Saying Goodbye – A Death In The Family

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MICHAEL JOHN BENCH 1926-2009

This is a difficult post to write. Michael Bench, John’s cousin died yesterday morning about 5:00 am. We had received word late in the afternoon on Wednesday that he was suddenly responding verbally to questions when asked by the medical staff. This was in direct conflict to what anyone had expected. We were quite excited to hear about this positive shift as he’d been totally unresponsive the morning before and had planned to be at the hospital at 10:00 the next morning to see him. Before we could get there, the hospital phoned at 5:20 am to tell us that he had died.

All of this has been terribly shocking to everyone. Last Saturday we’d shared a lovely meal with Michael and his sister Mary. John’s eldest daughter came down from London and his brother David was there too along his daughter and her boyfriend who came down from the north of England for the reunion. Michael and Mary had traveled to Polzeath for a holiday and were scheduled to go sailing with us all on Monday. The picture below shows us at a local pub in Cornwall on Saturday evening. The black and white photo above was taken at the same dinner.  Michael and Mary had been out for a small bit of coast path walking earlier that day and both seemed fine with no health complaints.

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I had the good fortune of being seated next to Michael during dinner and we talked about many things throughout evening. There were still many questions I wanted to ask him about and I said goodnight that evening thinking that we’d have plenty of time for that over the next few days.

After a late lunch on Sunday, Mary and Michael went to beach in front of their hotel and before long Michael decided he wanted to go down to the water and changed into his swim trunks. Leaving Mary high up on the hill watching his belongings, he walked down in the direction of the water  and was gone so long that Mary began to wonder where he was …it was about the same time she noticed a commotion on the beach and a crowd gathering.  As she approached, she realized that it was her brother Michael on the ground with someone administering CPR. It turned out to be a physician who happened to be at the beach with his wife. I can’t imagine how frightening it must have been for her to find Michael in such a state.

An air ambulance was called and Michael was airlifted to the hospital where his heart was restarted. At the time and for several days after, no one had any real hope of his survival much less recovery so it was a shock when he began to say a few words on Wednesday evening.

If I’d known Michael for more than the evening I spent with him last Saturday I might tell you more of the regular things you expect to hear when someone dies and people speak of who they were or what they did during their lifetime. I might tell you how he was a Senior Architect who spent his career with the National Health Service designing hospitals and other medical facilities.  I might tell you how in 2003,  his life partner Leo Breach had died on Christmas day after many years together and how at 83 he still lived on his own in London. Or I could tell you about all the ways he was important to his sister Mary, how at one point they’d shared living space for 18 years of their adult lives or about how they’d travel all over with Mary at the wheel of the car even though she was the elder of the two.

If I’d had more time with him I might have been able to share the stories he had from a childhood spent traveling with his family to various parts of Cornwall and how much he still loved to holiday in the southwest of England as an adult. I don’t know all the details of his life, but I do know that walking along the water’s edge that day was something he loved.  John helped me to see it from that perspective as I wondered aloud to him …asking  no one in particular…what in the world was Michael thinking when he put on his swimsuit and headed for the water.

I’d like to imagine him walking across the sand carried along by the excitement of a beach holiday and not think about how it would be the last time he would ever dip his toes into the coolness of the Cornish sea. I’d also like to think that he might have been looking back along the shoreline in the direction of where he’d left Mary when he felt the first pains in his chest and how perhaps in the moments just before he lost consciousness he might have seen his family sitting on the shore whether a fragmented memory remembered from a picture of his family like the one below or perhaps a gathering of those gone before waiting to lead him to the other side…I just hope he saw more than the sand of the beach as he slipped into it before closing his eyes.

The Winchurch & Bench Families On The Beach

“We are the boat, we are the sea, I sail in you, you sail in me”

-Lorre Wyatt

Many thanks to all of you who’ve reached out to us during this time..we are very grateful for your good thoughts and prayers.


13 thoughts on “Saying Goodbye – A Death In The Family

  1. What a beautiful post and tribute to Michael. He sounds like an amazing and wonderful person.

    You may not have known him well, but you’ve conveyed a great deal about him. I love the photos including the old family beach shot.

    Your description reminded me of the scene in “The Thorn Birds” when the same thing happens to a young woman, wondering where her brother is and seeing a small crowd on the beach. My heart goes out to Mary especially, to have lost her dear brother with whom she shared so much.

    Please accept my deepest sympathy to you and John and all the family.

  2. Oh Elizabeth — I’m so sorry to hear about Michael’s death. Carolyn is right, you have created a beautiful tribute to him. It is lovely to think he ended his life on a weekend spending time with family and doing the things he loved. What a shock for everyone, though.

    Thinking of you and John and Mary and all the rest of the family.

  3. what a lovely tribute! your words and photos really convey micheal’s life to those of us who didn’t know him.

    sending sympathy to you and john.

    i hope the nurses treated you all well….

  4. I’m very sorry for your loss. I agree with the above… you wrote a wonderful tribute and he was doing something that he loved when his heart gave out.

    He sounds like a lovely human being.

  5. What a terrible blow to all of you to lose Michael so unexpectedly. I feel as if I came to know more about him through the beautiful words you wrote.
    You are all in my thoughts and prayers.

  6. I wanted to take a minute to say thank you to you all for taking time to read and comment on this post. Each of your thoughtful comments felt like a warm and tender hug and John and I both are grateful. I’ve read and reread them more than a few times and each time I feel a bit better. Thank you.

    I’ve struggled to get back into my writing and have had trouble responding to emails…please forgive me if you wrote to me offline and haven’t had a response yet….I will get there. 🙂

  7. Dear Elizabeth,
    I am so sorry for your family’s loss of Michael…what a lovely man he was. Your writing was a wonderful tribute to him.
    It also helped me in my time of loss of my beloved Miller. I have to believe that 7 months here in France were some of his most happy ones in his life. I must update his blog as I have not since being here 3 months. I was too busy enjoying him at the beach, the walks, the rides to the boulangerie where he waited patiently for the crisp crunchy bread. He sniffed and smiled life here and I have to know that when he took his final run it was to be on his beloved beach so I can not fault him for the joy he sought. He lived life fully and lovingly and everyone was his friend. He taught me the joy of living again after my injury of PTSD from work. I have him to thank for not leaving me before he completed his work with me. I will find the courage to update his blog and publish his children’s book, Miller’s Red Vest this summer. It is a story that must be shared to help others.
    Your words were comforting to me and I know they are to Michael’s friends and family. Thank you for sharing your writing Elizabeth and take comfort in the good that you have done in doing so.
    Cheryl

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