Thursday, February 19, 2009
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'..