What Do You Believe? (And Will It Save You?)
"What a piece of work is a man!
How noble in reason, how infinite in faculty!
In form and moving how express and admirable!
In action how like an Angel! in apprehension how like a god!
The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals!
And yet to me, what is this quintessence of dust?"
"Hamlet", Act 2, Scene 2, by William Shakespeare.
I am about to write a very personal blog. It's going to be one from the heart, I think. For as I sit here in my comfortable home, my dad is lying in a hospital bed, drugged on morphine, going through the last vestiges of his life. He has advanced lung cancer, among other things, and we were told recently that he has deteriorated somewhat, and that the end can be expected within weeks, perhaps days. Dad himself remains remarkably sanguine, saying at one point that he probably got six extra months life by initially being treated for a problem with his liver, which inadvertently led to the discovery of the tumour on his lung. Had he not gone into hospital then, he protested, he may well be dead already. "So who's crying?", he said. "Not me". Occasionally this stoic acceptance of his fate takes a surreal turn as the drugs kick in and his mental confusion becomes more visible. A few days ago he turned to my mum and I, saying that there were quite a few famous people on the ward, and that Gary Barlow had visited him, brandishing a tin of assorted biscuits - just the sort you get at Christmas!
But while my dad may not be crying and has, as I say, an exceptionally practical attitude towards his own demise, saying often that his years on our green earth have been interesting and eventful and that any time given him now is a bonus, what about those he leaves behind? Me, my mum and brother. My mum is, I feel, trying to put a brave face on, but the mask occasionally slips to reveal someone stressed and sometimes astonished at the vagaries of existence. "I just wish life could have been kinder", she says, and I concur, wanting to cry. Indeed, mum's words seem to me to have a similar emotional impact to that of the lines spoken at the end of Yasujiro Ozu's magnificent film, "Tokyo Story", where one of the character's simply states, "Life is disappointing, isn't it?" My brother is typically laid back but clearly concerned. And as for me, I seem to be bumbling through it all somehow, only occasionally beginning to realise the gravity of dad's predicament. I may be brushing my teeth or watching TV, and the sudden thought will go through my head, "my god, my dad's dying!"
Indeed, it is the finality of the situation which seems so overwhelming. My dad may be here for the next few weeks or days, but soon enough he simply won't be. What we call consciousness will simply vanish into the ether, it seems, never to return. Or will it?
Some take solace in the belief that we don't really die, but that our souls just move on to some different, spectral plane. For some this is heaven, although I can't say that I believe that my dad will soon be sitting on some fluffy cloud, looking down on us benevolently. Indeed, someone once told me that Freud believed that the whole religious concept of an afterlife was born out of man's inability to accept the finality of death. And then, one can, of course, look to the other end of the spectrum and read some Albert Camus, the existentialist writer and philosopher who said that the fact of death makes life absurd. Also, there's the musings of perhaps the greatest melancholic of them all, Shakespeare's Hamlet, who, after his father's murder at the hands of his uncle, speculates that, in the end, no matter how great we may be in life, death is the great equalizer, rendering us into nothing more than food for worms. Add to that the poetry of that great miserabilist, Philip Larkin, who said that all experience was put in perspective by the fact of our mortality, making all things appear equally meaningless, stating that "Hours giving evidence/ Or birth, advance/ On death equally slowly."
But in the end, to me, believing in the pointlessness and futility of existence seems a bit, well, pointless. For, as Jeanette Winterson says in her autobiographical book, "Why be Happy When You Could be Normal?", we are generally meaning-seeking creatures who crave a way of understanding and making sense of things. As one such creature, I try to look on my father's imminent death as not in the least pointless. Death is perhaps what gives life its true significance, the fleeting, ephemeral nature of our existence making our all too short time all the more valuable and important. And indeed, if the way we live and what we leave behind matters, then my dad can, I think, be proud of himself, and go to his rest satisfied. I grew up hearing of his generally unhappy childhood, which seemed to be sorely lacking in affection. Knowing that he leaves behind him not any harm, but only love shared and now remembered, gives me the solace that his was a life well lived.
But, no matter what we believe, it will never save us from our ultimate fate, and if, as Freud suggested, mankind has essentially invented religious beliefs in order to make death more bearable, then surely one man's tranquil and often humorous acceptance of his own passing is worthy of note. Indeed, it is my dad's own such acceptance that will forever stay with me and last, at least until my own sloughing off of this mortal coil, as an enduring example.
Since writing this blog, my dad has passed away. He died on 11th January, peacefully.