The greatest Q?
Today is my birthday. I have already exceed my father by five years, but have another five to reach my mother’s age and another fifteen to reach male life expectancy in Britain. Five or fifteen years, blimey. Not bad, considering my recent and past history for I’m really lucky to be here now, but it still draws you up when put like this.
Death is avoided by our culture, neighbours we got on with crossed the street or turned the other way when my mother, who lived with us, died suddenly. Yet some of those who ignored us had attended the party at which she suddenly began to slip from us the night before. In Africa and India, death is present in people’s lives, they watch their elders pass, they witness their children suffer terminally and they learn through experience that we too will have an ending.
A woman we knew died last week, but had clung on in fear for months, convinced she’d go to hell. I can’t conceive of a hell or heaven having been on the very edge more than once. My own feeling is that our organs and brains shut down, bit by bit, and then that’s it, an amazing organism has done its bit and will gradually recycle to the benefit of the many tiny creatures around.
My favourite memory of death is one of its aftermaths. I was in a hospital in Toulouse and it was just before dawn. The door to my room opened and light flooded in from the corridor, waking me. Seeing me stir, the night nurse smiled and closed the door. The next I knew was being woken again as she and two other nurses stepped in, closed the door and started to sing, “Bienvenu au mond,” (Welcome back to the world). The candle light in a slice of cake, their sweet voices, their broad, caring smiles, humanity, celebration. Tears rolled down my face, they wept in response and kissed me. Love supersedes the dark memories, potent as they are.
Dramatic as my decline into death was each time, I never felt fear, though each time I was aware of what was happening. For some strange reason, my mind knew it had choice - to mess things up by self pitiful emotional whirlwinds, or calm acceptance of what was impossible for me to change. Perhaps it was partly this attitude which carried me through each devastating experience, mixed with what doctors say was a powerful body that enabled me to survive, or maybe it was luck. A combination of all three, me thinks.
Which takes me to today, and as my wife asks what I’m writing about, I realise it might seem a strange topic for a birthday, but not in my mind. I am glad I survived. I am glad to be alive. I hope I can use the little time left, for most of my extraordinary days have passed.
I am in this moment.
It is here right now, but gone!
Yesterday forever lost, tomorrow speeding towards us at lightening speed.
Now, this very hour, is all we ever had, all we do have, all we will ever get.
To grasp it as often as our flitting thoughts will let us,
To train our minds to seek the cusp, that second when life’s roaring wave is so dominant that it enduces silence within.
It is then that one’s ‘heart’ expands to embrace with glee the very essence of the turning universe, manifest in the light around us, in the symphony of sounds, in the extraordinary mix of sensations experienced by this body, refined to perfection over almost four billion years of gradual adaptation to our environment.
And yes, that too. It is the greatest question.
It is our prime duty - to do all we can to save what we can of it before it is too late.
What a birthday today is going to be!