On the Edge
At some point I became completely lost and wandered down into a desert. The sky was a sooty black and obscured the distance. The air was warm and stuffy and completely motionless and there was a musty smell. The ground was brown grit. Trees became rare and reduced to leaning, creaking tinder, and then there were none. A few scrawny animals wandered about, as lost as I was.
One day I turned and glimpsed the Sun moving behind a distant ridge. I watched her that one last time – pale and yellowish, like the back of a skull, concentrating her warmth and light elsewhere. I walked on and soon she was out of sight. And yet there was a thin sfumato to walk by. I have no idea how long I walked.
I asked someone if perhaps we were near the edge. I asked them, if I kept on going, would I drop off or could I walk on across this plain for ever? They laughed and told me it was not like that.
Eventually I came to the place where the sky comes down to the ground. I crouched on the edge and rested my forehead against the sky. It was warm and firm and rough to the touch and a little like flock wallpaper. I ran my fingers along the crease where it meets the ground and I could feel a slight draught. There was dust and a few twigs and bits of chaff, a coin and a button. Then I looked up and I could see it curve in over my head, and the stars were little punctures in the material, letting in tiny beams of light.
Death # 4 - Death comes third
I don’t think I was ever afraid of dying exactly.
It’s not that I knew what was coming next because I didn’t. I used to hear people talking about being scared to die and that never made much sense to me. They talked about having so much unfinished business, as if somehow they’d be dead and yet still in a position to look back and feel regret and disappointment. And I wanted to say ‘You won’t. You’ll be dead. You won’t miss anything because you won’t be there to do the missing. Don’t you get it?’ Either that or they’ll be in some unimaginable afterlife and everything will no doubt be so weird that the concerns of their actual life will seem very remote indeed.
Failing that they talk about the ‘fear of the unknown’ but I don’t really get that either. I suppose I’ve always liked the unknown. That’s why I painted, and why I liked to travel.
I mean, don’t get me wrong, I didn’t want to die. I enjoyed life, especially those last years. I had so much to do and things to see and people to love. But nevertheless I thought, once you’re dead, you’re dead. You won’t know anything more about it. That’ll be it.
Anyway, nothing to be afraid of.
Pain. That’s something to be afraid of. Pain and degradation and loss of independence. Incontinence and institutionalisation. Super bugs. Hospital food.
People talk... My parents used to talk as if, if you worked hard and saved your pennies and got yourself a house and a family, that the end of your life would be like some sort of reward. They imagined those final idyllic years, retirement, roses no doubt literally over the door, hand in hand on their second doddery honeymoon. And it was like that for them, for a while. But then they’d forgotten about that final act, or they'd pretended it wasn’t coming – the inevitable dénouement that almost everyone who doesn’t die young has to look forward to, when they have to resentfully sell the house to pay for their care or, as with my mum, spend years tending to a cantankerous, muddled and malodorous old man in what used to be the best room.
There’s no disgrace though. It comes for us all. Spoilt as we are in twenty first century England we have somehow come to believe that it should no longer come to this, that medical science or the welfare state or private medicine should have rid us of this medieval torture. But instead it just comes later.
And bereavement. That's something to be afraid of too. I never knew how much that hurt until my sister Justine died. She was gone and at the end she was grateful for that because it had been a long wait, fully alert and conscious and in more or less constant pain.
That morning I sat with my head on her bed, holding her cold withered hand and I selfishly cried for her having finally left me. My girl was there with me all the while and did what she could but she knew she could never fill the cavity that Justine left in me. To the day I myself died my mind could never really comprehend the notion that I would never see her again, that she would not some day unexpectedly be standing at the door, come to see us, as she had so many times before. It was quite literally unthinkable.
So when I knew I was dying, in my hospital bed, with the drips and the monitors around me, and my beautiful girl there, holding my hand, it was not death exactly that was the problem. I was ready to go. I’d had my share of pain over the past few months and I felt sick almost all the time and I could no longer pee on my own and I was terribly constipated. The nurses tried – they really did, but I couldn’t be helped. It was time to go.
But my girl. What was she going to do? She tried to be brave but I could tell. She was in mourning already.
I knew she’d cope of course. She was somewhat younger than I was and very fit for her age but she’d said more than once she wanted to go with me. I knew it was going to be terrible for her, carrying on living in that house all alone, having to sort through all my things, and live with that... expecting me to come in from the garden at any moment and put the coffee on, and then almost immediately realising that it wasn’t going to happen ever again. Not even once.
People kept saying – and they were right – think of how lucky we’d been, all the years we’d had together and I knew we should do that. We did that. We thought about the past and were happy, and the happiness was there, big and blooming and beautiful. But this present... those last few weeks, those two other things rose up and blotted out the view and we tried to push them aside, we really did, to look at the happiness but they wouldn’t go away and eventually we just gave up and let them be there – pain and indignity on the one hand and loss and loneliness on the other. Death itself seemed a very small thing by comparison.