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The end-of-life playlist

Blog

The end-of-life playlist

Ruby Lohman

During the final moments of her uncle’s life, Camille Broomhead played assistant DJ as the family held vigil. A musician among other things, her uncle took his final breath just after one of his favourite artists’ songs – its lyrics spine-tinglingly profound – came to an end.

My uncle Mark died at age 42, a number that probably delighted him, given its connection to Douglas Adams' Hitchhiker's Guide series, which he enjoyed immensely.

I can tell you many things about Mark’s death. It was such a crazy time that non-linear impressions are best.

I can tell you that he died on 11.12.13, which has a nice, consecutive number vibe to it. He died of an aggressive bladder cancer whose stranglehold on his once-lean runner’s body took my breath away.

I can tell you that, just moments after he died, his youngest son, about seven, asked the surreal question, possibly to lighten the mood: “Have you ever seen a dog drunk?! It’s really funny!”

Late evening, after Mark died, the air felt golden and heavy, as though every atom in the room had exhaled. The family cat, Miss Moggins, half-wild from spending most of her life roaming free in her vast Hills backyard, sensed what was up and snuggled onto my stomach for the first and last time.

I can tell you that Mark’s last day on Earth was the type of day songs are written about, a day with four seasons. It was my privilege, and my undoing, to be the first one to sit vigil with Mark’s body.

But what I most want to tell you about is the final 20 minutes of his life. It began when my uncle Damian had a moment of sudden inspiration, realising that his beloved brother could still hear, and hurried back into Mark’s bedroom, assuming a position on the chair next to his head. By this stage, Mark's breathing was soft and slow, and each breath could have been his last.

My aunty Jane, a nurse, was at the foot of the bed, as was the neighbour, Michael, also a nurse. The two of them had been tag-teaming caring for Mark in his home, as per his strong wishes, and were doing a stellar job. By that stage, they were huddled at the foot of the bed in deep discussion about morphine.

I was there too, playing my part, which, as it turned out, was assistant DJ. I held the iPad, and tapped in the titles of the songs Damian asked me to play.

In curating a musical send-off for his brother, his selections did not disappoint. Or were they Mark’s selections? There was a sense of total synchronicity between the two of them. It felt like Mark, a musician among many other things, was telepathically relaying what he wanted to Damian, and expressing himself through the songs.

I don’t remember everything we played, but the playlist included the following, the lyrics of which, in that context, are nothing short of profound:

  • ‘You ain’t goin’ nowhere’, (Get your mind off wintertime/you ain't goin' nowhere), Bob Dylan by way of The Byrds
  • ‘Message in a bottle’, (Sending out an SOS...I hope that someone gets my...message in a bottle), The Police. This was Mark’s favourite song as a little boy.
  • Walking on the Moon’, (We could walk forever....walking on the moon), The Police
  • ‘Perfect Day’ (Oh it's such a perfect day/I'm glad I spent it with you), Lou Reed.

Then Damian had a song he was trying to find. He was close but not quite there when he requested ‘I'm so free’ also by Lou Reed (amazingly relevant for the title, but also: Yes I am Mother Nature's son/And I'm the only one).

Finally, as the sun was setting, Damian nailed it: ‘I'm set free’ by The Velvet Underground.

The moment the song finished, Mark breathed his last breath and died.

I've poked and prodded this song. I’ve googled it. I have my own ideas about it and the things it alludes to within Mark’s life. I leave it to you as a parting gift – it’s one of the greatest treasures I have.

I’ve been set free and I’ve been bound         

To the memories of yesterday’s clouds

I've been set free and I’ve been bound

And now I'm set free

I'm set free

I'm set free to find a new illusion

I've been blinded but

Now I can see

What in the world has happened to me

The prince of stories who walks right by me

And now I'm set free

I'm set free

I'm set free to find a new illusion

I've been set free and I've been bound

Let me tell you people

What I found

I saw my head laughing

Rolling on the ground

And now I'm set free

I'm set free

I'm set free to find a new illusion
 Brothers and cricket tragics: Mark (left) and Damian. I keep this teeny photo on a teeny card in my purse. Damian gave it to me. The ‘invincible’ cricketer referred to in the photo is Steve Waugh. It was the day after he'd scored his century at the SCG.

Brothers and cricket tragics: Mark (left) and Damian. I keep this teeny photo on a teeny card in my purse. Damian gave it to me. The ‘invincible’ cricketer referred to in the photo is Steve Waugh. It was the day after he'd scored his century at the SCG.

Camille Broomhead is a Melbourne-based fledgling writer who puts bread on the table by teaching international students (and she enjoys it too!). She has trained as an end-of-life doula and is fiercely passionate about death literacy and starting The Conversation that most of us don't want to have.
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