Thursday, October 18, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Six)

Click here to start from Part One

It was a sudden exit from this world, however inevitable it may have been. There was an appreciation for us that Damian never had a drawn out period of dying, which would have separated him from the daily patterns of life which he loved to be a part of. A few months before he died, shortly after the public outpouring of grief over Diana Spencer’s death, Damian had a similar dizzy episode which resulted in a brief period of hospitalisation. We were on holiday at the time in Cornwall, and there was an overwhelming fear that took hold of me. During that short time waiting for the ambulance I thought that I would never see my brother again. The next day when we went to the hospital Damian was as lively as ever, having made a complete recovery, and typically complaining about the vegetarian meal option available! It was perhaps this dogged determination and optimistic countenance which kept us going. Many times Damian would dryly remark “well, I’m already past my sell-by date” referring to his life expectancy of 14 years, which he was given when very young. Any time he was given, was a blessing, which Damian was always grateful for. Most of all we can also look back on Damian as a blessing for ourselves. Over the past few months, as I have set about arranging this commemoration, I have come across people familiar with Damian simply through the short legacy he left, and not even having met him. His popularity lay in aspects which are often unexpected in our culture; contradictions which remind us that our life is only transient, with greater virtues than earthly ones enduring. A friend from University, Giles Heather, recounts his memories:

I was in his year at St Benet's. We played cards and had pizza take-away in my room a couple of nights before he died. Although we all knew about his precarious health, his death still came out of the blue and made a profound impact on the college. I was a pall-bearer at his funeral and remember that occasion as intense, crammed, uncomfortable even. I keep a photograph of Damian in my (old) missal, the one where he is holding up a glass; happier times... I am so glad that a requiem is to be celebrated. I didn't know he had a brother, and was on the verge of approaching Fr Henry to ask him if he was planning such a Mass. I think about Damian and his physical and spiritual courage often.

One thing I perhaps regretted most was not being able to speak at length with Damian about the prospect of dying which he surely reflected upon. But through his creative writing perhaps we can see a glimpse of how he felt: In his screenplay ‘The Unknown Man,’ the central character Daniel is on his deathbed, having spent the story struggling to know who he was, following a sudden amnesia which had blanked out his memories. He consoles Alison, the one he loves, denying being afraid of dying, with the following words:

Death is merely change. What I hate is the pain...

When I looked into the empty abyss, the nothingness, and saw it in myself and in the world too, that was when I was frightened because I realised that everything is merely images, scenes in an eternal film, where everything is merely an expression of life exploring its own infinite depths. Life is no thing in itself, but in the universe, it is in everything. And I am life. That is who I am.

Don’t cry... I don’t want you to be sad. I’ll be with you always... in your memories. If you ever want to speak to me, I’ll always be waiting in the infinite corridors of your imagination. Just simply close your eyes and start talking.

This world isn’t real... it’s just perceptions. Love is what is real.
- END -

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Five)


Unfortunately Damian was never able to complete his degree. He died in the first month of his final year. Fr Michael, whom Damian knew as ‘Brother Anthony,’ recounts his time at St Benet’s in vivid detail:
At St Benet’s. Damian was happy there. His room on the half landing had been the Master’s bedroom in years past. He enjoyed showing people where he lived, and also photographs of his family. There was often a story about them.
At Matriculation, in his gown and mortar board. He had achieved the impossible.

In that blue sweater. Damian was always cold. We used to joke that it had become attached to him and could not be removed. He enjoyed hitting me for saying things like that.

Waiting for taxis. We seemed to spend a lot of time in dusty outer offices, waiting for a driver to take us back to St Giles. Damian would teach me patiently about the Star Wars universe. The fact that I was so old that I’d seen the first film on its release was amazing to him. He was glad to complete my education.

Working. Damian did well, especially in the first terms when his health kept up. He enjoyed philosophy. He hated Greek.

Laundry. The laundry at St Benet’s was Damian’s nadir. Down a steep back staircase, it was tough for him to reach even on his best days. Some of us became his laundry aides. It was one of the ways that Damian spread goodness around him. He trusted people to help him and they did.

With friends. I will never forget the evening of the visit to Freud’s Art Café. A trendy bar built in an unused church, Damian had long talked of going there, not with me – he didn’t really want a monk to take him to somewhere like that. His fellow undergraduates made it happen. They arranged the evening – they took him there. I remember watching his slight figure among those others, all of whom seemed so tall around him.
Towards the end, the main stairs of St Benet’s became very hard for him. Even coming to meals was sometimes tough. One evening, a friend carried Damian down.

