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When you are struggling with the hardest job you ever do – trying to raise a child half-decently – and you’re heading for what feels like rock bottom, there’s always someone nearby who tells you “It’s only a phase”. Well of course, those phases don’t stop with toddlerhood. They become as clear towards the Very End as they were in the cradle. Shakespeare, famously and with his usual extraordinary power of observation, puts it like this:


And all the men and women merely players;

They have their exits and their entrances;

And one man in his time plays many parts,

His acts being seven ages. At first the infant,

Mewling and puking in the nurse’s arms;

And then the whining school-boy, with his satchel

And shining morning face, creeping like snail

Unwillingly to school. And then the lover,

Sighing like furnace, with a woeful ballad

Made to his mistress’ eyebrow. Then a soldier,

Full of strange oaths, and bearded like the pard,

Jealous in honour, sudden and quick in quarrel,

Seeking the bubble reputation

Even in the cannon’s mouth. And then the justice,

In fair round belly with good capon lin’d,

With eyes severe and beard of formal cut,

Full of wise saws and modern instances;

And so he plays his part. The sixth age shifts

Into the lean and slipper’d pantaloon,

With spectacles on nose and pouch on side;

His youthful hose, well sav’d, a world too wide

For his shrunk shank; and his big manly voice,

Turning again toward childish treble, pipes

And whistles in his sound. Last scene of all,

That ends this strange eventful history,

Is second childishness and mere oblivion;

Sans teeth, sans eyes, sans taste, sans everything.


I think a lot these days about the “last scene of all” because I am watching it unfold daily. My Loved One has lain in hospital for five weeks. Hospitals are for people who can be helped to get (at least a little) better. Despite the excellent efforts of the splendid staff at Lewisham Hospital MLO has continued to deteriorate. There is no more they can do. “We are approaching the end” the consultant told me plainly this week. The upshot is that he needs to go somewhere else where nature will simply take its course.

And unless, nature takes us by surprise in the next few days, he’s coming home to die. The bed is ready for him. All ideas of hoisting him in and out of it are now abandoned. We’re just waiting for funding to be agreed and the care package to be set up. I am due to meet the Palliative Care Team later this week. There may be hospice involvement.

Well Will, you really did get it right didn’t you? MLO now refuses even to try and eat almost everything he’s offered. He can hardly swallow and even getting medication in is difficult. Once home, without an IV drip, he will be dependent on the few drops of water we can spoon in. “Shrunk shank” is very much in evidence. Realisitically I suspect he’s on track to starve to death and given his frailty it’s unlikely to take long.

He hasn’t worn his denture since they had to remove it weeks back for an MRI scan and the process was no difficult that he’s been “sans teeth” ever since. He’s also more or less “sans taste” since he lost his sense of smell twenty years ago and I really don’t know how much his blank rheumy eyes are seeing. “second childishness and mere oblivion” apply as well since he can do less for himself that he could (presumably) as a six month baby but seems mercifully unaware of it.

He isn’t quite (yet) “sans everything” though. It is well known that hearing is the last thing to go. This week I have started taking my iPad and his old Bose headphones to the hospital. Yesterday I played him the whole of the Mozart Requiem. I sat at the bedside quietly doing a puzzle and listening to a comic drama staff were having with another patient while he lay unmoving with the headphones on.  Suddenly I thought I saw MLO’s hand move but assumed I’d imagined it. Then it happened again. And suddenly his right forearm was vertical and twitching – and his mouth was moving. He was “conducting” along to the Sanctus. It was a marvellous, quite uplifting few moments and wonderful for me to think that, even at this darkening twilight stage, he’d briefly found a tiny shred of enjoyment and life quality. Thanks Wolfgang Amadeus.

“… with his satchel/And shining morning face” My Loved one around 1950.


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Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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