One of the very few reasonably significant things we can say we know with any degree of absolute certainty - about life, I mean - is that it ends. One of the others is that until it ends for you personally, it goes on, no matter what. And the third is that when the end comes, often it will scream with so much poignancy, passion and terror that it will seem as if it’s been engineered by a particularly malicious god, or a particularly heavy-handed, washed-up sit-com writer.
In my fairly limited experience, death and suffering always come mired in layer after layer of suffocatingly cruel irony or coincidence. It’s as if God doesn’t just want us to die, He wants us to die laughing – Him laughing that is, whilst we shake our heads, baffled by the unfairness of it all, incredulous at the bad taste timing. But then, I imagine, there’s probably never a good time to die.
There are a couple of people I know reasonably well who are going through some terrible things at the moment. Things which are pretty much as terrible as it’s possible for things to get. Life and death things. You know the kind of thing. And there are a couple more whom I know only virtually, living through similarly terrifying times.
When I think about these people, I shake my head. I can’t get my head round it. I’m baffled, incredulous and scared.
It isn’t right.
And it’s everywhere. Every which way I turn at the moment, someone has died, or been diagnosed with something scary or been rushed to hospital. It’s like there’s an epidemic of bad news out there and it’s taking all my concentration not to panic or take it personally. What I try very hard to do instead is to force into my head some sense of perspective; I try to use this litany of personal tragedy to reinforce awareness of infinite possibility and actual reality, and to feel gratitude for my own good fortune and determination to make the most of it. Or – if you prefer – I count my blessings. Because of course, as I mentioned yesterday, at the moment I’m the lucky exception that proves the bad news rule. At the moment everything is going swimmingly for me.
Which is precisely why I found myself on the verge of panic earlier today.
It's like, how long can it last?
How many times can a coin turn up heads?
In general, I like to think of myself as realistic rather than particularly pessimistic or cynical. I observe life, and I draw what I like to think of as fairly even-handed, reasonable conclusions. Therefore I am frightened. I am frightened because my observations have led me to conclude that life could not be any more cruel, or any more unlikely, even if it were written by the most world-weary, sensationalist hack imaginable. Therefore, when things start going exceptionally well for someone, I fully expect them to turn on their head and start going exceptionally badly. I expect that lucky someone to come a cropper. Because that’s what would happen in fiction, because fiction is emotional manipulation brought on by unexpected and often cruelly unfair or ironic happenstance, and life is nothing more than live three-dimensional fiction, author unknown.
So I’m paranoid. For the last three days I’ve been getting a pain in my left testicle, increasingly regular, increasingly sharp. I know, I know, I know. I’ve been trying to get it seen to, I honestly have. Along with the pain in my gut which I was complaining about a couple of weeks ago. That too. But I have reasons for not having done it as yet, including work, moving house, new doctor waiting lists and old doctor bizarre appointment systems ruled out by work.
I mention it now because it’s got to such a stage whereby I am pulling out all the stops to get seen. As in pushing back work. I’m scared. It’s painful. I’m paranoid.
And it doesn’t stop there.
Lately when I’m out and about, I’m alert, I’m waiting, watching, expecting the unexpected. I’m paranoid. I know it’s going to come now, because things are going well, and if we know anything about Death, we know that it strives for irony, even irony on a very base level, hardly irony at all in fact, just the worst imaginable luck or nasty poetic injustice.
So I’m ready, and even as I’m knocked into the path of the hurtling full Circle Line train, I compose haunting tributes on your behalf. ‘It just doesn’t seem fair. He was so close to getting everything he ever wanted.’ ‘He was just about to finally show the world what he was made of.’ ‘He was on the very meniscus of excellence. He could have been the next Tommy Steele.’ ‘Life is impossibly cruel.’ ‘Not only was he a great writer, but he was also really good at sex. I was blessed to have known him. In that way.’
