A confession that I always skip to the end of a novel before reading the rest, and an observation that I couldn’t handle suspense, sparked a train of thought about how this was a metaphor for the way I have lived my life. Since writing this on my recent writers retreat, I have noticed that the subject comes up for a lot of people who have suffered death and loss (Brigitte Macron in a recent Economist article and Esther Rantzen on a Radio 4 interview are just two examples). So I’m sharing it with you: let me know if it resonates (or not)…
In thinking about how I want to live the rest of my life, sometimes I dwell on how it might end. We infer meaning from people’s funerals and the clichés we repeat to sum up the complex paths they trod. A packed church, humming with family and a few surviving friends signifies a life lived to the full and death at a ripe old age. And who doesn’t want that? I know that I do, although perhaps not too ripe. Just enough to fall gently and gracefully to the ground, rather than my flesh puckering, eaten by maggots whilst still attached to the tree. On the other hand, if the congregation is young and the tears are too bitter, a different story is suggested of life ended prematurely, cut off in its prime.
I’ve had some experience of funerals, and yet not enough. At the age of five I was considered too young to bear witness to my father’s; and so the rituals of death - the honouring of life and the mourning of its passing - became unspeakable and unknowable. My mother, intent on rebuilding life and preserving her own fortitude, kept secret her memories and I assumed the silent burden of untold stories.
Perhaps as a way to make amends for our previous absence, my sister and I organized a funeral to remember for my mother. We weren’t able to give her the good death we would have liked, her deterioration was too sudden and too rapid: a morphine-induced end in a hospital bed is not one to wish for. But I think she would have enjoyed her funeral. Her achievements – and they were considerable – were remembered as was what she meant to us. We put on a party and a lot of people showed up.
Preoccupation with one’s own mortality is an unwelcome feature of people my age. It seems fitting to start thinking about your end, once you are probably a little over half way towards it. On that front, I’m something of an anomaly. Death and loss visited me early and whilst I survived their trauma, they left a mark, like a foreshadowing of the inevitable, which might come a lot sooner than I expect. And I was determined not to be taken by surprise – the suspense was literally unbearable. Each minor headache was the tumour that would get me, each twinge in my chest, cardiac arrest waiting to happen. When my mum came home late, I imagined all sorts of unlikely, catastrophic events. In a cruel paradox, fear of death robbed me of the ability to live.
Redemption of sorts came with motherhood. It might have just been the hormones, but something about managing to give birth and survive my children’s early years loosened mortality’s grip on me. I felt the fear (I might die or be a bad mother, they might die, we all might die, we all will die) and I did it anyway.
So here I am, in my sixth decade, my life more than half lived and yet in some ways just beginning. Perhaps I’m looking to make up for lost time, seeking out heightened experience in my second half. There are few self-help manuals for the over 50 new beginners; I think we’re supposed to know better by now. But maybe I can start by not skipping ahead to the end of my story before I’ve written the middle, which as we all know is the most important part.