The Handicap of Death

“Death isn’t the handicap it used to be; it doesn’t screw your career up the way it used to”

Dave Lister, last human being alive sits in the Drive Room of the mining ship Red Dwarf.  His former superior, Arnold Rimmer, is dead.  Rimmer stands there in hologram form as Lister tries to explain to him how death is no longer a big deal.  Rimmer, understandably is not convinced.

It’s an odd concept- to be both dead and alive in the way Rimmer was.  So much sci-fi is dedicated to trying not to do the one thing every human from the Queen to the beggars on the street have in common.  Death.  Clones are built, organs are regrown, the fountain of youth is quested for, deals with the devil are made and at the point of death some even regenerate into new people.  Death scares us.  Sure, maybe some people aren’t scared of actually being dead- as Samuel Clemens said that he did not fear death because he had already been dead for many billions of years before he was born and he suffered not the slightest inconvenience.  There are others who take the position that although being dead doesn’t scare them, the process of death does.

I’ve only seen one dead body.  Only.  As if we should be expected to see more.  Yet we live in a world where many will never see a corpse.  Seeing a shell lying in a bed, which just a few days earlier was someone you were conversing with is a strange sensation.  It makes death more “real” than any funeral I have attended.  And it also hammers home just how so many different people, in different countries, times and places are all connected by this one certainty.

Some take solace in there being an afterlife.  I cannot do that.

One day I will be dead.  No more me.

Death scares me more because of the prospect of so many things left undone, or unsaid.  Because I focus on the small problems- things that even a day later will not be an issue.  I allow things to rule my life, instead of trying to enjoy what little time I have on this pale blue dot.

Last week I heard that my grandfather, a man in his late 80s, was in hospital and it was bad.  We were to come right away.  After much faffing around from me, a hell of a lot of help from friends and what ended up being a £300 round trip I got to Leicester.  I got there to see a weak old man, not my granddad- not the one I knew, lying in a hospital bed.  Within 24 hours he had regained some strength and the results were in- he was going to be okay.  Age had caught up with him though and he was going to need regular help.  But we had him for a few more years yet.  He’d had lung cancer in June but had got the all clear.  He’d had cancer of- I think- the bowel several times and had always bounced back so no one was surprised when we were told he’d be okay.  I left Leicester a little happier and content.

Then today I received a phone call.  New information.  Cancer was back with a vengeance and it had metastasised – blood, lymph nodes, other organs.  He has just a couple of months left- and that’s optimistic.  I’ve seen late stage cancer.  I know what it does.  And I know I will be booking another train sooner than I’d like.

My granddad is no saint.  But then none of us are.  And right now I need to focus on the happy times- this is a man I have known for 30 years and the idea of him not being here has still not sunk in.  And when it does happen I don’t know how I will react.  I can be rather emotional at things, mainly due to my fluctuating mental health, but the death of the really important people leave me in a world of numbness, unable to fully comprehend what has happened and it can take years for things to fully sink in.  When my nan died I cried for several days but couldn’t at the funeral and it was years before I cried again- because I couldn’t quite comprehend her not being here.

Maybe the same will happen with my granddad.  Right now it’s a waiting game.  I don’t want him to go.

And this makes me look at my own mortality.  I would be rather happy to know I will reach his age, maybe I will.  But then maybe I won’t.  The scary thing about death is knowing it could be lurking behind any corner, ready to pounce at a seconds notice, or a months, or a few years.  But it will get us all.  And in the short time we have- though the half full glass drinkers may see life as the longest thing we ever do- we need to try and live a good life.

We need to make amends with those we fall out with, tell people we love them, do all the things we want to do, when the prospect of death is looking and your mortality is reminded to you, suddenly your council tax arrears seem petty and the Sheriff Officers almost laughable.

But will I change my life?  Will I do all these things?  No.  And probably, neither will you.  Because even though we KNOW death is coming, is inevitable, we still think we have all the time in the world and the small things don’t matter.

We’ll climb Everest next year.
We’ll get a new job next year.
We’ll go on that holiday another time.
We’ll meet up with that old friend next Sunday instead.
We’ll not make amends with those we’ve fallen out with just yet.
We’ll not wake up and greet the new day with new wonder and understanding.
We’ll not take up a new hobby.

We will carry on as normal.  Because even though we know we don’t, we think we have all the time in the world.  Cognitive dissonance at its finest.

The one thing, pretty much one of the very few only things, that we can be 100% sure of – death – and it’s the one thing we don’t address.  We don’t try and change, we don’t actually change.  Because death is something that happens to other people, and to us- well, its so far away it’s not worth thinking off.  I’ve got another 60 years to do all those things I want, so why do it today?  But, in 60 years, when these things have not been done, I will lament my lost youth and the opportunities that came with it.

When death finally takes me, my last thoughts will be ones of regret at not having done everything I wanted.  Having not been as kind as I’d like, not been as strong as I’d like, not been as happy as I’d like, not loved as much as I’d like, not told people how I feel enough.  I will look back on every bad thing I’ve ever done, and instead of looking at he positive, I will look back at my life as having not quite lived up to its full potential.  And that scares me.  And it scares me because despite my desire to do things, to change, I know I won’t.

Because hardly any of us will.

Because we take life for granted, right up to the last moment.  There are some who don’t, and some who do live lives to the full.  But they are the exception.  We will continue going to the 9-5 we hate, taking the same yearly holiday to Skeggy and finally die wishing we’d actually trained to be the skydiving instructor, or doctor, or actor we wanted.

Because we are human.  And because death scares us.  If we fully understood death and accepted it, rather than a simple “yeah, it’ll happen, LOL, lets get drunk” then maybe we would strive for more.

Maybe, in a few weeks time when my granddad dies I will take stock of my life, I might even try and change.  But ultimately, I will still be me because even witnessing it first hand, death is still a different country, a strange irregular visitor and he won’t be here for me for a long time.  So I do have all the time to do the things I want to.  And I will do them.  At least that’s what I tell myself.   But what will 90 year old Ash think about me now?  What will any of us think when we look back?

I’m still a young man, with my life ahead of me.  I don’t want to get married or have children- but in ten years will I be settled down with a wife and two kids?  Don’t know.  But I hope not!

Life is confusing, strange and almost tormenting at times.  But death, that’s something that happens to other people.

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3 Responses to The Handicap of Death

  1. Rebex says:

    Amazing, insightful, frightening, illuminating, scary….and true.
    So well written. Thank you for this. I lost my mother to cancer and she certainly emphasized that nothing reminds you better about life being too short. x

  2. Miss Twist says:

    I too have seen the body of someone I met. A corpse is not the same as the person you knew; it is an empty shell; it is a ship after the crew has left; a home without the family or furniture.

    I’d like to think that when I die, I’d still have things I wanted to do; something to look forward to. Not having anything to look forward to – that would be death.

  3. Leonie Newman says:

    So beautifully written Ash. You have an incredible ability to really make me feel your emotions wen you write.
    I actually think you WILL change in some way wen someone close dies. You almost can’t help that. Death has an affect on all those that it touches. The ultimate question is…does it create a positive or a negative change in us. I like to think that over the years, death has changed me in a positive way. Strength Ash as you face this difficult time. xxx

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