My wife Tracy’s great-Uncle George died last week. He was 91. A few days beforehand, he’d been up a two storey ladder, clearing out the gutters at his bowls club. He walked home a mile or so, spruced himself up, and then back to the club for a dinner dance – but he didn’t feel very well, so he nipped off home after the meal. Thinking he had a virus, he left things a while, as blokes tend to do, and when he eventually saw a doctor – still feeling under the weather – he was told he had pancreatitis, and that any potential treatment would only finish off his one remaining kidney. George nodded, sorted his affairs out over the next few days, and then he calmly checked out of life. To my mind, he was a winner – active right up to the end of a long span, and then shuffling off this mortal coil at short notice, uncomplaining and with all loose ends neatly tied up.
Now some people might tut and say, dearie me, what was an old chap like that doing up a ladder, no wonder he’s not with us anymore. I really think that is to miss the point. As a relative spring chicken of only just past fifty, I’m already getting intimations of how a time will come when I’d no longer throw my hands up in horror if some kindly but helpless young person in a doctor’s coat told me I’m not long for this world. I can tell even now that the fear of death itself is likely to be a diminishing factor, as I get older. It’s fear of life burdened with infirmity that I’m more worried about, or being cheated by illness out of my 60’s and 70’s.
The more it’s possible to keep going, and keep on doing the things in life that keep you going, the better it has to be for the outlook of anyone with a lot of years on their back. So while I wouldn’t expect many doctors to advise an old reprobate like George to go shinnying up and down ladders at 91, I still think it’s massively positive that he remained so determined to do what he could do, for as long as he could do it.
My wife’s other elderly uncle, Harry, will be 90 soon. He’s a bit deaf, a bit stooped, and he’s lived his life on one lung these many years. I heard him talking to my beloved on the phone today, and he was holding forth about how he intended to account for most of his dear wife’s birthday chocolates, and making jokes in dubious taste about furry paint rollers. There’s not a lot wrong there, either, I’d say. Yes, maybe the chocolate isn’t the ideal thing for a prospective nonagenarian’s diet – but why not enjoy the good things of life while you’re still here?
If I might be permitted to wax philosophical for a few lines: we often hear about people “losing their lives”, or “a great loss of life”, and other such gloomy phrases, all concerning themselves with life as a commodity that one has, and either keeps or has wrested away. But our lives aren’t really ours to lose – because nobody gets out of life alive anyway. The valuable commodity we should be talking about is time. That’s what we lose if we die early – the time that we might otherwise have been granted on earth, to use as best we might. And that’s why – in my opinion – the idea of death becomes progressively less tragic, the greater the age of the dearly-departed concerned. We hear of people being “tragically young” when they die, and that is spot on. Time is what we have, and time is what we need to keep accumulating. Time is the potential we lose if we die too young. Our lives are only on loan for whatever duration.
Ironically though, the more time we hang around on this Earth, the more likely it is that there will be restrictions placed on our activities by well-meaning relatives and professionals, all acting in our assumed best interests, naturally. But is this the right way to go on? My old Nana Cawthorne, of whom I’ve written elsewhere, was finally prevented from smoking late in her life, when she had to spend some time in a residential home (which she bitterly hated). A few weeks later she was dead, having thrived on her daily cigs for God knows how many years beforehand. I think it was the shock of stopping that killed her, but it could just as easily have been resentment at her life’s pleasure being so curtailed. Sometimes, a well-meaning action, with the healthiest of intent, can be fatally discouraging for the person it most intimately affects.
I’d like to think that, if I’m lucky enough to exceed the age of 80, with all my marbles and my more important faculties all present and correct, I’ll be cut some slack in the matter of my more treasured bad habits. I’ll feel that, having survived so long indulging my relatively few vices, I might as well head for the exit in a like manner. Surely, once you’ve lasted your allotted span and a few bonus years, it’s more about quality of life, and not so much the mindless grabbing of a few more years, just for the sake of it? Alright, too much chocolate might be really bad for Uncle Harry – but he’s nearly 90. A drop or two of red wine might end up seeing me off if I’m still imbibing in my 80’s – but so what? Life is for living, and enjoying, especially when you’ve done all anyone can expect, and attained a grand old number of years. Thus I shall argue, anyway – if I’m able.
We’re off to Uncle George’s funeral next week. He’s specified – to the outrage and horror of at least one sister – that he doesn’t want anyone wearing black. I actually hadn’t seen him for many years myself – well, he was a southerner (from Barnsley) – but having heard of the manner of his passing, and of his instructions regarding funeral garb, I regret not having spent more time with him. He lived his life as he wanted to, right up to the end. He’d been a widower since about 1990, and he’d looked after his disabled wife for many years before that. He was still driving and, as we’ve heard, still walking to and from his bowls club whenever he pleased, doing his bit to help about the place, and nobody saying him nay. And now he’s making sure from beyond the grave that things will be done his way as we all say farewell.
Good on you, George. I shall don my tan jeans and my Pink Floyd t-shirt next week, and I shall raise a glass or two of wine in your honour.