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A Word in Passing

There are two places in my world where I would wish to be.

The first is a seashore, a mile of firm wet sand beneath my feet, a spray-loaded westerly gale in my face, and white-caps marching in military file upon the rocks. To stand before the might of nature and feel her snatching at my toes: to be for an instant at one with the primal power that speaks to us all, had we the ears to listen, these are the sights and sounds and sense of glory for me.

The second place within my heart is a quiet wood, among placid deciduous trees where tiny sunshine sprays of summer heat slip in between the leaves and birds provide quiet music to a percussion of breeze-stirred leaf and twig. A different perfection this, to sit upon some ancient bench beside a tripping forest stream, watching time drift past me into nothingness.

In either place, alone – for at the last Nature is our one true friend – I would gladly meet my fate. If I could my quietus make from earth to oblivion with such an image imprinted in my soul I would pass through the gate without fear.

When I watch the brief lives of our smaller cohabitants on this planet pass before me, expired in little more than a season, or a year, or ten, I reflect that the one true advantage we have gained over them all is comfort. Churchmen may sanctify life, politicians may play with it, but we normal mortals gain only by having food on our table, a place away from the snow, and the ability to express and resolve pain: and yes, it is right that we should bestow those gifts upon our brother species, and it is charitable to do so, where we have the means, so even when we feel the need to satisfy our carnivorous appetites we afford some dignity to the hordes we kill. If we count ourselves as ‘civilized’ we try to make death quick and painless, for every species but our own.

Somehow we have allowed ourselves to be persuaded by an argument that human life is different to that of the other animals that are forced to co-exist with us; that we are made ‘in the image of God’ and therefore a special case. We have taken the simple truth of death as an ending and made a science of an improbable land beyond it; and from that science derived a plethora of reasons why we should delay and protract our own death in a way that, if we observed it practiced upon an animal, we would denounce as gross cruelty.

I have my views about religion. It has been responsible for the genocide of millions yet we still espouse it in one or other of its forms, whilst I regard it as the greatest perversion of thought to be visited on mankind. Our greatest gift, on the other hand, is not a theoretical, but a real victory over death. We can end life, terminate it without pain. We should feel free to reject the sorrowful protestations of the former and joyfully sanction the latter.

If I wish it, and of course only if I freely wish it, I should be allowed my final hour without pain, dreaming of that seashore, or resting in that wood. Rejecting all peripheral arguments about family pressures and financial complications I should retain that essential right. By simply gaining agreement that medicine is primarily about mercy, at a stroke I would save treatments and bed-space needed for those with hope, rather than wasting them upon my losing battle. The timing would be mine. I would give my relatives peace, and leave my life as I have lived it.

I believe that, given a vote, an overwhelming majority would agree with me, and at last even the great and the good seem to be coming round to acceptance. After all, we take willingly all the other benefits medicine can give us – why not bestow the freedom upon us to use this last one?

Into the Sunset

As months go, September went.  And October came – momentously.  Two things, two life-altering things, have happened in October.

Firstly, and quite devastatingly, I finally lost sight of my feet.  Aged BloggerLet me explain this.  When you become older in a comfortably furnished sort of way as have I, you can no longer actually reach your feet, so observing their presence becomes important.  You need to know they are still there, for a start, and knowing, be able to place them accurately.  You don’t want to be forced into reactive mode, as for example, in falling down stairs, reflecting whilst flying towards an inevitably bumpy landing that you must have missed the tread.

The bathroom scales surrendered long since: instead of recording my weight they offer a short letter of resignation, yet I still use them as a matter of ceremony, and after many reassuring years throughout which, by perching on them and leaning my head forward, I could always see my toes peeking cheekily out at me from beyond the hill, last week they (my toes) finally vanished.  The tip of my big toe has set behind the mountain.  And now darkness comes.

It is not weight gain that is the problem, my kind friend tells me, but rather an absence of weight loss.  With the burden of advancing years the foothills have become one with the central massif and the whole range has moved south.  It is the same principle as that by which Mount Everest gains in height by as much as a meter a year – though on a reduced, more personal scale, of course.

