Thursday, 17 September 2009

The harsh reality of life

Death worries me. It always has done, ever since I was 19 when I realised, or rather twigged on to the fact, that I wasn't going to live forever and that one day I will die. It's best not to think about it too much, I guess, otherwise what is the point of living? And that, of course, is the big question that philosophers and theologians have been trying to answer ever since they were born. As yet, nobody really has an answer to the meaning of life, prompting the question: does there have to be a meaning?

The Earth is a tiny ball in the middle of nowhere and it doesn't look as if there is any sign of life elsewhere, certainly not in our solar system, but arguably not anywhere else either. That said, I hope that the human race is not THAT arrogant to assume that it is alone and that nowhere else in the galaxy there are other living beings. I used to think that somewhere else, somewhere millions of light years away, there were other 'humans', the same as us, either more or less advanced than we are; in other words, humans living in, say, the 16th Century or the 34th Century but on another Earth, millions of light years from our Earth. Even now, as I write this, there are other beings working in offices or whatever, doing the same mundane things that we are doing and equally as unaware of our existence and we are of their's.

But whether there are alien life forms on other planets light years from earth is one thing, whether there is life after death is another and while I would like to think that there is such as thing as Heaven, science and Darwinism says no: we live, we die, that's the end of it. But in the same way that I am constantly wondering what contains space, ie does it have an end and if something does contain space, what contains the container and so on, I wonder about life after death and the whole notion of eternity.

Eternity and infinity run along on parallel tracks, the former to do with time and the latter to do with distance. In many ways, time and distance are good bedfellows and cannot live without one another. When you think about it, a road, say, is merely a measurement of how long it takes to get from one end of it to the other; if there was no such thing as time there would be no road.

Both eternity and infinity are hard concepts to grasp. The whole notion of there being no end so that when you die you're dead, you're not coming back, not tomorrow, not next week and not next year is very hard. Think about it too much and it will drive you mad. Similarly infinity.

I used to comfort myself by imagining that life was really a big reality TV show where, when you die, you 'wake up' in the Green Room of some television studio, having your make-up put on ready for a chat with Davina and a VT run-through of your 'best bits'. Where you go after the show I don't know, perhaps then you die and it's all just as scary as it was anyway. Years ago, I remember watching the original Star Trek just for the end credits when they showed stills of the episode you had been watching and I started thinking that life after death was a bit like that, still scenes of your life from birth the the Star Trek theme music playing in the background. Again, I never dealt with the bit after the credits had ended.

Why am I writing this rather morbid article? A week ago today (September 12 2009) by father-in-law woke up as normal, got dressed and went for his walk to pick up the Saturday papers. He'd been walking early in the morning regularly since a heart bypass operation in 1988 and, all things considered, he's been doing very well, no real set-backs and if you met him in the street you wouldn't guess that he'd even had a heart problem. Life went on and we all generally forgot about the operation apart from reminding him here and there not to eat fatty foods.

Earlier this year he had an operation, which, at 76, was a little risky and after a few complications, things levelled out, he resumed his morning walks again and things got back on a relatively even keel. Until last Saturday when he returned from his walk, took his blood pressure, found it was dangerously high and then collapsed upstairs in his bedroom. It was later confirmed that he suffered a heart attack. He lost valuable minutes of oxygen and when he was finally resuscitated in the ambulance on the way to the hospital he had what doctors later confirmed to be significant brain damage.

Last Sunday the doctors said there was no hope. He was given the last rites. My wife, her brother and her mother stayed overnight at the hospital expecting the worst but nothing happened, the machines that had been keeping him going had been switched off and he was battling for his life on his own steam. The doctors said it was unprecedented, that somebody with significant brain damage and in his condition should still be alive, but he was, albeit in an unconscious state. He even attempted to open his eyes when his wife called his name.

I had been down to the hospital to see him on that Sunday night. The image has remained with me as has the general sadness surrounding the situation: a man literally on the edge of time itself with his family by his side, tubes running in to his mouth and a range of machines behind him keeping him alive. Everyone thought it would be all over that night, but it wasn't; he was still going strong the next morning without the support of most of the machines behind him and that was how things remained all week.

For a while there was hope. Perhaps he could come out of this, but what sort of life would he have? Brain damage meant he would not recognise anybody or anything, he would be deaf, dumb and blind to the outside world. On Friday – yesterday afternoon – my wife was told that there was little else the hospital could do. It had become a waiting game and they would call when it was time.

As I write this, at 1653hrs on Saturday 19 September, my wife, her mother and brother are back at the hospital, waiting. Doubtless when I next see them he will be gone, he would have left this world never to return again. Whether or not he's gone to that Green Room and whether or not he's sitting there watching a re-run of his 'best bits', I don't know. Nobody has ever returned to explain what happens next.

The whole experience of bereavment is something a lot of people go through every day. We are not unique, I am not unique in my feelings.

As I sit here now, awaiting some news, I look around me at everyday objects: table lamps, printers, tea cups, books, the garden, the telephone. Mundane, everyday objects which no longer apply, no longer have any meaning to my father-in-law and it doesn't make sense how one minute all these mundane objects have meaning – lawn mowers, cars, lottery tickets, televisions – and then they don't, they mean nothing. Nothing has any meaning, leading me and, I'm sure, many other people to ponder the point. What is the point? Everything seems so futile and pointless and yet it is all we know, there is no alternative.

I've always been of the belief that we don't really grow up until both of our parents are dead and we no longer have anybody to call mum or dad, we are no longer somebody's kid but we've probably got kids of our own. Once both parents gone, I guess we do 'grow up' and that huge, rusty old rachet in the sky cranks round into the next notch, signalling that we are the next in line.

There probably isn't any point to living and dying, it just happens, it's the way of the world and we just have to get used to it; as I say, there is nothing else. Religion keeps some of us on the straight and narrow and believing that there is more; the atheists among us brave it out but probably secretly hope there is more too. There's no point in even being cowardly about all this because it's inevitable, God given, the truth, the final reality. And then there is Pascal's Wager – that you might as well believe in God because if there is a heaven you won't be going there if you're a disbeliever, something like that. Why take the risk?

I'm always amazed at how everybody goes about their lives seemingly without a care, watching sitcoms, going to work, surfing the net, buying groceries. I'm often stunned that we accept it all so calmly, but how the hell should we behave?

Today I've learned two things: one, that there is absolutely no point in fretting about anything as life literally is too short; two, that the best way to live your life is to be calm and go out of your way to make others calm too, just like my wife's father did. He was special, everyone is special, but he had an extra special quality. He died around a quarter past six this evening, his immediate family all present. In that sense he was a very lucky man.