It was the 22nd April 2020. It was a Wednesday, typically known as hump day, when I start to lose the will to fight my troubles at work. I made a very bold statement in a group chat. The deaths tolls from the pandemic in UK was on the rise. My well wishers were all expressing their worry about the situation and asking me to stay safe. I assured them “I understand the situation in UK and feel comfortable about what it may mean for me.” “I have lived my life.” is how I signed off.
Many of my friends are doctors and as part of their job they regularly bear witness to the perseverance we humans demonstrate to preserve our mortal bodies. The must have realised how puerile my statement was but were too polite to point out.
There is no doubt that I am naive on this subject but it is also true that I think a lot about death. And as the pandemic took hold of the country the discussions on preparing for death intrigued me.
A retired doctor wrote to the Prime Minister saying that if he were to be badly infected he was ready to die without seeking medical help if the state prepared palliative care at home. I heard him talk on the matter on BBC Radio 4 and greatly admired that even though he was very fit and healthy he was so much aware of the seventy years of his age and the need to prioritise younger people. It was an objective analysis not a sentimental one.
He was not the only one.
Thousands around the country were having similar difficult conversations with their loved ones. What would be best course of action if they were to fall ill? People were calling into radio stations to discuss those plans. And what fascinated me was that often the plans were not merely guided by the health of the protagonist but by the impact that decision would have on the National Health Service or the younger population. I pondered over the level of privilege, security and trust one has to enjoy to have the space for those adult conversations.
One of my colleagues, in a recent video call during the lockdown, mentioned that his mother gave him a life lesson very early on. “You see son – Every body goes to sleep thinking they will wake up the next day. They have big plans. But many people do not wake up.” The moral of the story being- “Do not take life for granted. One day you may not wake up.”
And one night, as I lay awake ruminating about all the things that I have been reading, saying and thinking about death during this pandemic, I identified three very distinct threads of observation.
The first is this business of not waking up. I often imagine my death to be thus. I will eat a good meal with my loved ones, drink some good wine, read a good book, go to sleep and not wake up. And many have admitted that would like to die similarly. Probably that is why we often use the word passing away to describe death.
I recently read a short story by Tarapada Roy, a well known Bengali humorist. The hero of the story craves for some nalen gurer sandesh on his death bed. If you are Bengali you will know what I mean and if you are not just imagine a sweat treat that appeals equally to your taste buds and nostalgia. The dying man, who’s diet has been controlled by his wife through his entire life, is tempted by the sweet smell of the sandesh emanating from the household kitchen. “They are for the mourners not for you.” sanctions his wife. The moral of the story being do not expect your wife to act differently just because you are dying. What got my attention was the description of the the solemn conscious wait for the chariot of death to descend to take him away. Not unlike our wait for a Uber cab that cannot be tracked.
We all want our beloved and ourselves to have a naturally painless peaceful death. But what if it is not? For most people the journey between life and death is a painful one. Not only because we do not want to die but because of the physical suffering we endure from the ailment that ultimately kills us. It pains me to say that sometimes we equate the suffering in death to the morality of the person. “He was such a good person and yet he suffered so much. ” is a statement as common as “She didn’t suffer at all. She was such a good soul.” And I cannot help wonder whether such stigma around suffering before death stops us from having an adult conversation of dignity in death.
Dignity of death is also lost when we refuse to acknowledge a death, honestly record the reason for death and lastly remember the dead. The pandemic has exposed how the state uses all these tools to cover up for its own short comings and corruption. But my musings on those topics is for another day.
The second point is about the necessity of death. Life is precious because of death. We endure life safe in the knowledge that this too shall pass and people will only remember us through our happy pictures on social media. Imagine being trapped in your body and brains for time infinite and without the option to end it. And what is the point of doing away with death if we cannot have eternal youth. With eternal youth comes even greater dilemma – If there is no old how do I know I am young? How do we flaunt the smoothness of our skin if there are no wrinkles to compare to?
The inevitability of death gives us the pleasures of life. Unfortunately there are too many unnecessary deaths. Untimely deaths from hunger, violence, wars and preventable diseases. In most cases the root cause is the same. The propensity of a few humans to desire power and pleasure at the cost of human suffering. And this is what we have been fighting against since the beginning of civilisation.
The third is our ability to negotiate the uncertainty of death. We train our brains to accept that death will happen someday but that day is far ahead in the future. In my case it is about 20 to 30 years from any present day. When I was in my twenties dying at fifty seemed highly reasonable and the most respectable thing to do. My goal post has shifted since. If we tried to live knowing that death can pounce any moment could we really go to work, plan for retirement or even have a good fight with our parents or partners? Conversely I sometimes try to convince myself that death may be round the corner in order to garner the courage to speak truth to power.
What the pandemic has taught me is that it is equally important not to deny the possibility of imminent death. If we are in denial when death is a very viable outcome then we lose the chance to say good bye. I heard the story of a young man who’s mother fell ill on the same day as Prime Minster. He spoke to his mother over Facetime just before she was on her way to ICU. That was the process followed in English hospitals based on the scientific data that chances of patients going into ICU/ventilator was 50:50. When narrating that conversation the young man said that they both knew that it was probably their last conversation and yet they both put up a pretence of “Stay strong and talk to you on the other side.” The young man said all he wanted to do was to thank his mother for being such a wonderful mom. What did his mother want to say – we will never know. According to the son she probably wanted to talk about being scared of dying alone. But that very British “grace under fire” spirit stopped them from having that goodbye. Sometimes we have to be weak to do the right thing.
Dearest Reader you have done well to come this far. Have I written everything that I wanted to write about my meditations on death? No I have not as there are deeper thoughts that I need to find the language to articulate. I would like to sign off by saying that I am cognisant of the luxury that allows me to think these things through. Millions do not have that privilege.
And if you are wondering what is this piece doing in a food blog I would say these are desperate times and food for thought is as important, if not more, to nourish our well fed lives.