One of the great successes
of Richard Osman’s first (and as he says, best) novel is that death is never denied. If you set a story in a retirement home, no matter how rich or pleasant, death is a reality. Avoiding it with endless operations and parties is still denying something that is there. In the outpouring over the Duke of Edinburgh’s death, it was acknowledged that HM and he will have faced this, as will the family and the court. They do. It’s part of the job.
Just as, all those years before, the young couple must have thought of the risk of the distance when they went to Treetops,
where the Duke had to tell his young wife her much loved father was gone. Certainly, said my mother, the King knew he would never see her again. As he kept looking back at the plane, his face said it all.
Death is the shadow besides the substance of life. It is there for all of us. People have different relationships with that incontrovertible , a great many of them to do with denial. I have one friend who, like me, was brought up to accept death as part of life rather than a separate thing which is imposed upon us. I think in a decade we have spoken of it three or four times, it is a comfort. And I can forgive her everything for the clarity of this shared perception.
It is a mistake to think that shadows are always threatening, any more than they are always benign. But they are evidence of life, live conceived, life lived, life damaged, life ending.
I am not afraid of death but I am very afraid of dying.
When Covid began, my son, one of the kindest and most sensible people I know, said “ Mum, you can’t get this. Not with your chest.” My lungs were compromised when I was 6 and I have scars on both of them. A chest cold is worrying, anything else is uncomfortable. And so I began to be careful. It has all lasted a very long time and I am as bored with it as many others but so far, so good – and I’ve just had my second vaccine.
You can’t chose your death, the shadow choses you. Suicide, wilful death, is another discussion and I don’t propose going into it here, though I have known and loved two friends who chose it and I understand their choice if nothing else.
Yes, there are terrible medical accidents and misreadings. Only yesterday a friend wrote from Germany to say that the youngest uncle of her richly happy and extended family had died five weeks after a diagnosis of cancer. And medicine can get it wrong.
We are deeply medicalised. We go to the doctor as people once went to the church and the religious and the medical were once much more interactive than they are now. Wonderful things can be done. And often we seem to expect a miracle. So large numbers of people just don’t think about death. It’s like the girls at school who thought that getting pregnant was something that happened to other people – over there somewhere, unreal, unrecognised, shadowy. I’d say, denied.
But it’s real. Death comes.
Of course we would all like to die with dignity but many of the big bad diseases don’t allow for that. We would like to die painlessly – that isn’t always possible either. And as I wrote to my friend in Germany, the lack of decline may serve the dying but it is hell’s own hard on those left behind.
And it is not escapable. You cannot outrun it.
It is, if you like, the shadow on the sun of our existence. There are people now who say “Thank heaven I am no longer young. To face this world – plague, global warming and political infighting, destruction of the seas – is beyond me. Heaven help those who come after me.” Countermanded by those who say “Got to keep on keeping on, while there’s life there is hope.”
I have a deep sustaining relationship with The Master of the Universe, closer to the Great Spirt of the First Nations than anything else, and the old prayer says “Thy Will, not my will “. Not much besides.