This article first appeared in the 1 January 2010 edition of Irish Examiner and is reproduced here with their kind permission.
Author: Terry Prone
A few months into 2006, a client and friend was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer. He had never smoked. He was 46 years of age. He had four children.
The consultant oncologist was blunt. "You have months or possibly years," he told his patient. "And don't ask me how many. I don't know."
Imagine, the patient told his hospital visitors with a twinkle. Imagine telling an accountant not to seek clarity around the figures.
His friends expected him to go through shock, denial, bargaining and depression before coming to serenity. He floored them by not doing any of that. Nor did he do the "battle against cancer" so beloved of headline-writers. Cancer had happened to him. Death was going to happen to him. When he pushed the oncologist for any treatment, no matter how experimental or problematic, it wasn't to avoid death, but to gain time. Because he had things to do. Ordinary, routine things. He didn't want to climb a mountain or do white-water-rafting. He just wanted to be with his family in as normal a way as possible for as long as possible. He wanted to run his business for as long as he could do it properly. No heroics.
But then, this man had always been short on heroics. I remember watching a communications coach get assertive with him in advance of an important speech he had to make.
"There's no PASSION in it," she told him. "We have to have passion."
He gave an apologetic half-laugh that indicated his incapacity to drum up overt passion, his faith that the people he was talking to would apprehend his real passion for the subject and his resignation in advance if they didn't. He was an accountant, after all. He took care of the details. He worked within the systems. The problem with cancer is that someone else is in charge of the details, insofar as anybody is in charge of anything. He understood that immediately. Cancer was something that had happened to him, like short-sightedness, only more serious. The results of treatments, likewise.
Even when one of those results was a form of chloracne that briefly pitted his skin and radically changed his appearance. His friends and visitors were constantly being upset by the setbacks. He was constantly being surprised by the advances. He came from a business that's about figures and spreadsheets, not feelings. So he was astonished to find so many of his colleagues so emotionally involved with him. They arrived to see him whenever he was in hospital, nodding brusquely to each other, giving him unsentimental support and then shutting up about it.
In his home, one day, I remarked on the new chair he had, that tipped him onto his feet without him having to struggle to stand up. In what sounded like a non sequitur, he asked me if I knew Mary Harney, who, that week, was getting beaten up over some failure of the health system. If I did, he wanted her to know that he was amazed at how good the system was, when it came to making it possible for him to stay at home and live a fairly normal life. The home care team identified what he needed before he knew he needed it, and it arrived within days. Please let her know, he said. There should be balance.
He treated his illness and his dying as a project to be tackled. A baffling and unwelcome project. But an inevitable and inescapable project, which, like any business project, required goal-setting and strategic thinking. A holiday during the summer was one of those goals and its achievement was satisfying. Other goals weren't met, and were abandoned without complaint.
He didn't complain at all. But he didn't let on to be positive when there was nothing to be positive about. He was factual about every phase. For example, in recent months, sleep would tend to descend on him, unbidden.
"That must be good," a visitor said. No, he responded, matter-of-factly. It wasn't good sleep.
HE WASN'T looking for sympathy. Just stating facts. Facts were what he always dealt with. He didn't suddenly reach for great thoughts or insights. He went on paying attention to the details we so often seek to remove from the hands of very sick people. The only time a detail got away from him was when a mention appeared in media of his retirement. That annoyed him. But only because it would have been read by colleagues and staff the day before he planned to communicate the fact to them. He wasn't personally hurt or affronted. It simply wasn't the correct way for it to happen, and he wanted everything done correctly.
And if that sounds prissy, it shouldn't. He took decency and correctness beyond a form-filling punctilio. For example, if you met him in his understated home, and his two youngest daughters arrived to greet you, he never did the jolly show-offery "aren't my children super" performance.
When his youngest talked with the resolute seriousness only a six year old can bring to small matters, he listened to her with as much grave attention as if he'd been at a board meeting.
The weeks coming up to Christmas were not good. But the great thing, he said, was what he smilingly called his "quality time" with his wife in the late evenings. The two of them would sit in the middle of the hospital machinery, holding hands and saying very little. They were, he realised, way past the need to say much to each other. Their selves had been interwoven from the day they met as students. There was no need for big statements.
"You know," he told her one evening in December in Vincent's Hospital, "they don't think I'm going to get out of here again. But I am."
He did, too. He got home a couple of days before Christmas. In time to welcome friends, break open a bottle of wine, take pleasure in his family.
Knowing he had already taken care of the details. Not just selecting the final gift for his wife, but making sure the newspaper delivery man got a Christmas present too.
Late Christmas Eve, the hospital took him back and he drifted into unconsciousness. At midnight, his wife told him it was Christmas Day and he acknowledged it: goal achieved. Then he died. He quietly died. Neatly and decently timing it so Santa could still arrive for the younger ones and that the older members of the family could have Christmas morning together in a warm house, rather than in a hospital vigil.
In career terms, his — culminating in three years as Managing Partner of KPMG — was a triumph.
But of more significance was the lesson he unknowingly gave everybody around him in how to die a good death. By not changing. By taking care of the details, doing what he could, abandoning what he couldn't. Knowing how much the small things matter — even down to the unfailing murmured words of thanks to a carer.
His name was Denis O'Connor.