In practical terms there are advantages:  after a quarter of a century of constant trouser-hoisting my pants now stay up.  My waistline is moving north, to a point where it will eventually meet my neck.  This, my friend says, is nature’s way of helping by putting things in easier reach.  In future years I may look forward to using my trouser pockets as panniers for my daily batch of pills, for example; or to disguise a necessary search for an irritating bit of navel fluff.  Not that I need attach any importance to my mode of dress these days.

Not now that I have retired.

Oh yes, that was the second thing, wasn’t it?  I forgot to mention it.  I’ve retired.  No more teaching sessions, no recalcitrant teenagers or over-anxious parents cluttering the horizon.  The horizon, in fact, is conspicuously bare.

That’s it!   I have finally, definitively, given up the day job.  I am a full-time pensioner with nothing to do but write.  When I look in my diary I see acres of white space, when I look at my doctor’s expression I see acres of quiet resignation:  nothing can surprise him now.  There is no symptom I can offer which does not attract the one diagnosis.

“I’ve got this ache in my back.”zimmer

“How old are you?”

“My elbow hurts.”

“Tennis elbow.  It’s very common among men your age.”

“My finger’s falling off.”

“You’re not getting any younger, you know.”

I am getting wishes, I am even getting cards!  Happy retirement!  What does that mean?

My well-wishers deliver their sentiment with sad eyes and a sort of fond, distant expression reminiscent of mothers and friends on the quayside, waving wistful goodbyes to their nearest and dearest as they sail off towards a distant, final destination; calm seas lapping at the bow, a golden sunset, a skyline littered with icebergs.

Overnight I have transformed brutally from a sentient, perhaps, dare I say, sagacious elder counselor to an obstinate, obviously incapacitated old fart.  My default setting is now officially ‘incapable’.  I have to be ‘cared for’.   I find myself referred to in the third person:

“Is he alright?”

“Does he need a chair?”

What?!!

I am also inescapably ‘there’.   My wife is being extremely democratic.  Every time she trips over me she accepts the blame:

“I’m so sorry!”  (Look of intense concern)  “Did I hurt your foot?”

“My foot?  Oh, so that’s where I left it…”

Her eyes are filled with sympathy as she recalls the years when I bought shoes with laces and climbed hills without assistance, when she still bought underwear for me without the word ‘surgical’ on the packet.  Those two years of advantage she has over me in terms of age have become vital in her calculations to the first wheelchair and the last box.

I’m going to be buried under a tree, by the way; I am quite decided upon that, and I have told my wife exactly what I want done.  She asked if she has to wait until I am dead.

Send not to know for whom……

Alright, Monday is dismal day!  Why?  Because I can’t write a line.  Not for want of trying, not for lack of inspiration, but because I’m approaching what is for me the most difficult subject to write about:  dying. 

I have a character to kill off.

Honestly, I don’t know why this is.  The words will flow willingly enough, the scene trots out faithfully on the page, the lifeless soul is lying there, gone beyond the reach or touch of the one who loves her.  I even find a way for him to turn his back and walk away alone.  Then I read it back.

And I delete it.

The problem may be my investment in the character.  If she has not lived for me, how can I make her die?  If my soul is not inextricably linked to hers, how can I describe the emotion, the futility, the sheer terror of that moment?   Or it may be I am inhabiting his mind still, and I want toe feel his grief, his fear.  I mustn’t try to do both.

In a love scene these things are easy, because it is an interplay.  It’s easy to display the joys, the reservations, the comedic aspects of each character because – unless I’m writing something extremely kinky – they both have a continuation.  Nobody leaves the scene on a trolley.

In this scene though, somebody does.  And what makes it worse (this, by the way, forms part of the sequel to ‘Hasuga’s Garden’) is the lack of love between the characters.   One who loves, one who does not – unrequited, wasted passion.

So I’ve deleted three versions so far, and now I’m going to turn my own back on it for a while. 

You see, to be a good death scene it has to make me cry.   It’s a primary requirement.  If it doesn’t get me in tears, it won’t touch the hearts of my readers.  

Simply that.   Sorry?  Oh, no, don’t mention it!  Glad I’ve brightened up your morning!