Gains and Losses

Posted On: 27 Dec 2023 by Damien Matthews

Gains and Losses

Gains and Losses
  1. Another year, another interesting year. To be remembered by me as the year of loss. And gain.


Death of nearest brother in age (estranged 25 years), Brinsley.

Death of oldest and close friend (30 years, 91 years old), Diarmuid.

Death of good friend (25 years), Frank Phelan, a very fine painter.

Frank was very handy for me. Had a lovely big old flat on Earl’s Court Square. Used to stay with him in London, spend the savings on food & wine about the town. A great man for the better wine Frank. Failed him miserably as his art dealer, but gentleman that he was, never held it against me. He started to make real money in the last fifteen years though, real money. Which was nice to see, that I wasn’t wrong. He was 91 when he went. Frank, a nimble and curious mind in a healthy body for those 91 years. A blessed and lovely man. Anyhow, only he, an Irishman, could have said what he did the last time we met. Told me he had some disappointing news, “Sit down there for a quick minute”. Selfishly thought he might have someone else sleeping in the spare room. Was about to cut him off and say, “Frank, it’s okay, I can stay around the corner”. But he silenced me. Said he’d just been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.

“Jesus” I replied, “they left it a bit late didn’t they?” I’ve always been suave.

“Don’t worry” he said, pulling on his coat, “I’ll be dead before it kills me”.

Off to Scotts with us, a superlative Premier Cru Chablis if I remember right, and not another word about it.

He was dead within the month.

Diarmuid Teevan, another great life. A man who enjoyed a fine display of good health more or less right to the end, bar one or two well-contained medical bombs (open heart surgery at 73, stitching of the heart at 90). He exited at 91 as well, but the teachings of Epictetus saw him through - nothing got him down. Nothing. On his last day took a lady friend out for lunch. Best wine, a few ports, then home. Opened the hall door, walked along the parquet, felt a little faint, gently laid down on the rug. Bob his dog came to join him, lay by his side as he passed. Diarmiud, died as if he was just going for a nap, only that he didn’t wake up. They found him later, peaceful as a baby.

Asked him a few months before, how he felt about going to the funerals of all his friends, while he himself was in such great shape. “Oh Damien", he replied, raising glass of claret to contented lips, “sometimes I feel like I’m lapping”.

Thorough in all he did. And competitive. Right to the end. By the graveside at the burial, as he was being lowered in, I said to his cousin, “There’s some lifeforce in that box”. Then the coffin stopped going down. Peered over the edge. The grave was dug shallow, 5ft not the usual six. His cousin quietly said to me, “His strict instructions, not to embalmed, he wished to be buried whole. And the plot dug none too deep”.

What’s going on here I thought. Then, it clicked. A man for scripture, Diarmuid knew that on the day Jesus returns to our earthly realm, we'll (supposedly anyhow) be called directly from our graves to heaven. Diarmuid, by that shallower grave, would have the head start right there. And no need for re-assembly. A man for the thinking long-term.

My Brother, unfortunately got the short straw. Totally.

Pancreatic cancer at 56. Truly the shortest straw. He looked what I’d look like if I exercised, didn’t smoke cigars, didn’t eat to excess, didn’t like the bold girls, didn’t drink to the full of my cup. Too many didn’t’s for me but a fine cut of a man nonetheless. A testament to good living and a tan. The day of diagnosis he was out driving, top down cruising along Palm Beach (he lived that life). Feeling great. Actually said to his nephew in the car, “Man, I haven’t felt this good in years”. He’d spent the previous few nursing his recently deceased partner. He’d earned the right to a good time, did the right thing. But that evening shadows appeared. Big shadows. Results you wouldn’t want to hear. Two to four weeks the doctor said, and you’ll be dead. Straight out, no soft words. Pushing every button got him nearly five months more. But it was never pretty. Living nightmare actually if I’m honest. Glad to say we got to know each other again through that time. Saw much to be admired in his tenacious will to live. Me? Totally lack the courage for that sort of gore. It’d be off to Switzerland, Dignatas. But only after as much extra fun as my ailing body could suffer, still have a few gaps in the memory circuit board to fill. Then off down the chute of mortality I go. Or as Bacon put it, “Tie me up in a bin bag and throw me in the gutter”.


Odd as it seems, the above. Learned a lot. Had some other losses too, other realms - life is, after all, a course in loss. But the 2023 main lesson, the diploma, the degree, the masters. Wasn’t the usual baloney, the ‘let’s live life every day’ stuff, blah de blah 'when you’re gone you’re gone might as well live now' nonsense. No. Even a monkey knows it’s a trillion to one chance that we get to dance awhile sparked cadavers above the clay. A short while. Then hearse-wedged we go, right back into it for another few billion years. No, that wasn’t the lesson. Martin Amis, another 2023 departuree, wrote that most people make it a full-time job looking the other way. What I learned this year, really learned, the doctorat, was to have a real good look at death. A long hard stare at it. Then look up, not away, and be very attentive. What you pay attention to is, after all, your life.

Leave yourself a little space so that you can.

That’s it really. And party a little harder.