The day of Damian’s death began like many others. He came down to breakfast very late and ate his toast with a mixture of honey and marmite. A taxi took us to Jericho and the doctor’s surgery. We had, a few weeks before, spent the day at the John Radcliffe. Now his test results had come.

In the car, we talked about an essay he was writing.

We sat together in the waiting room. This was all quite usual. The doctor, Michael Kenworthy-Browne, was someone Damian liked.

Damian knew that the results would not be good. He had weakened over the long vacation, and the first few weeks of that Michaelmas term had been difficult.

He started to get very short of breath.

He held my hand.

As the receptionist called out to the doctor, Damian suddenly stood up. He crumpled onto me. By the time the doctor laid him on the floor, Damian had died.

I think of that day very often. Of how normal it was, how Damian had done the things that Damian normally did. Being at Oxford was a huge accomplishment, against all the odds. He knew his family were vastly proud of him. And his presence in St Benet’s made it a finer place.

Damian died too quickly to feel the loss of any of those qualities that made his life so beautiful.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Four)


When Damian was five years old, I was born. It must be said that at this age and onwards, he had a particular knack of getting his own way! Shopping expeditions would often consist of a series of temper tantrums. Even letters from Boarding School would finish with a list of new toys and videos which he required! I can best divide our childhood into different ‘crazes,’ often with markedly discrete shifts of interest, always led by Damian! I can remember as early back as Roland Rat, whose soft toy persona would accompany Damian wherever he went. A loss in any of his stuffed animals would be met with a piercing cry! Shortly after this he best liked Star Wars toys, which have since become a cult collector’s item. Regardless, Damian ended up swapping all his figurines for the latest craze: Transformer toys! Perhaps this was due to their television serial designed at marketing them. Next came Action Force army figures (or G.I. Joe) which Damian would also enjoy customising with specially built wooden bases. But the overriding craze which always endured was Star Wars; a science fiction fantasy movie which spawned toys, novels, comics, role-playing games and much more. Damian was an avid collector, and as an adult he even kept toys which he bought in their boxes to increase their value.

He later came to see the story of Star Wars as a modern-day myth, encapsulating the same great principles of story telling which he had come to love from literature, history and religion. He identified several strands of contemporary philosophy within the spiritual areas of the story line, and from an emotional point of view would always identify with the character of Luke Skywalker: a boy who grew up without a father, intrigued by the mysteries and excitement awaiting him in the world. He began to expound a great ‘Theology of Star Wars,’ which he would impress upon others at every opportunity, including the Monks at St Benets Hall, who had never come across such a concept! If he had lived but another year, he would likely have written a dissertation on the subject.

He often struggled with his own Faith, unable to understand the reason for plurality of religions. Subsequently he strove to discover common threads and themes, and particularly loved the study of the human spirit which he found in films and books. He was certainly a believer in an omnipotent God, and as such he believed in a divine providence which transcended that which many would understandably see as a bitter position to be in, in terms of health. He saw in the teachings of Jesus a way to experience the Kingdom of Heaven, but never fully came to trust the teachings handed down by His Church. He searched other systems of belief, many claiming to be from Jesus Himself, but encompassing ‘New Age’ type philosophies. Eventually he despaired that systems of transcendent spiritual development such as these were impossible in application; his mind was too active and imaginative to ‘meditate’ upon nothingness for even five minutes! In his final years he lived above the Chapel at St. Benet’s Hall. He would often hear the Latin Gregorian Chant as part of the Mass and Divine Office in the life of the Monks there. This he appreciated, but occasionally felt irritated by! Nevertheless, he took great delight in taking me to a University performance of Gregorian Chant and Sacred Polyphony, which gave him great relaxation and peace of mind.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Three)


The state education system was not very conducive to Damian’s individual needs. Scared of his poor health prognosis, the teachers forbade him from leaving the classroom during play-time, and so his only perk was finishing off the free milk which was left over from first break. One day, another boy decided to stay in with him and play with his Transformers toys. Damian was reluctant to donate any of his milk, though! This young boy, Luke, was Damian’s loyal friend right up to his death. Eventually the opportunity presented itself to move Damian into an environment which was more holistic and understanding. He went to Grace Dieu Manor, a Catholic independent preparatory school, run by the Rosminian Institute of Charity. Here he thrived, and developed essential life skills through inspiring instruction. He would talk hours every weekend about his lively teachers and exciting lessons. He developed a passion for English and other languages, like Latin. He also loved all forms of Art; painting (for which he received particular commendation), pottery and woodwork. Despite the teasing which can be expected of not being able to join in all activities, he was calm and refused to react adversely. This earned him the respect of all.

