Thursday, February 19, 2009

Mortal coils


I'm currently reading a very fascinating book by one of my favourite authors, Julian Barnes. He is one of those writers whose books I automatically buy regardless of reviews, but this one is a bit different from most of his back catalogue. It is called Nothing to be Frightened of and, amongst other things, is about his fear of death. He describes himself as a former atheist turned agnostic and he muses at length about just what waits for us - if anything - at the end of our lives. In between what sounds like morbid introspection (except it isn't), are reminiscences of his parents, stories about his childhood, anecdotes about his older brother - a philosopher - and lots of spin-off chapters about famous writers, art and society.

I often think about death and think that maybe it should be talked about more on an everyday basis. My parents were always trying to prepare me for their deaths, so much so that it became a bit of a family joke.So many things were prefaced by 'of course we won't be here for ever', and 'I don't know which of us will go first' (mother first then my dad about eight years later). Maybe it's because my parents aren't there as a buffer anymore that I find myself thinking about when I am no longer around. It's not a depressed mental state of any sort, I don't find myself having morbid fantasies; I just keep wondering about not being in the world any more. Isn't it odd to think of everything just carrying on without you?

I don't have any religious faith, I don't believe in heaven or hell or the in between place and yet, a few months after my mother died, I did experience a mystical moment in which I knew she was in the room. I often think about it, try to relive it, but nothing can really recapture the certainty that I felt that she had come to see me- even though it doesn't really tally with my belief that nothing exists once the body has ceased to be. Does this make me a hypocrite or just a very confused person? Both, I reckon. Of course I could just have been delusional but I really felt in my right mind and, despite the obvious answer that it all must have been a dream - it wasn't, I was definitely awake, I do find it gives me some sort of comforting feeling when I think about my death.

I remember being told by a palliative-care nurse about an old lady who had been crippled all her life and was unable to raise herself unaided who, at the time of her death, sat up in her bed looking joyous and said in an excited way 'they've all come to see me' - she then fell back and died. Is her vision - and my illusion/delusion - part of the brain's trickery? Apparently, so many people undergoing a medical emergency are reporting bright white lights down the tunnel and long-dead relatives telling them that it's not time yet, that some hospitals have put pages of tiny writing on the ceiling of the operating theatres, just in case a recovering patient can tell them what they read when they had their out-of-body experiences. I don't know if anyone has been able to tell them what the words say. It's probably something like 'get back in your body and let us all go home'..

54 comments:

Dumdad said...

I'm an admirer of Julian Barnes although I haven't read all his books. I shall certainly look out for this one.

Frankofile said...

It's good that the mind can play kind tricks. I saw that about tiny writing on the celing - brain research is fascinating.

Lucy Fishwife said...

I haven't read it yet though it's on my list - have to say of that whole crowd (Amis, Ishiguro, Rushdie etc) he's the only one I think might actually be a NICE person, so I'm far more prepared to read his views. It's odd that he's an atheist turned agnostic, it's much more usual; to be the other way around (like Morrissey saying he was "celibate" before he felt confident enough to admit he was gay)

Lucy Fishwife said...

Sorry about the rogue semi-colon. I love them so much I sprinkle them liberally even where not required...

Carol and Chris said...

Hmmmm....food for thought there hon!!!

Your views are like mine....I don't have any religious faith and I don't believe in heaven or hell either. I kind of like the idea of karma (I do believe what goes around comes around) but do I believe that you will be re-born in another body? I'm not so sure. Whatever is 'out there' I'm glad that you got some comfort after your Mum passed away...it's tough when someone you love dies.

Thanks for the recommendation...I shall definately be buying the book!!

C x

Vodka Mom said...

I LOVED this post! I've been fascinated/afraid of death ever since the untimely deaths of my parents when I was young.

Have you read Motherless daughters by Hope Edelman? It is fascinating!!!

The Blonde Duck said...

Wanted to pop in and say hi! Saw you at Marie's!

LadyFi said...

Oh - I love this post! My kids are worried that we are going to die, so that we quite often talk about death. My dad often talks about his death and that of my mum's.. it's a natural part of life and a healthy one I believe.

Maybe that paper on the ceiling says, Move away from the bright light!

cheshire wife said...

It is a very difficult subject. We have two 89 year old widowed mothers who both seem to think that they are going to live for ever.

Lulu LaBonne said...

