I always thought the hardest thing about getting older would be having to confront your own mortality. Turns out I was wrong. It’s confronting the mortality of those around you that causes the dagger to your heart.
You’re forced to confront death in hospital. Sometimes it’s a conversation you overhear about making the woman in the next bed ‘comfortable’. Sometimes you’re still there, in the next bed, when she dies and the nurse suggests ‘You might want to go to the day room for a bit while we sort things out.’
It’s upsetting when these things happen..but strangely it’s mostly because you feel you know her family. You’ve never really spoken to them of course, just the occasional ‘Are you using that chair?’ conversation. But you’ve seen them, every day for three or four weeks, coming in, straightening mums’ bedclothes or changing her nightie, hushed conversations as she sleeps, disappearing from the ward for a half hour and returning with red eyes. They don’t notice you but you know them. And you grieve quietly for them – and her – when she goes.
Somehow the thought of my own death gets easier the more time I spend in hospital and the older I get. In intensive care this year, under sedation for five days, I slipped in and out of consciousness, vaguely aware that I was close to death. I found in that moment that I was quite at peace with the idea. I remember thinking ‘Well 45 years wasn’t as quite long as I’d have liked….but it’s been a really good 45 years. So be it.’
I certainly didn’t rail against it. I was very happy to go gently into that good night. And yet, when confronted with the idea that someone close to me could die, my heart falters, my stomach turns over, my head tries desperately to think of something else. And the terrible thought of how those closest to me would feel if I did die, is enough to have me fighting with every breath to survive.
In my teens and twenties I used to look at ‘old people’ and wonder how they could bear the idea of death. The nothingness that awaits. I used to imagine them screaming inside, violently struggling internally against the inevitable while placidly doing the washing up. Either that, or they’d filled their lives with so many distractions, a hundred to-do lists, that they’d forgotten the brutal truth of what awaited them. But as I stand here, with my hands in the kitchen sink, when I allow my mind to wander away from life’s distractions, I know the real dagger that awaits is in losing those I love, not in losing life itself.
It would be so much easier if we lived a life alone wouldn’t it? Except with no one else to worry about, I suspect we would indeed be obsessed with our own mortality.