HOW IT IS.
I’m old and I shall die soon. This much is true. For much of the time nowadays such anguished queries as to what
manner of ‘soon’? whose ‘soon’? when does ‘soon’ transmute into pretty much now? go unspoken. The day is shopping, bed-making, emptying the dishwasher, walking the dog. I have a beer with friends; I talk, I argue, I laugh with my family. So that ‘soon’ simply ticks over as a managed sense of diminishing future, an intellectual awareness rather than a red-light imminence. And it goes without saying, of course, that throughout all the sturm und drang of childhood, youth and middle age, the immortality diode through which all experience was filtered performed its function admirably and my existential voltage flowed unimpeded forwards, always forwards.
Then 13 years ago I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. After surgery and with treatment I live with it now and am assured by my oncologist that it’s not going to carry me off. But that door to the mortality ante-room was opened with the urologist’s words of diagnosis and with the passing of the years since that day the darkness within it impinges increasingly on that voltage flow.
SO HOW ABOUT..?
There are moments of sheer despair. They stop me in doorways, on the stairs, by a window. I’m not done yet. I love and am loved. I am everything that I am. The energy that binds my atoms and molecules together as me is inexhaustible, even within the fatigue of sleeplessness. My consciousness of its heat and radiance is constant. What do I care for its transmogrification into some other form beyond my death? Attention! the mynah birds call in Aldous Huxley’s neglected
masterpiece Island. Here and now, boys, here and now! I AM here and now. What inexplicable chaos is represented by a ‘soon’ that will turn all of this passion and glory, this peace and serenity into a then’? The contemplation of departure from all of this is beyond reason or comfort. My partner, my children, my grandchildren, my friends, my dog – they’re all here around me in this great sunlit ark safe amongst the waves. Despair grips me; it covers my eyes and ears. I’m paralysed with dread at the mere thought of their dispersal into the life to come and my disintegration into dust. At such
times beyond reason there is only the catharsis of tears.
But here in age there’s joy too whose acuteness is maybe greater than before. Maybe it’s in the sheer cool cleansing
water of laughter that for the moment can’t be stopped. There’s nothing in the space between us but the sound and sight of sense unravelling and the bright clarity of absurdity shining into every corner. Love binds us as we share for a few heartbeats the truth that nothing matters in a world of dreams because all the constraints of time have in the here and now has been obliterated in the wild abandon of moments. Laughter is, of course, a vitalising function at all stages
of life. But in age I see it and seek it as a process of intrinsic value, not just as a release within the uneven dynamics of everyday events. Maybe through a letting go there is accessible in age a zen through which the fundamental absurdity of all human endeavour outside loving is quietly but devastatingly apparent.
And meaning – the search for which burns so many lives to a crisp – declares itself most when unsought. It’s in apotheosis – that moment in which all activity without and within makes perfect sense. The dancer’s triumph off the earth and in clear air; the rugby player’s crashing skid across the touchline; musicians sweeping across their little patch of space in perfect concert; lovers’ in their mutual consummation when rewarded for the absolute generosity of each. So when I interrogate my silent, solitary days for witness to any intrinsic personal purpose or function – to my place along the route rather than on its verges – what testimony can I offer up? There are two forces in my life that animate me and disconnect me from the purely utilitarian – music and poetry. Playing in my band of 8 years, MoorbyJones, whether in rehearsal or performance, instils within me an overwhelming sense of rightness and connection. And putting a poem together over time, whether months or moments, informs me that I have a purpose, even maybe an obligation that is
unique to me and it must be discharged. (Which is to make no claims as to any objective quality or value of the product. Those are aspects of its existence which can only have meaning or none to another).
Kathy Burke’s recipe for right livelihood declares: ‘Be content. Clean your teeth. Make sure your breath don’t stink. Try not be a cunt.’ Brendan Behan’s manifesto was equally simple: ‘I have a total irreverence for anything connected with society except that which makes the roads safer, the beer stronger, the food cheaper and the old men and old women warmer in the winter and happier in the summer.’ And on a less demotic plain, there’s the Dalai Lama: ‘This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.’ No specious moralising here or appeals to a higher level of consciousness other than that which we employ on our way home from work or to a football match. And aren’t all three statements informed by love in its most practical portable form? So much so, surely, as to eschew any notion of the divine outside the majesty of the human spirit.
In age I do try so hard to be kind against the urgings of selfishness, fear and anger. Kindness is how love operates at street level and it brings with it a payload of well-being. I feel much readier, more willing and more able to love in this simple way now that I’m so much less burdened by corrosive ambition and competitiveness. But still too often I realise retrospectively that an opportunity has been missed to do so and I have to try to turn regret into resolve. But this
capacity I believe to be a gift of age and I’m happy indeed to sacrifice the drive to compete and win with its consequence of loss and diminution on the part of the loser.
And so with this sense of fewer corners along a shorter path ahead, there is only one recourse: look no further than the next pace and the next pace…
Dying is likely to be painful and boring, two of the things I most abhor in life. Death, on the other hand, will either be nothing or an awfully big adventure. Either is fine with me (though my money’s on the former).
My money too! When my dad was close to dying I asked him if he was ready and he said that he was. I hope there’s enough of him in me to feel at least a little of his phlegmatism!
I think of that often – that my time is getting shorter and shorter. If only I knew how short or how long I have. I could budget better…
The only way is to inhabit the moments as they rise and fall. Maybe the gift of age is in its acuteness of being, the preciousness of the few things left that matter. In my good times, that works for me.
My very old father is currently dying. I say currently, but he is taking his time. For the past two months he has been in bed, occasionally awake, eating the odd spoon of ice cream or soup, drinking a sip of apple juice from his old orchard and very very rarely, he recognises any of us, either by nodding or even saying our names. A while ago, we this phase was fresh, I asked him about his thoughts or whether he even had some and he mumbled, all pleasant and closed his eyes again. The gentle nurses who come and change his sheets and whatnots, resettle him etc. often swaddle him like an Inuit baby in his blankets.
A life in transit. Thank you for this, Sabine.