Death

She was 100½ years old at the time (the half becomes important in extreme old age as in extreme youth).  I was exactly half her age, and we had arranged to meet in the afternoon.  When we sat down together she leaned over and whispered, “I hope people won’t get the wrong idea about this!”  The age of romance is never over!  She is known to all as Mac, a valorous woman, nowhere near dead, and she is now 101¾.  When her younger sister died her friends were worried that this would shatter the old lady, and they scarcely knew how to break the news to her.  During the funeral they were a great support, even in a physical sense, offering numerous arms to lean on.  She did bravely, and when they brought her home and she was hanging up her coat, she said, “We had a great day!”  

I often try to think of that great day that lies ahead of everyone; who doesn't?  Some think about it, some try not to think about it (which is just another way of thinking about it).  Prospero in The Tempest was one who planned to think much about it, but not too much.  I will “retire me to Milan (he said) where every third thought shall be my grave.”  Someone remarked that for an old man this was about the right proportion. 

The last of the three ages (youth, middle age and “you’re looking well!”) is probably no more secure against wishful thinking than the other two; but we cannot all hope to live to be 101¾; probably we will have died long before.  It is not too soon, and it is not at all morbid, to cast a thought on death. 

Death is the constant companion of life.  It gives our life a particular length, obviously.  A little less obviously it gives it a particular quality: a poignancy, a once-for-all feeling, a salty taste  -  for tears are never far away.   This is something, we know, that can be prized, not hated.  We can imagine how dreadful life would be if we could not die.  Do I want to live till the day when I have to say, “I have lived too long?”  ‘Too long’ (too anything) means something is wrong.  I should die a little before that day.  I know I have no choice in the matter, but I have to think right about it: death is not the worst possible prospect; it would be worse if I lived to say “I have lived too long.”  For heaven’s sake, even a football match that went on too long would be intolerable!  It is the final whistle that enlivens the whole game.  It does this by defining it; that is, putting limits to it.  The end is constantly present to each player throughout the match, and it prevents him from falling down with boredom. 

“This medicine is good for you, so just swallow it!”  We did, but we didn't like it.  Death is good for you (you can say to yourself), but you don't have to like it!  Death is reasonable, but it would be unreasonable to expect that we should approach it with cold reason as if it were some object outside us.  Think of the restlessness, the doubts, the fears we had during the other turning points on our journey  -  childhood, adolescence, midlife  -  and we took them as normal (or, at least, there was no shortage of advisers to tell us that that was how we ought to take them).  Why shouldn't we go through some rough weather at the final turning point?  When the two-year-old is kicking and screaming we just say, “He (or she) is going through a difficult stage,” and everyone understands.  When I am a hundred and two why shouldn't I expect equal understanding, especially from myself, now that I have reached the age of reason?  After all, it will be my first time to die.  So let me not panic if I shake a bit already at the thought of it.  It’s normal!  A two-year-old doesn't regard the day as a write-off just because he or she did a bit of screaming and kicking.  Every day, for them, is a great day.  Why should it be different for us? 

Right, Mac? 

From I Remember your Name in the Night, Donagh O'Shea
(Dominican Publications and Twenty-Third Publications, 1997)

 

Donagh O'Shea

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