Before he progressed onto the senior school, Ratcliffe College, he broke his leg in a freak accident involving a piano! For months he needed wheeling around in a wheelchair; although this had its perks, it affirmed his disdain to be seen as ‘different’ or requiring care. During his senior school years he proved his academic ability with numerous studies prizes, and obtained excellent GCSE results. For A-level he specialised in Computer Science, English and Theology. He attained respectable grades, with particular amplitude for computing, having famously taught the head of the department a great deal himself! On interview he made a strong impression with the Master of St Benet’s Hall at Oxford University, who admitted him as an undergraduate to study Theology and Philosophy. Two years later the same Master, Dom Henry Wansborough, would preside over Damian’s funeral with a personal and heartfelt eulogy. Damian’s mother, Monica, reflects on this difficult upheaval:

10 years on, I divide my life into two halves: that before he died and the utterly different path I had to take afterward. My whole being was changed... it was as if I was re-forged in a kind of fire.

It seemed shortly after Damian’s death that God spoke to me directly and told me that Damian was with Him and that He had given me Jerome (who was 4½ years old). He quelled the incredible anger I felt after the death.

Recently, I was having difficulties with Jerome, now approaching 15, and was at a loss at what to do... amazingly I found myself praying... but it was not to God, it was to Damian. So I have become a mother who can ‘pray’ to her own son, who is with God.

As Father Henry said to me ten years ago, “Life goes on.” I must admit I was somewhat sceptical about this in my case! But like him, I have learnt much from my son Damian, and before I lost him I bathed in the serenity he had. He was beautiful and I am eternally grateful that God chose me to be his mother.

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part Two)

Damian was born in South Africa shortly before the release of his favourite film Star Wars, in 1977. Immediately, he went into heart failure and required maximum medical intervention to keep him alive. He was unable to feed, initially required a feeding tube and numerous other invasive devices. He was kept at the hospital, and only allowed home after several months. His mother had to cope on her own in a very difficult climate. Characteristically, she broke cultural taboos by taking Damian on a ‘blacks-only’ bus one day, since she had no use of a car. Although somewhat apprehensive, her disdain for the system of segregation was rewarded with friendliness and good humour, with Damian being passed around by the swooning ladies on the bus, saying “Little Master!” and all desperate to hold him!

He was a remarkably pretty baby: Born a month premature, he was small for his age but quickly developed a huge grin which would often have his mother stopped in the street by admiring passers-by. His hair was rich blonde as a young boy, his bright face matched by a remarkable intelligence and creativity. He would love to draw and write stories; pastimes which he enjoyed to the last. His illness never limited him a great deal in the early years; the pressures in his heart favourable, his cheeks were flush and his lips pink. Regrettably he suffered a great deal in other ways; an unsupportive step-father meant he struggled to feel secure until his family moved at the age of six to England. Here he enjoyed the company of his great grandparents in Nottingham, where he lived all his life. Also, many second cousins from both sides of the family. In particular, he loved holidays with his great uncle in Harrogate, where he would play Star Wars with his cousins.

Similarly he had very supportive cousins further south in Oxford, who would take him on holiday and provide great love and friendship. Quite early on he would joke that Oxford University was his intended destination in life! This cousin, Candace, now has her own family; but looks back with fondness on the times she looked after Damian. After he died, Candace wrote him the following letter:

Dearest Damian,

At 6 years old – your age when I first met you – you told me you knew me from my voice, before you ever saw my face. Age 20, you prepared me for your death, softening my path to grief with your humour:

Look at it this way, Can” you said, “I passed my sell-by date years ago!

And yet I never expected you to go. Your sense of humour, your positive grip, your great lovingness and above all, your braveness – were all so life-affirming, it did not seem possible.