Loved the end bit about the writing on the ceiling.

I do like some of JB's work more than others, I met him and his wife a few years ago (the recently deceased literary agent Pat Kavanagh). I was so overwhlemed that I blurted out 'Oooh Hallo, are you Julian Barnes, I really loved Round the World in Ten and a Half Chapters.'

French Fancy said...

Dumdad - I wasn't sure until about 60 pages in - I should have realised JB wouldn't produce a duffer.

Frankie - If I was someone listening to me talking about the 'incident' I'd probably be the first to say 'you must have been dreaming' - but I wasn't, that's the thing.

Lucy - has he done a reading at your shop? I do have slight hero-worship here. Why haven't Blogger given us an edit button with the comments yet?

Carol - after 'it' happened I kept wishing and wishing it would happen again - but it didn't and it hasn't.

Vodka Mom - I've not heard of the book but have just written it in my little notebook with my ongoing list of things to buy/checkout. Thanks for the tip. I too have been fascinated by death for quite a long time.

Blonde Duck - hello there

LadyFi - it's right to talk about death but when my parents used to do it I would sometimes get quite cross with them. Nothing prepares you though, all the words in the world mean nothing.

cheshire wife - my mum reversed the usual trend and went first. It would have been a lot better for all concerned if it had been the other way around. I think (gender stereotyping coming up) that women cope a lot better alone than men do.

French Fancy said...

Lulu - I didn't realise his wife had not so long ago died. Maybe that was what prompted the book. Poor Julian.I adored Flaubert's Parrot and England England. They are my favourites.

Jennysmith said...

Didn't he write Snobs? Or have i got it wrong? I know that was a good book.

I never know what to think about death or afterlife. I go to church virtually every week but I'm none the wiser. Nor are a lot of my fellow attendees.

Your guess is as good as mine.

Glad you're taking time out for reading after your intense OU stuff

xxxx

A Super Dilettante said...

Jennysmith, Snobs is by Julian Fellowes. Nothing to be frightened of is by Julian Barnes, a very thought provoking book. The funniest bit was when Barnes wrote, "I don't believe in God but I miss him". And that his disbelief in afterlife - the scene where he talks about being watched by his dead relatives while he's in the bathroom. It's hilarious!

justme said...

Not read any Julian Barnes. Perhaps I should. That is if I ever actually get off the computer for long enough to read a book!

French Fancy said...

Lulu - just to add a bit more, I've caught up now on the passing of Mrs Barnes. She sounded like quite an interesting woman. I repeat - poor Julian, in more ways than one.

jen - I've never heard of Snobs but just sneaked a look ahead to note that ASD has said it was JFellowes (who I think wrote the screenplay for Gosford Park and who seems a delightful 'good egg'). I never had you down as a church goer (but then why on earth should I have known?)

ASD - there are some very funny passages, some very sad ones and some thought-provoking ones. I love the way he writes.

justme - he's a very clever writer and I think he speaks French almost as well as he speaks English - lucky blighter.

My filling has fallen out,oops.

willow said...

I guess you could say that I am more afraid of becoming a widow than of actually dying. I do, however, believe in a form of life after death.

A Woman Of No Importance said...

FF, I sometimes think that other cultures have it more right about death - Nurturing the bones, and so on - Our pagan ancestors had strong feelings about the dead still being with us, as part of the family - burying them close, and so on - While we react like Victorians, and people are afraid to see or even show grief in public, in some respects...

I enjoyed Flaubert's Parrot, so will have to look out Julian's othere books - It was so interesting what you were saying about the old dear and her deathbed visitation - I, like you, have had a strong feeling that my mum was looking over me at one particular point somehow, but have not felt that about my dad yet... In our old home, we had things inexplicably move about, or fall out of a cupboard, just as we were looking for them, and blamed my late mother in law, whose house it was - You just can't tell, can you? x

Marie Reed said...

I think that there are so many creative ways to be buried now. I read about a company that melds your ashes in with this coral like material and is making a man made coral reef out of there clients. Isn't that nifty?

Linda S. Socha said...

Love you writing style. This is a great post, and I confess I have felt these visitations of loved ones lost more than once. When I lost my 23 year old daughter in law I clearly saw her standing in a silver mist in my dining room. I know.. a bit much

Please stop by Psyche Connections. I enjoy exchanging blog following links. I would njoy doing so with you if you have an interest?
This is my personal self expansion project:>) Thanks for a great read
Linda

Lulu LaBonne said...

