Tony Compolo once said to me “You know Daniel, you’re gonna die. You might not feel like it now, but one day you’ll die; your family will put you in the ground, go back to your house and eat potato salad!” He’s right of course, but I didn’t feel like it was really true at the time and didn’t until recently, when I had to watch my Dad slowly loose his battle with cancer. My Dad eventually died at 19:20 on Friday, he was 55.
Our culture does a pretty good job of teaching us what to say and do when somebody is about to die. We rush to be together, everyone hugs and says I love you. Trivial issues are put to one side, we send flowers or cards, and, if you’re English, you put the kettle on. It’s not easy, but a you’re running on auto pilot, you know how to behave because that’s what they do every few weeks in East Enders when there’s a death to boost the ratings.
But in many ways, our culture hides the reality of death from us. Hollywood lies to us about many things, not least dying. It’s not heroic, poignant or bitter-sweet. It’s not tinged with hope or melancholy or dignity, it’s not tinged with anything really. From what I’ve seen it’s actually horrific and yet also crushingly mundane.
I’m sure that image of people lying peacefully in their beds and slowly closing their eyes ‘when their time comes’ is sanitised nonsense. Your body doesn’t just stop peacefully like that. It is programmed to keep on going until it absolutely can’t any more.
We’re like that spider you tormented as a child. It didn’t just give up because you pulled a couple of it’s legs off. Even when it only had half of one leg left and was being repeated hit by a stone, it kept on trying to escape. Just like that spider, we fight for every breath, we push on for every last second even when we know the game is up, because, well, because stopping just isn’t natural.
When it comes, death seems pretty gruesome too. The body repels fluids and oxygen. Everything gradually stops, and the person you knew evaporates frustratingly, like a document you forgot to save, all those memories and ideas and personality traits, they we’re right there in front of you, but now they’re lost.
People often say about someone who has died “I keep expecting them to walk in the room”. I can relate to that, although it’s not as dramatic as it might sound. I doubt anyone imagines their dead relative marching into the room to great fanfare and announcing that their back from the grave. Rather, you just keep forgetting that they’re gone.
I used to meet my Dad in a pub every few weeks for a pint and a meal, just the two of us. It was a regular thing. But despite there being many pubs between our two houses, we hadn’t found one we were entirely happy with, so we kept trying new ones in the hope of finding the perfect place. Yesterday, as I was driving along I saw a pub and thought “That place looks OK I’ll have to meet Dad there and see what it’s like”. A few seconds later, it hit me: “oh, I can’t, he’s not there any more”.
There is no such thing as a right to life; life is a delicate and transient thing. It’s gifted to us for a time, then wrestled back from our grasp. It’s sobering to think this will happen to me one day too. It puts a lot of things in perspective. It’s too soon and too raw to draw any conclusions about my life yet.
I’ll probably still keep looking for the perfect pub though.