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My oldest friend has died. Daniel Aaron was 103, and I was beginning to think him immortal. I wasn’t the only one. He once told us on his return from a visit to China that the people there had seemed to think he was “some kind of god.” He was, in fact, a teacher of American Studies at Smith College and then at Harvard, and the author of several books about the American Left. More than 50 years ago he was watching a football match on the other side of London with my husband when I got news that my father-in-law had died. It was the closest I’d ever been to a death, and I remember Dan reminding me that I’d just have to get used to it. Both his parents had died by the time he was 10, and he’d become used to it. He was well over 100 when we last spoke on Skype.
Perhaps we all need reminding quite often that we’re not immortal. Most of our lives we’ve watched older generations who were clearly, as Gabriel in James Joyce’s wonderful story “The Dead” politely puts it, “on the wane” (though he is thinking privately that his venerable aunts were “two ignorant old women”). Oliver Sacks, the neurologist and author of — among many other books— the wonderful (if inaccurately titled) The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, was ill and about to be 80 when he wrote, “I can hardly believe it. I often feel that life is about to begin, only to realize it is almost over.”
Sacks completed his memoir On the Move during those last years, and I’ve been reading it alongside his small book Gratitude, which consists of four essays written rapidly and in energetic response to his knowledge that he really was dying. We were each given a copy of it at Sacks’ memorial. Then there’s Jenny Diski’s In Gratitude, published first in instalments in the London Review of Books and now as a book. She, too, wrote as she was dying and remembering, with grudging acceptance, a rebellious life brought to a sudden halt by illness.
I read these testimonies with interest, as I should at 83, but almost as though they had nothing to do with me. So that when Sacks writes, “My generation is on the way out,” my instinct is to deny it. How could we be? We were young so recently and then we were just ordinary grown-ups for a bit. Are we really “over the hill”? And anyway, can the next lot really be lined up and ready to take over from us?
But my friends and relations keep on dying. Some are recalled in obituaries that wrap them in such affection and admiration you can only hope they got a decent taste of it all before they were dead. Some of them had no time to spell out their gratitude or its opposite. Perhaps we’d all like a chance to say how our lives panned out right up to the very end, including these last ragged months and years. Obituaries and biographies and eulogies undertake to give shape and meaning to a life, which may have seemed hapless and meaningless to the person who was living it. I suppose people hope that the bad bits, the boring bits, and perhaps some of the contradictions, will be left out of any post-mortem account.
Isn’t it paradoxical that on the one occasion when a life might be considered as a whole, as it altered with time, with its pleasures and its failures, its highs and its lows, we’re not there to comment? That at the very moment when our lives end and are over and complete, we should have so little control over their description and evaluation? Shouldn’t we be there, giving the final assessment?
There’s been an extraordinary efflorescence of celebrity deaths and obituaries recently. The BBC News often starts with them. Each famous person is, in his or her own delightful and remarkable way, a genius, irreplaceable, a loss that will never be filled. You won’t have heard of some of our geniuses — Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, Ronnie Corbett, Arnold Wesker, Anita Brookner — but there are plenty we share: David Bowie, for instance, and Prince, though I have to admit to knowing nothing about their music. If Dan could hear me now I’d assure him that I have got used to the idea of death at last, though I’m disappointed that he, of all people, has succumbed to mortality.
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