Beijing, 11 August 2012
My mother died a few days ago. My brother’s email telling me so didn’t give any details, and a later email from my sister simply said that she had passed away very peacefully; the usual words.
My mother has actually been dead for a while. The person I visited last month was not my mother. She didn’t talk, she didn’t react to my talking, she simply sat there gazing blankly. It was the hollowed-out shell of my mother, a moulted exoskeleton. So the news elicited no grief from me, just a melancholy relief that she had finally been spared the indignity of living on.
Did she die well? I would like to think that she did. I would like to hope that she – a fervent Catholic all her life – managed one last prayer to the Lord her God before her heart finally gave out. But I doubt it; she probably died the way an old, badly tuned car engine sputters out, just a last wheeze and jolt and that was it, in the little room that she occupied in the old person’s home.
I have always had this picture of the generations walking in cohorts towards the final end, one behind the other; rather like regiments marching across No Man’s Land. The generation ahead of mine – my parents and my aunts and uncles – is sadly depleted; only three very elderly aunts remain. Soon even they will be gone, and then there will be no-one between me and the end. Even my cohort is beginning to thin; death has picked off the husband of my sister, a cousin … the pace will pick up in the coming years.
This vision wouldn’t bother me so much if I – like my parents – could believe that death is merely an uncomfortable rite of passage to be endured, because it leads to a greater – and eternal – life. But I cannot. Decades ago, I played Claudius in Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure. As he awaits execution in prison, Claudius meditates on what will come after he dies:
…to die, and go we know not where;
To lie in cold obstruction and to rot;
This sensible warm motion to become
A kneaded clod; and the delighted spirit
To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside
In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice;
To be imprison’d in the viewless winds,
And blown with restless violence round about
The pendant world; or to be worse than worst
Of those that lawless and incertain thoughts
Imagine howling: ’tis too horrible!
The weariest and most loathed worldly life
That age, ache, penury and imprisonment
Can lay on nature is a paradise
To what we fear of death.
At much the same time that I played Claudius I had come to the unalterable conclusion that there was no world beyond ours and I turned away forever from the religion of my forebears. So like Claudius, I am afraid “to lie in cold obstruction and to rot; this sensible warm motion to become a kneaded clod”. And I too feel that “the weariest and most loathed worldly life that age, ache, penury and imprisonment can lay on nature is a paradise to what we fear of death.” But I cannot follow Claudius in his belief of an afterworld, even if his vision is one of terror. I am merely afraid of disappearing forever.