“The death” by MesserWoland – Own work based on: Image:The death.png by 1ur1. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_death.svg#/media/File:The_death.svg
Today is my birthday. I am 74 years old and I’ve been thinking about death, my death, not in any morbid sense, more as a reflection on what it is and how I am adjusting to the thought that I will someday die and maybe soon. I’ve noticed a few things lately that have caused me to think about this. Here are some observations on the nature of getting old and knowing your days are now numbered.
As I read or listen to the news, I more and more notice the age of someone who has just died of natural causes. Sometimes, the person is younger than me. Younger than me! That pulls me up, so to speak. So-and-so was only 68 years old, or 72 years old. I am now in that decade where an exit is coming and is unavoidable. How much time do I have left, I ask myself. Answer there is none.
This in turn influences what I buy, or don’t buy. This object I’m about to buy will outlast me, I muse, and someone else will soon have possession and will make a keep-or-throw decision. “We have plenty of wine glasses—posh ones and everyday quaffers,” I say in response to my wife’s suggestion we buy new glasses. “We don’t need more even though they look pretty and will fit inside the dishwasher. Use the money to buy an expensive bottle of wine.”
Back in the ‘70s, I lectured at Southampton University on the subject of engineering reliability. I taught that reliability was a probabilistic figure attached to some product, a toaster say, and related to the probability that if the toaster works today, it will also work tomorrow, next week, next month. As time increases, the probability of failure increases. The older the product, the less reliable it becomes. I also introduced the students to the notion of Mean-Time-Between-Failure and Mean-Time-To-Failure. The first is a measure that relates to products that can be repaired (a car, say); the second to non-repairable products that are thrown away once they fail (a toothbrush, say). My body is now in the decaying stages of reliability but at the moment and like the car, certain parts can be repaired. I have intraocular lens replacements in my eyes (cataract surgery) and two dental implants and an assorted collection of fillings and bridges in my mouth. I wear hearing aids to combat moderate-to-severe deafness, and, most recently, I’ve had a total left knee replacement. What’s next on the replacement list and will there come a time when I am not me anymore; when every part has been replaced? Hmm, now there’s a thought to play with although sci-fi authors have probably done this idea to death, to coin a phrase.
I have written a new book, a novel, 103,000 words, my best work yet (in my opinion). The book is unlike anything I’ve written in the past and—gasp, shock, horror—contains explicit descriptions of human sexual foreplay and intercourse. To save my family embarrassment, I will publish under a pseudonym (move over E L James) and, right now, the Word file on my laptop is password protected and named innocuously as TheNewBook.doc. Only I know the title, the pseudonym and the password and I am currently approaching literary agents and traditional publishers with a view to publication in paperback form. But what happens if I die before the book is accepted for publication? Who will be able to unlock the Word file and discover my erotic literary masterpiece? This worries me; keeps me awake at night. If I die before revealing the password, the book dies with me. Maybe as I draw my last breath, I will murmur the password in someone’s ear (it’s not rosebud by the way) but if that someone is a stranger, they may not realise the significance of what I say. Hmm…
Another aspect of understanding and accepting mortality is I’ve started thinking about things I’ve not done but would like to do in whatever time is left. I’ve contemplated buying a small camper van and traipsing all over Europe for six months, a year, whatever. But, my wife says no and I don’t want to go off on my own. She’s right of course. We have commitments that would be difficult, although not impossible to discharge if we became temporary nomads. But with every day that passes the opportunity reduces and whenever I see a small camper van the thought flashes through my head: what if…?
I am not afraid of death although I hope that when it comes it will be quick and devoid of pain. I don’t know what death is other than that I will not be a conscious sentient being anymore. I am an atheist so I do not sit and think about “meeting my maker” or “going up to heaven”. These concepts are alien to me. As I said in my book on religion when discussing the concept of a soul, “I observe that when people die, that’s it. Their bodies decay, rot away, decompose, and do so irreversibly. Dead is dead. Even if the deceased possessed something that did move on, neither I nor anybody else has any scientifically-proven knowledge of it or its destiny.” But, I have a burning desire to know what will happen in the world during the lifetime of my children, their partners, and my grandchildren. How will the rise of extreme Islam pan out? Will we send someone to Mars? Will we find a cure for cancer and eliminate it as a major cause of death? Will climate change be proved and if so how will we tackle its global effects?
These, and many other questions, occupy my thoughts occasionally and I feel frustrated by the fact that, in most cases, I will never know the answer. But, today at least I am still alive and that expensive bottle of wine is in the fridge waiting for my attention.
Happy Birthday and Many Happy Returns to me. The only question is, how many is Many?