Returning from a few days away this week, I learnt of the death of an old friend from my trade union days. The revelation came via the dead hand of Facebook. A timely reminder that for all its faux intimacy, social media is brutally impersonal. It connects us for sure, but in ways we have very little control over. Which of us wouldn’t want to hear of the death of a friend from another if we could?
I hadn’t seen my friend for a couple of years and our paths had crossed very little for the last 20. But during my twenties, he was my mentor and champion, a role he performed generously, unsolicited. Barely a week would go by without him giving me a lift home from yet another meeting. And always, as I left the car, a nod and a word of advice and encouragement.
By the time he died, we were at opposite ends of the country and poles apart politically. But with his passing two thoughts overshadowed all others. Whatever our differences he was always kind and he was, for a time, a formative figure in my life. And with those thoughts another. I owe him more than I ever stopped to think, let alone say, when he was alive. And now I can’t.
That’s surely one of the hardest things about death. Its finality stops relationships in their tracks. There can be no more reciprocity. No more reckoning. Whatever it was we wanted to say, the moment has passed us by. What we had is done. There is a doneness about death which is quite undoable.
My old friend’s death is the latest in a series of recent encounters. With age, death looms larger and becomes more familiar. No longer the preserve of obituary columns and elderly relatives, it increasingly gets up close and personal. Its losses come nearer to home. Try as we might, we can’t avoid them.
I’ve been banging on about death quite a lot for the last few years. At the Edinburgh Book Festival earlier this year I made it my business to go to events where death was on the agenda. Yet my interest isn’t morbid. It’s very much about the here and now. What better prism to understanding the value of being here, than facing up to not being here?
How often do we hear someone say that we only get one chance, that life is precious? No more poignantly so than when someone is facing life-threatening illness, consciously eking out every joyous moment. It’s death that drives us, just as much as life. We embrace one and eschew the other but they are inseparable. 'Death', as the American poet, Mark Doty remarks in his memoir Heaven’s Coast, 'is what makes love possible.'
Death is a place we all have to go sooner or later. When your time’s up and all that. But we tiptoe around in its shadow. What else that is so utterly commonplace, are we quite so afraid of referring to in common parlance? Yet there is so much to be gained from naming it. The chance to say stuff, to show we care, to acknowledge what someone means to us. To lay old ghosts and doubts to rest.
My friend was to be 70 next year. Every now and again I had pondered if that might provide a moment to see him again. Why did I wait? I was well aware he wasn’t a picture of health and that he was older than me. So why did I assume he would just be around in perpetuity. We dilly-dally, unwittingly, until it’s too late. There are no last words, but there are things worth saying. And if they’re worth saying next year, they’re worth saying now. We’re a long time dead.
A word of warning. Death may be something we become more accustomed to but the death of those we love isn’t, in my experience, something we become more at ease with. It gets harder. Each loss brings memories of previous losses. With each passing old wounds are opened. Loss is cumulative. I know. I’ve avoided the dying because death is so painful. I wish I hadn’t.
Skirting the subject provides temporary relief. But it stores up trouble. It changes none of death’s home truths. It only gives us cause for more regret. We should remember the living while we can. And remember the dead when we can. Death isn’t as Henry James suggested, ‘distinguished.’ It doesn’t become us. But it does come for us. And those we love.
So best not to prevaricate about saying goodbye. Far better to get on with saying hello. It doesn't have to be a death cafe. Any old cafe will do. Time's ticking on.