I think it was Chateaubriand who said that trying to imagine our own death is like trying to stare into the sun.We can't do it.
Death is the one human experience that we will all go through, but the one that nobody can describe. Nobody has come back from death and said "It feel like this" 'This is what happens". Some do tell us such stories, but the fact they have "come back" means they have not died, and their knowledge is as limited as ours.
In the '90s when I was expecting and expected to die from AIDS, I thought about death a lot.I'd been diagnosed in '87 or '88, I can't quite remember when now.
Nothing really happened to me after diagnosis, years of just going on as before. But then it started, I began to get sick, weak. And as I got sick, I became angry, bitterly furious. My body that engine of pleasure, this sack of meat that is me, no longer did what I wanted.
My body had betrayed me.That's how it felt.
I spent a lot of time in Herne Bay House, a hospice and respite centre for people with HIV and AIDS. I was so weak I couldn't walk the dozen or so steps from room to the kitchen. At times I couldn't make the three or four steps needed to get to the toilet, and shat or pissed myself and the floor.I couldn't breather without an oxygen tank.
I had no energy. I couldn't even read it seemed.
And I was angry,bitter, nasty. So angry in fact, that the management took me aside and told me that my negative attitude was affecting others there, and unless I changed they might be forced to ask me to leave.
It's quite a shock to the system when you consider that an AIDS hospice might ask you to leave because you're being such an obnoxious prick.
So I deliberately changed my attitude.It took some time, and it wasn't easy, but I didn't want to die a nasty, embittered and lonely man.
I decided to focus on how to have a good death. I decided to explore what that meant, and how to prepare myself for it.
I did some serious work with a brilliant psychotherapist who specialised in death and dying issues. I took up Buddhist meditation for a number of years.I studied concepts of death and dying through a sociological lens at University. I even ended up lecturing on the topic.
My death seemed intimate. Not something I welcomed exactly, but something I had come to terms with, something I acknowledged, almost a friend, more than an acquaintance, never a lover.
And then, thanks to Western Medicine, I didn't die. Others did, they kept dying around me, from AIDS. But I didn't.
I have to say that up until recently I do not think I have ever embarked on a project as fulfilling as getting ready to die. Everything else became trivial. Death is the last great event for us all.And it has taken me a long time to accept that I will not, in the near future at least, die from AIDS. It has taken me a long time to trust I have a future.
I'm still here. And now those days and those memories are far away. That sense of wonder and calm I had about my death has gone now. I wonder if all I learnt then will come back to me when my death comes near again. Or will I have to learn it all again?
I know my experience is not a template for others.I only speak for myself.
Now I have found a project even more fulfilling than working towards a good death, and that is love.
To love, to be loved, to hold and to be held, to know and be known.
And in that I know I'm lucky.
If understanding death is like trying to stare into the sun, the loving and being loved is like being wrapped in its warmth, something we can enjoy, can experience, can share our knowledge of and understand. Where death once made my life meaningful, now love does.
I will die, as we all will, but now I live and love. To love well is now the most fulfilling project I can imagine, and to lose that love more terrifying than the idea of death to me.
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