also on the table (Erika put them there at some point) was a bowl of chocolate, those tiny bars of plain Swiss chocolate and 'Genuine Mozart Balls'. John's eyes lit up - remember he had had nothing to eat for 36 hours - and I offered him a ball. His eyes asked 'what is it?' so I described it as I unwrapped it and took a bite myself. Plain chocolate wrapped around marzipan is not my idea of heaven but John seemed to enjoy it as he held it to his mouth and licked it, large quantities of saliva running from his mouth as he tasted the bitter chocolate. He gave it back to me thoroughly sucked but not much smaller. His saliva was now brown with cocoa! He indicated that we should try one of the plain bars so I unwrapped one and handed it to him. Again he licked and sucked it before handing it back to me. I ate the rest, and very nice it was too. John asked the time again and I think it was shortly after 3 o'clock. The hotel guests returned shortly after three fifteen, I think, and Erika offered us tea. We accepted gratefully and sat around drinking it. Erika appeared with the syringe of anti-emetic and John took it at 3.35. We had been told that it would take 20 minutes to take effect so John knew that the earliest he could have the barbiturates was five to four. He asked if we would leave him alone for five minutes before then. What do you talk about in fifteen minutes of that type? I cannot remember. John was at the table, I was beside him, Peggy was being 'mum' with the teapot, Michael and Margaret were sitting on the beds, I think. John was keen not to waste a moment after 3.55 - he wanted that overdose as soon as possible.

We drank tea and chatted and, yes, we laughed during that fifteen minutes then I told John it was ten to four and did he want us to leave him? 'Yes please, and turn me round to face the window,' was the meaning of what he signed and groaned.

We went out into the kitchen and there was Erika with the forms. We told her that John wanted five minutes alone and we then stood around until Erika offered us fold-up wooden chairs to sit on. When John knocked his organiser on the bed head nearest to him to tell us that he had finished whatever he was doing and the five minutes was up, we stood and walked away from the chairs (which the lovely Erika must have folded up for they had gone back into storage when next we came out) and went back to John.

He indicated that he wanted to be turned around again, to face into the room, so I did so with one last knock into the furniture and a 'whoops'. The table was slightly in front of him and to his left, one of the single beds was on his right. Erika had followed us into the room and she had the syringe full of barbiturate in her hand. John held out his hand for it but I took his hand and said 'please, before you take it, let us all say goodbye properly.' He agreed and we took turns to hold him and kiss him. I said that I had wanted to say something profound but had failed: all I could say was how much I would miss him. Margaret, Peggy and Michael said their goodbyes and then we sat down beside him. I sat on one of the plain chairs just to his left, in the angle between John and the table, and Peggy, Margaret and Michael sat on the bed, Peggy by the window and Margaret in the middle. Erika approached again and John held out his hand. I put the syringe into the cap and then took my hands away. We had removed the tape holding the tube close to John's belly earlier to make it easier for him to push with his left hand against the resistance of his right. John undid the clip on his tube and pushed down on the plunger of the syringe. He pushed with such strength of purpose and determination that there was not a moment's doubt about him wanting death more than anything. At that point I was screaming inside my head that I wanted him to stop, I wanted the antidote (there isn't one, as far as I know) - I wanted him back for me, because I would miss him. I soon realised that this wasn't about me and what I wanted - it was John's choice and John had just taken the action to ensure it happened.

When he had pushed the plunger all the way in, he closed the clip and I removed the syringe from the tube and closed the cap for the last time. I put the syringe down on the table to my left and got wet fingers in doing so - I wiped them dry, wondering if the barbiturate could be absorbed through the skin… (Apparently not, and it was only a few drops anyway.)