My mind turns to all the stages and eras we went through from Star War figures and cardboard spaceships onwards. To our many diverse conversations on everything from film directing to psychology to St. Mark’s gospel. I miss borrowing books from your bookshelf.

As tears come to my eyes because I no longer see your face, I suddenly hear your voice:

Cheer up, Can. I am not gone. Smile about all those little memories of me growing up. The tantrums in the toy aisles of Woolworths. Piggy backs across Oxford to the Sheldonian Theatre. Dancing to Michael Jackson in your garden at Mill Street . Promising to drive you across America in a pink mini. Making your computer keyboard sticky when I typed my stories. My long hair phase. And so on. All good practise for bringing up your two boys... Give them empathy – especially when they’re in the middle of a tantrum or growing their hair. They’ll turn out all right. Look at me, I did.

You certainly did, Damian. More than all right. I am so proud to have known you and had the privilege of looking after you. Thank you for the riches you gave me. You are a positive example to us all on how to live life to the fullest that we are able. And you are right. You are not gone. The light in our hearts - which is you - will never go out, you most precious, most special Damian.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Damian 10 years on... (Part One)

Part One of a Six-part series


This time ten years ago, the chapel at St Benet’s Hall was full beyond capacity. A huge number of people came to bear their final farewell to a 20 year old man cut off in his prime. Many people who couldn’t come sent letters of condolence. As the Requiem Mass was offered for the repose of his soul, the standing-room-only became hot and still, thick with respect and sorrow. The silence was broken by the occasional sob, and then suddenly by the thud of someone fainting! Had another young man’s life been snuffed out?! Thankfully not; a representative from Grace Dieu and Ratcliffe College (and a friend of mine) had fainted and keeled over in the most unexpected of ways. Perhaps the only person who would have seen the funny side of this was the man we were all grieving: Damian Coghlan.

He had such a joyful and exuberant sense of humour. Laughter for him was not a mere expression of an interior appreciation for some clever wit; it was a shaking up of his very being. This was clearly evident if anyone saw him watch a comedy show. He would buckle over, draw his knees up, throw his head back, and wail with an uncontrollable explosion of excitement. It is easy to be sad and depressed when someone dies, especially one so young. Happy memories often fade the fastest of all, amidst the sombre and macabre disposition which grief surrounds us in. But as healing takes place we find a new awakening of the essence of this life, which can never be smothered or stifled. Damian was certainly blessed with a rare gift of unique joy. He knew exactly how to shake himself out of the dark and sinister feelings which life can sometimes evoke; he would turn to laughter. A laughter that was genuine and heartfelt.

For most people, especially his age, it was hard to understand where Damian mustered this joy from. He had a lot to feel downtrodden about, but things which can easily make us bitter towards life somehow gave him extra strength. Damian was born thirty years ago with a congenital heart defect which hung above him like an omen of death for all of his days. He carried this cross of suffering, not only as a mark of reduced life expectancy, but also of gradually deteriorating health. As he passed through his adolescence, his lips became more often dusky than not, and most of the time he seemed breathless and struggling for energy. As Eisenmenger’s Syndrome presented itself, the medical profession had less and less to offer. Damian was faced with Haemoglobin levels spiralling upwards; a sign that his body was trying desperately to provide him with more oxygen, whilst putting him more at risk of fatal clotting events. Most people were simply ignorant of the extent of his problems due to his happy demeanour and refusal to give up. Of course several activities were out of his grasp; sports, long walks and, to his greatest regret, dancing! But this never stopped him pushing his abilities to the limits.

Réquiem Aetérnam

REQUIEM ætérnam dona eis, Dómine: et lux perpétua lúceat eis. Ps 64.2-3. Te decet hymnus, Deus, in Sion, et tibi reddétur votum in Jerúsalem: exáudi oratiónem meum, ad te omnis caro véniet. Réquiem ætérnam dona eis, Dómine: et lux perpétua lúceat eis.

ETERNAL rest grant unto them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them. Ps. A hymn, O God, becometh Thee in Sion; and a vow shall be paid to Thee in Jerusalem: hear my prayer; all flesh shall come to Thee. Eternal rest grant unto them, O Lord; and let perpetual light shine upon them.

Grant, we beseech Thee, O Lord, that the soul of Thy servant Damian, whose anniversary we commemorate, may be purified by this sacrifice and obtain pardon and everlasting rest.