I have a feeling that Pat K's cancer only became known about shortly after Barnes had written his book

Steve said...

I must admit I've thought about popping my clogs far more since our little one has been born... but more worrying about what kind of world he'll be left in and less what kind of world I'll be going into...

Mama said...

Hello, just wanted to say Hi and I will come back when less JL'ed, Kathy.

The Accidental Fan said...

I look forward Valhalla. I hear they still have sawdust and straw on the floors and do a great ploughman's lunch. Real ale without the beardie bores from CAMRA chewing your ear off it. Thor is reputed as a darts champion, whats not to like?

Hadriana's Treasures said...

Good post FF. I have read some of Julian Barnes' stuff but can't remember too much about it. That says more about my memory rather than his writing style.

I had a very bad diving accident once which I may blog about some time. I'd love to say that I saw the other side and all that. All I can say is that I almost scared the ruddy life out of me! I agree with you and Steve about life/death.

I love how the Spanish deal with it. Kind of "up close and personal".

PS: Plus agree with you as regards Google and "edit" plus "paste" and "copy" (non-existent) in the Post Page. It's a bit of a blunt instrument.

Ian Lidster said...

I will look for this book. The older I get the more I find I think about that final shuffle off the mortal coil, even though I try to avoid it. And I am still unsure about what I think about the end of days. I amazed at those who believe they do. But, I have had two contemporaries, one of whom I knew well, die in the past month or so and I've found that disquieting.

Lane said...

Interesting post. Love the writing on the ceiling.

Have to ask - how's your filling?

The Sagittarian said...

Great post, and similar thoughts to mine! When my dad died, about a month later I had a weird dream that I had climbed a ladder, found him sitting up in his bed looking all relaxed and reading a newspaper, waving me away saying "I'm just fine, love. Just fine."
Then he was gone. When I woke up I fully expected it to be real, maybe I just wanted it to be tho'. I have only seen Dad once since then when he "woke" me even tho' I was still dreaming and he told me to urgently "Get up...get up"....turns out I had miscarried. Haven't been able to "dream him up" again since tho'.
Anyway, not to be gloomy I have always then wondered if perhaps he is still somehow keeping an eye on my interests. Perhaps i should behave myself better....

French Fancy said...

willow - your comment made me feel sad. I sometimes try and imagine life without Mr FF and I simply can't. I just don't know how I would feel if he wasn't there. Mind you I'm so much older than him I'm sure he'll be the follower, not the leader.

AWONI - I've not read anything about poltergeists but did see 'Amtyville Horror - most unlike me because I'm not a fan of that particular genre. AS for nurturing bones, I think I'll pass on that one :)

Marie - that is an interesting idea. I don't want to be buried anyway so I suppose I ought to keep my eyes open for interesting ways of disposing of me. I do hope I have about 40 more healthy years though.

Linda - thanks for that. I've been told by a couple of psychics that I ought to sit in a circle' but all that did was make me snigger in a particularly British way.

Lulu -last night I thought to myself - why didn't I ask Lulu what J Barnes said back to her? So, what did he say? I'll chase you and keep asking.

Steve - yes, having kids must make one feel especially vulnerable about things like this. As it is, our two dogs will pre-decease me (hope so anyway, if you know what I mean)

Mama - there and back again so soon? Welcome home

TAF - I'm not really the flaxen-haired Brunnhilde type - more the LaLa Disneyland Paradise.

Hade -welcome back to us all. I almost never remember books I've read - but knowing I've read them is almost as good.

Ian - yes, having contemporaries die must bring it home to one. I've lost my parents and a former boyfriend and that's about it)

Lane -I've got a big hole and an appointment on 6 March. You never get urgent dental appts here unfortunately.

The Sagittarian - lost for words. Sorry. don't want to do clich├ęs.

According to Barnes any deceased onlookers would probably be very happy to know that he was (in his book anyway) 'having a wank in the bathroom' - celebrating the joys of life (in my words)

laurie said...

i like barnes, too.

my father died of a brain tumor; the last two weeks he could not talk. but the last time i saw him--a day and a half before he died--he grabbed my hand and said "goodbye goodbye goodbye."

punk in writing said...