We adjusted our positions around him, closing in and holding on to whatever part of him we could. I had his left hand in mine and my right hand on his left shoulder. He made a joke - we had previously discussed the fact that he was so strong that he would need the rhinoceros-sized dose to see him off and he started to count down the minutes on his fingers! However, within a couple of minutes he was starting to doze off and we said goodbye again. I was crying loudly and openly as he drifted off to sleep - it troubles me that the last sound he heard was not peaceful music or birdsong but his snivelling sister. Erika came in and put a blanket around my shoulders and then another around the other three sitting on the bed. She came back a couple of times over the next ten minutes to make sure we all five were okay -John's head drooped even further forward than usual as his breathing got deeper and deeper and she pointed out a pulse beating in the side of his neck. This became an object of fascination for me, a site of special interest. I found that, if I stared hard at it, it was very difficult to see any changes. If I looked away then looked back, it was easier to detect changes, or was I simply imagining it? After twenty minutes Erika confirmed that he had gone - I think we all knew that already but it was good to have it confirmed. Erika then opened the windows and lowered but did not close the blinds. This was a lovely gesture - letting the outside world with its noises and scents of life into the room. John had died in his wheelchair and we continued to sit around him: Erika said she had to phone the police and left us with John. After another twenty minutes or so, maybe, John started to slip sideways in his wheelchair and we propped him up with a cushion (the one she had slipped under my bottom on the wooden chair as I wept) and a pillow. We continued to sit with him, and I was watching the changing colours of his left hand with fascination. His fingers had gone bluey-grey even before his breathing stopped.

When the police and medical people had all arrived (three police including the local 'chief', four medical) and were ready to start their work, we four left the room. Erika told us that they would remove all of John's clothes and what did we want to do with them. 'We will take them away', of course, as the alternative was to throw them away. We sat in stunned silence. Finally I remembered the organiser and what John had written there. I turned it on and the text appeared. It was 'i am tired' (sic) and I read it then passed the device to Peggy and Margaret to read. (Michael chose not to read it until later.) Erika chatted to us and Michael asked about the man who had been there earlier with her. Erika said that he was soon to be her husband: they had met when his late wife came to the flat to die two years earlier.

After maybe twenty minutes the professionals were satisfied that there was no foul play in John's death and they were ready to leave. The only woman amongst them (who was also the only one who spoke good English) told us that everything was in order. And then they left. And we went back into the room. John had been removed from his wheelchair and was lying on the single bed by the window, covered with the blanket which Erika had draped around Michael, Margaret and Peggy. One of his big toes was just visible, as was the very top of his head. I pulled the blanket down and saw the changes to his face for the first time - his head having dropped down as his neck weakened they had previously been hidden from us. His skin was yellowy, blotchy - 'waxen' to use the corny word. It's a true word. His lips too were blotchy, stained a livid deep purple where they were not pale and bloodless. As I held the blanket up, a tiny fly crawled across John's top lip and I felt the need to shoo it away. I knew he was dead and wouldn't feel it but I didn't want it defiling him. Peggy, Margaret and Michael all did the same as me and kissed or touched his face to say goodbye again. There aren't enough times you can say goodbye.

Peggy in particular was reluctant to leave his body. Margaret, Michael and I were perhaps better prepared for the act and fact of death, having been with our father when he died in early 1996 - perhaps we should have talked about it beforehand, but it was very hard to really acknowledge that John was going to die before he did so. I realise now that I denied that truth to a certain extent - I find that amazing but not surprising.

There are some moments and images which I cannot imagine will ever fade, and some things which I cannot remember at all. I remember carrying John's empty wheelchair down the stairs as it was easier than putting it in the lift with a person, but I cannot remember saying goodbye to Erika.

We did say goodbye to her, I hope. We walked out of the flat in a kind of daze into the warmth of a late May late afternoon. I hadn't been to the hotel yet, of course, and now I was being told where it was - we could see it from the corner of the street and, later, I realised that we could see The Flat from our rooms which I found comforting, especially as I knew that John's body would still be there until later on when the undertakers came. I found myself looking for easy places up and down the kerb, despite having no person in the wheelchair. I wanted to lie in the bath for an hour with a stiff drink: instead, I had a wash, made some phone calls (mum's home, mum, Sue, Pete) and we went out to eat. We took a tram and ate at Pier 7, a waterfront (and water-borne but very stable, thankfully) restaurant which was small and noisy but just right. We drank a toast to John's memory and ate a lot and went back to the hotel feeling that we had seen him off as he would have wanted. Unreal.

I am finishing this writing four weeks later, after we have scattered his ashes so I have forgotten some details already, but I wrote the most difficult bits much earlier. Reading it now I am reminded of the tremendous stress of the day, although I really didn't notice it at the time. I am still tormented by my tears and sobbing - it really worries me that John died to that sound. I have cried since, but there are fewer tears when you have known someone is going to die and you have had the chance to say goodbye. I cannot imagine how traumatic losing someone in a car crash must be.