Thursday, 25 August 2011

Death musings #1

By Anonymous

In writing about death, nobody has the upper hand, nobody can claim their experience supersedes yours. We all notch up one in our lifetime, and if we are reading or writing then we haven’t made our score yet. Death is always there in the background: we learn of our own mortality in our youth, and come to believe in it sometime later. Yet I’m not sure I have ever had a meaningful conversation with anybody on the subject.
For me personally, contact with “actual” death has been a rare and distant thing. Yet even those minor abrasions were impactful; have coloured the perception of my life. It is precisely because these encounters would be seen by society as unimportant that I find their impact on me uncomfortable.
When I was 14 my scoutmaster died. He was in his fifties, lived with his mother. Scouting was his passion, and I believe he channelled all his energies into it. His death was sudden and unexpected. He was a kind man, devoted to his scouting troop. I attended the funeral at the church in whose adjacent hall we attended scout meetings. 
What touched me about this occasion? I do remember thinking that he was young, but to a teenager he did not seem unseasonably so. I also remember fleetingly wondering whether he had been lonely. A single man, the funeral heavily emphasised his work as a scouting leader. Yet from my superficial reading he had seemed happy. 
No what touched me most was how awful I and all the other scouts had been. Not awful as in rude or mean, just simply complacent, uninterested. It undermined the narrative of his life. We had used the meetings purely as social occasions, often playing football for the entire hour and a half before reconvening for the closing ceremony. We had wilfully set out to learn nothing from someone whose prime purpose had been to teach us. And this was now a fact, a permanent state of affairs. I felt vaguely guilty, I still do. Yet strangely, I think my scoutmaster rather liked me. I have no idea what rewards he sought from his involvement, what made him the man he was. My response was strange, out of proportion. All I can say is it is how I felt.
It was not until my thirties that I experienced the loss of someone younger than me. Nor can I say that we were especially close. It was my best friend’s brother. Yet now, nearly 10 years after he died, it still has the potential to make me cry.
He died of cancer. He had a malignant teratoma, a tumor the size of a golf ball. They thought he would live. I had visited him in hospital in Hampstead. He was eating fried chicken. He was worried about his Mum worrying. He was bored of computer games. Then he was dead.
Of course that wasn’t the story for those closer to him, who saw him every day. But from my vantage point, that was the timeline.
What resonated, what made it something which impacted my life? My friend barely talked about it, bottled it up. He had recently lost his father too. I assumed he was suffering but it didn’t feel right to encroach. Only in the last year did he allude to how much pain it had caused him to lose a younger brother.
His brother and I were not close. He was stronger and better with women. We shared a satisfaction in goading my friend, and forming an unholy alliance against him. We didn’t really share many views on life, have too much in common. He always had small schemes on the go, better not to ask the precise details. But simply put I liked him, he was straightforward, I could talk to him.
I really can’t put my finger on why I was so sad about his death.  The few times I sought to raise it I backed off, unable to muster any credibility to my claim. Did it drive home the reality of my own mortality? Was it proxy grief for my friend or his mother? Or was it simply the unfairness of being told it wasn’t going to happen? I honestly don’t know; I only know that something hurt.
Why do I feel the need to tell these stories? Certainly not to establish a badge of authenticity, because these experiences are minor compared to those of many others. My point is that everybody is impacted by death in some way, and everybody should feel free to discuss it openly in a warm and caring environment. I’m not sure yet what I am looking for, but I appreciate the existence of an open space in which to explore.

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