Here are six double digits of which the surviving members of my family are particularly conscious : 84, 83, 82, 76, 74, 67. Contrary to standard predictions, my father outlived my mother; he died at 84, she at 76. My eldest sister died at 83 and my three brothers at 82, 74 and 67. Apart from the lowest figure which is the life-span of my eldest brother who died of Alzheimer’s, one could say that all of the others lived respectably long lives.
I am about to celebrate (?) my 80th birthday. Very few people aged forty or even fifty bother to estimate how long they have left to live. Younger adults never do (although today, with worries about retirement . . .). But my family history would indicate that though up till five years ago I may have had a life-expectancy in double digits, I am more than likely, at present, not only to have that reduced to single digits, but to a figure as low as 3 or 4 years at best.
I suppose I am not supposed to talk about all this. It sounds pessimistic, if not suicidal, or at least scary. But for me, it is none of these. Four-score is already three above the current family average (I am one of three surviving siblings) , and I feel it would be normal for me not to have even one more birthday. I could, of course, make the headlines, like the American actor Kirk Douglas who recently turned 100, or that incredible little Frenchman still competing in bicycle races against the clock at age 105 ! Odds are, though, that double digits, like my future, are behind me.
Death is inevitable and therefore normal, but is, more often than not, experienced as unacceptable – at least when one is young. 80 is not young, and if I die tomorrow, my death, though unexpected, would not be considered abnormally, tragically premature. For most people it is something however they would prefer to postpone – indefinitely.
We are not taught to die. Even if we have read what wise men have said about it, it remains a totally individual, personal experience. I consider myself lucky in that not only do I accept with a certain serenity the inevitable event whenever it happens – 24 hours, five or perhaps fifteen years from now – but different from billions of others, I have no expectations, hopeful or fearful, concerning a supposed life after death. I do hope my dying will not be painful, drawn-out for me, or distressing for loved ones. But, contrary to the conviction and faith which religious education gave me, I have no illusions about the myth of an afterlife. This is, without doubt, the greatest benefit of atheism.
I am writing and recording this with the hope that others, especially my family and friends, will, when the time comes, celebrate my life rather than mourn my death. “Que serà, serà” – for me and for them. May they enjoy the life ahead of them, however long or short, as I have. Watch this space : I may be offering further reflections on this topic ten or more years from now. I’ve always liked double digits.