Then I drift for a second and drive into the side of a bus or a train in the rain or I step out - distracted by some nonsense playing out in my head, some worry or fear or death scenario, I step out into the path of a taxi, a motorbike or an ambulance. John Lennon’s mum was killed by a drunken policeman. Thousands of people are killed every year by emergency vehicles in a hurry. And sometimes they're not even drunk. Sometimes it's my own fault.
Then I hear the screech, crunch and whistle of cold steel contorting, tearing and exploding at 100 miles an hour. Seconds later I’m torn to pieces myself, my body popped and pasted between concrete, metal and plastic. I never discover whether it’s an arbitrary engineering catastrophe, a single bolt for example, coming loose in the train or the track at exactly the wrong time; or something mucked up in the fabric of society, a single screw for example, coming loose in the head of some loon. It doesn't really matter.
On my way home, late, walking down unfamiliar streets, walking back from an internet café, I am stabbed in the gut, in the heart, in the face, every night without fail. Sometimes there is real irony and the knife cuts out the cancer in my belly, inadvertently saving my life. Sometimes it misses my heart by a millimetre. Sometimes the blade is dragged deep from my crotch to my neck like a giant zip and my insides flop to the floor in a wet heap. Sometimes I stop the blade with seconds to spare and disarm the villain with my lightning reflexes. Sometimes I sit on him till the police turn up. Sometimes I turn the knife and take furious, disproportionate revenge. Sometimes I even go on a rampage myself.
Sometimes, when I’m finally opened up after months of grumbling, the tumour in my belly has spread into my groin. Sometimes it's gone up into my lungs and I’m given six months. Sometimes I arrived just in time and I'm successfully exorcised. Sometimes my pains are passing trifles, niggling innocuous nothings of less than no import. Sometimes they’re stress bubbles, physical manifestations of fear and insecurity. And sometimes they’re self-fulfilling prophecies somewhere down the worried line, tumours within tumours within tumours within tumours...
I have been going mental with this stuff lately. Morag tells me again I will worry myself sick, which is a horrible thing to tell a hypochondriac.
But I’m being seen tomorrow. Finally. The testicle ache has today reached touching point, which is to say I have become a very sombre Michael Jackson, two gloves, surreptitiously checking myself out, giving myself a little squeeze, consoling, it’ll be alright, wincing.
But soon at least, eventually, I’ll know one way or the other, then I can get to work on the fatal freak occurrence fixation. Because I’m beginning to think it isn’t healthy.
But even now I’m not entirely sure. I mean, a certain amount of awareness of how fragile and precarious it all is, of how sheer and frangible is the thread by which we all hang is, I think, definitely a good thing. It encourages you to live more acutely, to appreciate more keenly. I personally also feel naturally drawn to death. Not in a morbid way, I don’t feel. Just in a fascinated, shocked and awed way. But when does that become unhealthy? I don’t know. And that’s part of the reason I wanted to talk about it here. Plus the fact that it’s been weighing on my mind of late. Increasingly.
Like a shadow.
Creeping. Encroaching. Imminent.
I know, I know, but the thing is, other people’s bad luck keeps knocking the stuffing out of me, and although I accept that my life will end, I just don’t want to be taken by surprise by it. I want to see it coming. I want to pre-empt Death, not in order to avoid it, just to show it that I was onto it, that I was intelligent enough to predict it.
Maybe that’s what it comes down to.
I don’t want Death to make a fool of me.
But of course it will. Just like Life.
It’s absolutely everywhere. Just like Life.
It lurks in the dark and leaps out when you least expect it. Just like life. Or else it squats in your peripheries, expressionless, for weeks, months, years. Forever.
Just like Life.
They have a lot in common.
In fact, the only reasonably significant distinction to be made is that unlike Death, Life goes on. Right up until it stops, the fucker goes on.
And Life is never more acutely appreciated, and Death never more acutely feared, than when the latter slips out of your peripheries and into the foreground, edging toward centre-stage, creeping toward the camera. That's when we have to fight. Or as Dylan Thomas put it:
'Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.'
I like that.
If you are sick, or scared or scarred, or just feeling battered by the cruelty of life and death, my thoughts and hopes for the absolute best are with you.