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In front of a desktop background, a Zoom call loading screen shows the silhouette of the grim reaper.

Zoom Call with the Grim Reaper

Well of course it wasn’t with the grim reaper, death is always reluctant to take calls, but it was with a friend who before too long is booked in for a consultation with the scythe-wielding, black-cloaked spoilsport. I may be pushing the analogy a little far, but you could say the grim reaper was hovering in the background.

An honest conversation with a good friend

My friend, an artist who I’ve known for many years, isn’t sure how long he’s got but isn’t expecting to host a birthday party next year. At 88 he’s in pretty good spirits and has enjoyed a full and vigorous life. Make no mistake though, his departure will leave a big hole in the lives of many. Shakespeare has a line in Anthony and Cleopatra: "Make death proud to take us." Death should be honored to take this proud man.

He is facing what we will all have to face one of these days, whether from prostate cancer or something else. Life has a 100% mortality rate and it isn’t going to end well for any of us. All of which inevitably got me thinking about my own mortality and whether I’ll be able to face it in the same sanguine manner. Frankly, I doubt it.

Do not go gentle into that good night

I’m probably more with Dylan Thomas who wrote: "Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light".

But then again what did the Welsh poet know about old age? He died when he was 39 years old. He saw himself as a ‘roistering, drunken and doomed’.

Perhaps he would have told a different story if he’d drunk less and lived a little longer.

We never know when it's our time

My death-avoidance trick, which is hardly original, is to bury myself in tasks and immerse myself in life even while death is creeping along the corridor. Why else would I have started taking piano lessons at the ripe old age of sixty-six?

Actually, it’s not just a displacement activity as keeping an active mind is supposed to ward off dementia. Some learn a foreign language, others put their faith in sudoku, but trust me nothing is as hard or as infuriating as the piano. After struggling to get a half-decent tune out of it, I’ll be furious if I get Alzheimer’s.

Unlike animals we know we are going to die, but we don’t know when which in turn means we can pretend it might never happen. A firm date would scare the hell out of me and is one appointment I would ‘decline without comment’ if it appeared in my Outlook calendar.

Despite that, I can’t help wondering sometimes when my own personal D-day will swing by. I’m guessing; Friday at about 7:30, just when I’m supposed to meet the boys for a drink.

How can we talk about death?

As I’ve written in these pages before, when you tell a friend you have cancer their automatic assumption is that you’re already at the departure gate. Talking of which that’s one of the reasons I’ve learned to hate airports with their easy conflation of the words ‘terminal’ and ‘departure lounge’.

Admitting you have cancer can lead to a stunned silence from loved ones, which can be tough to deal with. Perhaps it’s not embarrassment your friends feel, maybe they really are just lost for words. Who can blame them? For me, words are my stock in trade, I write thousands of them and just occasionally get them in the right order.

Julian Barnes urges a note of caution in his book Nothing to be frightened of: "I've never written a book, except my first, without at some point considering that I might die before it was completed. Dying in the middle of a wo(rd), or three-fifths of the way through a nov(el)."

When he was younger his mother asked him "What's all this about death, by the way?" He explained that he didn't like the sound of it. “When you get to my age,” she replied, “you won't mind so much.”

Discovering gratitude and the privilege of life

Little comfort then for a young man named Elliot Dallen who died recently from an extremely rare and aggressive cancer at the age of thirty-one. He wrote about his life and impending death in a national newspaper. His last article was published just days before he died where he wrote “I’ve had time to think about the things that are really important to me, and I want to share what I’ve discovered.”

It may seem unlikely, but he discovered gratitude. During his worst moments - "the shock of cancer diagnosis, the mental lows and debilitating symptoms of chemotherapy" - he said it was hard to imagine any joy or love in his life, but in fact, he found enormous comfort and took strength from his "amazing family, the friends I’ve made and times I’ve shared with them, the privilege of the life I’ve had".

A life, if lived well, is long enough

Knowing his life would be cut short gave him a different perspective on aging. Most people assume they will live to an old age, but he came to see growing old as a privilege. "Nobody should lament getting one year older, another grey hair or a wrinkle. Instead, be pleased that you’ve made it".

He concludes, and this is heartbreaking and astonishing from such a young man: "A life, if lived well, is long enough".

Perhaps we can take comfort from Elliot a young man who showed such incredible grace under such terrible circumstances. Death must have been proud to take him.

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