Requiem Booklet

Damian Coghlan Video

This video was produced by myself using Windows Movie Maker and lots of old family photos. It shows Damian's life to the soundtrack of Star Wars; a film and mythology which he was so energetically passionate about. The video will be premièred today at a memorial commemorating 10 years since he passed away.

Following this post I will reproduce the text of the eulogy booklet I produced for the occasion; in six parts: Damian Coghlan - 10 years on...

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

Take it from the Jedi Master

"Much water has flown under the Tiber's bridges, carrying away splendor and mystery from Rome since the pontificate of Pius XII...

"The banalities and translations which have ousted the sonorous Latin and Greek are of a supermarket quality which is quite unacceptable. Hand shaking and embarrassed smiles or smirks have replaced the older courtesies; kneeling is out, queuing is in, and the general tone is like BBC radio broadcast for tiny tots...."

Sir Alec Guinness (1914-2000)

Friday, October 05, 2007

Blogging Over!

I've had enough with this stupid blogging culture.

Lately I have only seemed to upset people, spark controversy, and damage friendships. Why this is, I don't always know: but my sincerest apologies to anyone I have offended or angered.... So, I have made the educated decision to cease with the 'blogging' approach to this website. Of course, it will continue to technically be a blog, but I will reserve publishing for original well thought-out, researched articles. That is opposed to posts thrown together because "I'd better write something."

This will inevitably mean far less visitors to the blog, and this will probably take the pressure off me when the weekly statistics come in. It seems to me that the more posts I write, the more hits I get, but I would rather go for a 'quality not quantity' approach. Especially for my own benefit; to further my thoughts and ideas in a more constructive way.

Additionally, within my circle of friends and family who have small children, there seems to be an incredible wariness to make baby photos and stories public, so I can only conclude that I have become seriously silly and irresponsible by pasting Madeleine's life all over the internet. It is probably a good time to stop now before she gets any older.

In many ways this blog has taken on a life of its own; mainly along the lines of advertising the Birmingham Oratory's splendid liturgy (and I'm not even doing that very well anymore). Since I have been blogging for nearly a year, this will only go over old ground and repeat reports on festivities which are, basically in appearance, the same every year. I feel up to this point I have painted an interesting picture of our life in the Oratory parish (we hope to actually live in its borders when we buy our own house) which I hope will have benefited others as well as forming a good record for myself.

One shortfall that I regret is not writing more about healthcare ethics. Now, I feel I am in an awkward position because patients will potentially be able to 'google' me very easily and find out the hidden life of their doctor. It would make sense, therefore, to take considerable time and effort to produce some articles on healthcare ethics, which will have more substance than any of the rubbish I write about on the spur-of-the-moment. Expect to see a slow dribble of this kind of writing as I research and write it.

Lately I have been spending a lot of time preparing for my late brother's ten year commemoration, which will include a Requiem Anniversary Mass, eulogy booklet, and video-slideshow. I will publish extracts of this after the 13th October, when our reunion will have taken place. Extended projects like these, which I have worked hard towards, will enjoy a place on this site.

And finally many thanks to everyone who has prayed for and taken an interest in my life over the last year: it has really helped to affirm my faith, and given me confidence to persist and persevere in this Vale of Tears...

Comments off - Sorry!

Monday, October 01, 2007

40 Hours Before Our Lord...

The Birmingham Oratory will soon begin its 40 hours devotion, opening with a Solemn Mass at 8pm on Tuesday October 2nd, and closing on Thurday with a Mass of the Sacred Heart, Procession and Benediction, also at 8pm.

The Forty Hours is a devotion which originated from the 40 hours Jesus passed in the tomb. In the old Sarum use of England in medieval times, the Blessed Sacrament was even 'buried' in an Easter Sepulchre on Good Friday. The devotion of watching before our Lord for 40 hours was initially transferred to the three days before Ash Wednesday, to try and lure people away from the debauchery of the carnival festivities. The devotion is attributed to St Anthony-Mary Zaccaria (d1539) or to the Capuchin Fr Joseph a Ferno (c.1636). The Bull of Clement XI (1705) regulated the devotion, and numerous indulgences were added to it by Clement XIII (1765).

Needless to say, such a simple act of praying before our Lord with the greatest intensity and dedication is bound to bear abundant fruits in one's spiritual life. To see how our Oratory Fathers convince us to go (even in the early hours of the morning!) see here.