Great post!
My mother is a Minister and one of the things she works with is how to talk to children about death. She has had talks and activities on the subject for both kids and adults.

One of the most important things is to let the kids know that it is ok to be sad, ask questions and that the conversation is far more important than providing answers.

I think that goes for "kids" of all ages.

French Fancy said...

Oh laurie, that's so lovely -if you know what I mean. I have a lot of guilt about my dad's death - I didn't get to the hospital in time to see him before he died.

hello there punk in writing - I suppose religious brethren have very different attitudes from people like me. I always imagine them looking forward almost to dying - to get to a better world

nikkicrumpet said...

Well I have a very complete and strong faith in what lies after death. I know we continue on. And we go to a much better place. I will never forget being at my grandfathers house the day he died from cancer. He kept telling my grandmother to open the door because they were coming for him. She kept looking out the window and saying "Wendell there is nobody out there" And he kept insisting "mother..I see them coming. I want to make sure they get in" After about a dozen times of him begging her to open the door she finally did. About 15 minutes after she opened the door...he got this big smile on his face (the first time I'd seen him smile in months) and said "Hello it's good to see you again" and then he died. I'll never forget that moment. Or the feeling of peace we all shared in witnessing it.

punk in writing said...

FF - sometimes not fearing death (and what lies beyond) is confused with actually longing for it.

lady jicky said...

I guess that it tells us to make sure we have a good life and do the things we want (if possible) and enjoy each moment if you can.

The Accidental Fan said...

As an atheist I don't fear death in the slightest. I think it is great that one day it will be over and I'll rot into the ground proving the nutrients needed for life to continue on this planet.

We are the lucky ones, we actually got born.

French Fancy said...

nikki - that story about your grandfather is so lovely - no wonder you have such strong faith. The only thing I wonder aboug all of us going on to another better place is how crowded it would be. All the people that have died in all the countries of the world - it's logic like that which makes me doubt an afterlife - and yet I know my mother was in the room with me. But it only happened once- even though I wanted her to reappear more than I've ever wanted anything in my life.

piw - yes, that makes perfect sense. Actually Barnes covers this issue quite well.

ladyj - hello you. I hope you or your family have been unaffected by all the dreadful news coming out of Australia. How is little Kenzo?. By the way I agree with you.

TAF - I hate the thought of rotting in the ground. I'd rather go up in flames - although I'd like a dramatic flourish at my departure. I'm still trying to decide on the song to be played at the most profound moment - Snow Patrol's 'Run' is the current one but who knows.

Single PAP said...

FF~we have no concept of how expansive this solar system (or whatever the area beyond is called) where we live is. earth is so incredibly tiny, that those who have died on earth in the past thousands of years would no way take up space and make anywhere crowded... our minds can't comprehend that there is no defined space in which we live because there is always something on the other side of that confined space, right? so you can't exactly crowd up a space that goes on forever...

these stories of relatives/friends coming for loved ones is immensely comforting. i just wonder if you haven't lived a good life is that still happens, and if not, what does? and what constitutes that 'good life'...

found ya thru black boxes..interesting post for 8am on a saturday morning!

French Fancy said...

Hello there Single PAP. do you know that you are the only person who has ever come to me via black boxes. I went through a phase back in October of clicking obsessively on the box I used to have in my sidebar - because nobody ever came back to me I decided to abandon it. At least somebody came and that somebody was you with what sounds like very profound words.

As indeed you say - what constitutes a good life? I reckon mine has been (so far anyway) quite a good life; I've not murdered anyone or kicked a dog. It's all relative anyway. One person's goodness is another's weakness or badness.

Single PAP said...

ha! well, fancy that, french fancy! who knew that your blog address was stored even after you abandoned it. i guess i can expect folks finding me forever, too.

well, thanks for stopping by my blog and leaving such a nice comment! it made me smile.

have a great weekend.

Cynthia said...

French Fancy, this post got us going, didn't it? It's so true that everyone goes through some kind of life/death evaluation. I know what you mean about an absence of a parental buffer! Imagine that we think/feel that we're secure because they are alive. Both of my parents are gone...and many other's have died. I also had a near-death experience...and my life-energy is ever present to me...sounds wierd, I know; but I don't want that I'm- not-in-my-body-feeling either. Do you think people really look forward to the final "release"? Sometimes I think people are dishonest with themselves...who wants to celebrate when someone dies? I hear that and I think it's some kind of rationalization. I've been with my Mr. for 28 years...I don't want to dwell on what my life would be like if...I want to celebrate what is good and alive now...not celebrate some intangible 'heaven'. There is now...and there is later...the "present moment" is what matters.

