What is it about death?

What is it about death? There was a time when we didn’t exist and there will come a time when we no longer exist. I’m paraphrasing there, some vaguely remembered quotation. Is it that this tenuous grip that we have on life is so addictive that we don’t want to let go?

Let’s be rational about this.

Frankly, it scares me. As a rational, or so I’d like to think most of the time, human being I don’t believe in omnipotent beings living in the sky or anywhere else come to that. I believe, and this may be a matter of faith but that’s open for discussion, but I believe that when we die, we die; end of story, back to the earth, kaput. So if I am being rational, what scares me? I’m not quite sure, perhaps it is just the unknown, but no, if I am rational I can say, you die, consciousness goes and you die, what is unknown about that? My conclusion is that I am addicted to life and I do not want to die. I want to keep on experiencing things but I know that this cannot be so there is something irreconcilable here, what I want and what must be.

I am of an age when people that I know, maybe not close friends but certainly friends of the family, friends of my parents, begin to die. When you think about it there’s nothing remarkable about this, it’s just part of life, it’s what happens. I remember when my father’s father died. I was about 6 years old so I didn’t really understand what it was all about. Dad was upset, I remember him walking in through the front door, tears in his eyes, mum asked him was what the matter, “Dad’s gone.” he said, they embraced. I knew something was wrong but not exactly what that something was.

As I grew older, other grandparents began to die; now and with the appreciation of what was happening there were funerals to go to and sad times but my life went on.

A few years ago my mother died; she became ill and spent some time in hospital; cancer of the oesophagus, quite aggressive. On one of my visits to her in hospital, she looked like she was sleeping. I was there with my siblings and we sat around her bed, chatting to one another and to her, in the hope that she would hear our voices and be… be what? Re-assured? Comforted? I don’t know, but that’s what we were doing. When it came time to go, I bent over and gently kissed her forehead. She opened her eyes and said, “Oh, why am I still here?” the look on her face I carry to this day. She was terminally ill; she knew it and she had had enough. Over the next few days she slipped into a comatose state and then died. I was sad, not inconsolable but sad. She was my mother, the first woman I’d ever loved. I put that in a card, “to the first woman I ever loved” and sent it to her one Valentine’s, it made her day dad later told me. So yes, she died and I was sad but I had seen it coming, somehow I was prepared.

As the eldest child it fell to me to read something at her funeral, which I did. I can do this, I thought; I had written a few words and so had my brother and sisters and I would read them out, an appreciation of our mother. I sat there in the chapel and everything seemed alright but just before the minister called me up to do my piece I had a flash-back, a vision of mum laying in the hospital bed, barely able to breath, tubes and monitors everywhere and suddenly I thought, I can’t do this. Tears began to well in my eyes, but then I was “on”, I blinked, swallowed, got to my feet and carried on.

We carry on, it’s what we do.

A few weeks ago, Kerry, one of my best friends died, he was 11 months younger than me. A heart attack caused by a blood clot, unexpected, out of the blue. This hit me harder than the death of my mother. I don’t know why, maybe because he was a contemporary, my age group. I’d known this guy since 1971, we had many shared passions; like me he was a railway enthusiast, we had the same taste in music, we had a very similar sense of humour. Kerry’s passing served to bring things into focus. I spoke at his funeral, along with Paul, another mutual friend, we were a double act. I had written what I considered to be a nice appreciation of him, a recounting of some of the crazy things we had got up to in our younger days.

When I got up to speak I was shaking, I missed-out some parts, I had them written in front of me but I was skipping through, just trying to get to the end. I totally missed-out the part about our love of the same music; I was even wearing a t-shirt with the Yes logo emblazoned across the front. His mother has asked that people dress “normally” and knowing that Yes was one of his, of our favourite groups; I wore a Yes t-shirt and completely missed out the bit about our common liking for the band. Afterwards, people congratulated us for a nice reading, there was a wake, sandwiches, sausages, beer and we all carried on.

Shed loads of little observations.

In the weeks since Kerry’s death I have seen lots, or shed loads as we would say, of things that remind me of him. Shed loads of little observations that I could have shared with him, sometimes merely by the dropping of a one-liner, things that our common background as friends, growing up together have been made common reference points.

I was out up in London the other night, I went to a concert. Premiata Forneria Marconi or PFM, an Italian “Prog Rock” group that I, and Kerry, have known since about 1974. I’d never seem them “live” before so I took this opportunity to go and see them. There was a football match being played at Wembley, Tottenham Hotspurs were one of the teams playing, I only know this because Spurs are sponsored by “AIA”, whoever they are, so there were shed loads of fans wearing shirts with the Spurs logo on the left breast and AIA in large letters across the chest. It was the AIA bit, in a sans serif typeface that caught my eye. Maybe the train nutters amongst you can see where this is heading. As soon as I saw a fan with AIA across his chest I immediately thought of taking a photo and sending it to Kerry’s Facebook page with some remark about Class 31 gricers. This thought formed unconsciously and almost instantaneously before the conscious part of my brain caught-up and reminded me that Kerry was dead.

OK, I’ll explain; A1A is a wheel classification for diesel and electric locomotives and the Class 31 locomotives were of that type, A1A-A1A and of course AIA in a sans serif typeface looks like A1A. Gricer is a slang term, used almost exclusively amongst railway enthusiasts for other railway enthusiasts. Yeah, we’re a funny old bunch.

Death then, an ongoing part of life. I said Kerry’s death had brought things into focus, well, as much as they ever are in focus these days with failing eyesight, part of the legacy of continuing to live I suppose. It has certainly led me to question some things and to explore my own feelings about death. It has also led me again to the realisation that we should not keep putting things off, sometimes tomorrow does not come.

I have things that I still want to do in life; some are unfeasible and I recognise this, there I go being rational but some are I think probably achievable and I intend to at least try to achieve them.


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