Brother Tobias said...

Aren't people having an out of body experience supposed to be looking down at themselves? Perhaps hospitals should stick post-it notes to the patients' foreheads. Then if they woke up saying, "I'm Donald Duck" or "Boris Johnson" or whoever, you'd know something was going on.

Blu said...

Before I had major life daving surgery I was in a room in the hospital and a number had been badly hand written on the back of the door.somehow I thought that it said the word dead.......i was afraid to sleep all night

claire p said...

Hello French Fancy. I've seen you around other blogs also. I love your photo, I used to love those cakes as a child.

You caught me at a bad moment. My posts aren't usually that gloomy!

I've just been over to yours and love it. I think you must be doing some of the same OU courses that I did. I recognise some of the subjects you mention. I did the BA EngLit.

Thanks for stopping by, hope you weren't put off!

A Woman Of No Importance said...

May I congratulate you on the wonderful award from lovely Cynthia, FF! Very much deserved, 'blog as education' friend! x

French Fancy said...

Hello again PAP - I clicked on your box when I was at your place incidentally.

Cynthia - I'm at the bit of Barnes' book now where he is discussing that if the option was to stay alive for a long time and not decay, would one choose it? Then he goes into quite long philosophical treatises about it. Very interesting and it's made me think a lot.

BroTob - can you imagine if you were in a surgical team - having a patient with *I'm Margaret Thatcher* stuck on her head. What a laugh. Unless, obviously, it really was her.I've never left my body even though when I was in my late teens and read various books du jour, I tried oh so very hard for that astral projection lark.

Blu - oh sweetie, how awful. It sounds like the beginning of quite a good horror story though - if we see it out there we'll know from whence it came.

clairep - I thought about you quite a lot yesterday afternoon. I wasn't put off at all - I just feel very upset for you and your family. I'll be back very soon

AWONI - thanks you. I must do a blog about it - I did tell Cynthia it wouldn't be quite yet as I wanted to do this blog. I get very touched by anyone thinking of me with regard to awards - I never expect them with so many fantastic blogs out there.

marc aurel said...

My comment has become too long, so I will post it on my blog.

Phil Lowe said...

47 comments so far! Wow. Looks like i may have to buy this book and se what its all about.

French Fancy said...

marc - I am the biggest culprit of going on too long in the comment box - you could have left it here - honestly.

Phil - I'm at quite a hard bit of it now, where I have to read everything three or four times. Bits of it are great and bits are quite self-indulgent. (sorry Julian)

Henry the Dog said...

FFancy, well mum isn't religious at all and gets quite angry about organised religions. BUT she did have very strange experiences after her mum and dad died (they didn't die together) and so did Uncle Hugh after his dad died and Uncle Hugh is the most sceptical bloke you're ever going to meet. So, she's kind of not sure about the spirity bit of us now. Mum doesn't believe in paranormal stuff, she simply thinks that we just don't know enough yet to explain it in scientific terms. She reckons that there's so much more to be discovered - perhaps even the soul? It's easy for me. I believe in God Rex and doggy heaven. In the meantime I live for NOW! xx

French Fancy said...

Live for Now - it's a good motto for life really. We all spend far too much time worrying about tomorrow and regretting yesterday. This moment - that's what is important - it's different from any other moment - to quote the Incredible String Band

Rob-bear said...

I'm a person of faith, who really isn't worried about what comes after life. I'm far more focused on what happens before death.

I've seen people, and heard of people, who died terrible deaths -- protracted and painful. Mostly because others just couldn't or wouldn't let them go. And mostly because of doctors who are not very good at pain management.

And without going overboard about it, it's good for family members to talk about what to do when the end draws near. And maybe having it as a family joke isn't the worst possible outcome.

Silver said...

i think i really was going to say something like ..i am really more afraid to see death happen to people i love or care about rather than to me.. then i saw a comment by Willow.. yeah, pretty much summed that up for me.

Silver
from Reflections/ One Day at a Time

French Fancy said...

Rob-Bear, a lot of wise words there. In this day and age nobody should suffer a painful death.

Silver - It summed it up for me as well - your words and hers