There have been two high-profile deaths in recent weeks of UK celebrities where the individuals involved have died in very different ways. I’m trying to work out whether I think one way is preferable to the other.
In the first case, Gary Rhodes, a British celebrity chef, died very suddenly in Dubai, where he had business interests. He reportedly died of a subdural haematoma, otherwise known as a bleed on the brain. The point is that one minute everything was completely normal then a couple of hours later he was dead. He was 59. I’m 56.
The second case involves Clive James, a well-known author and broadcaster. He died at the age of 80, nearly a decade after he was diagnosed with incurable leukaemia. He’d expected to die much sooner and, in 2015, he admitted to feeling embarrassed at still being alive.
I used to think that dying suddenly – of natural causes, at a decent age – would by far be the best way to go. Much better, say, than after a long illness where for a long time you have a very poor quality of life. Naively, I only ever considered these two possibilities. The situation in which I now find myself – living with an incurable, life-shortening disease with a prognosis that’s in single figures but currently with a good quality of life – never came into it.
I say naively because, as Dr Leslie Blackhall says in a thoughtful TEDx Talk, a great many of us who are over 40 are going to die of chronic, progressive and incurable illnesses such as metastatic cancer, emphysema, congestive heart failure, cirrhosis or dementia.*
Anyway, what do I think now?
Well, it’s harder to answer than you might think. But I’m starting to think that dying suddenly is no longer as appealing as I once thought.
What my diagnosis of secondary breast cancer has done is allow me to reflect on things in a way that I think is only possible for someone who knows with complete certainty that her or his life is going to be cut short. It’s an incredibly hard piece of knowledge to live with but, over the seven or eight months since I was diagnosed, I have come round to thinking that, in some strange way, it’s something of a privilege.
I am not in any way saying I consider cancer to be a gift. I don’t and I want to be absolutely clear on that. For my family’s and friends’ sakes more than mine, I wish with all my heart that this were not happening. I’d much rather be carrying on oblivious. But I don’t have that option. What I do have is a clarity about life and living that – and I accept I may be wrong here – I wouldn’t think is possible to have under normal circumstances.
The only thing any of us really knows with any certainty is that at some point we’ll die, but it’s the one thing, for obvious reasons, we don’t talk about. I’m not facing anything that the rest of us won’t ultimately face. Among the chaos and sadness that my diagnosis has brought, I find that fact strangely calming.
It is, of course, entirely possible I will outlive some of the normal, healthy people I come across every day in all sorts of different situations. Sudden, unexpected deaths do happen, as we’ve seen with Gary Rhodes – not to mention the recent, awful killings on London Bridge. Also, I may not die of this cancer. Something else entirely could carry me off before that does. There are no guarantees on anything when it comes to life – except that at some point we’ll die. Remembering all these things helps to keep me grounded.
Finally, my diagnosis has given me an outlet for my writing. That’s something for which I have to be grateful. I write for a living but it’s only since getting my initial cancer diagnosis that I’ve written in my own time.
I write but I’m not a poet, and these beautiful words by Clive James just blow me away. They’re the final lines of his poem Event Horizon:
What is it worth, then, this insane last phase
When everything about you goes downhill?
This much: you get to see the cosmos blaze
And feel its grandeur, even against your will,
As it reminds you, just by being there,
That it is here we live, or else nowhere.
“You get to see the cosmos blaze and feel its grandeur.” Isn’t that just magnificent?
For me, the most difficult thing is the uncertainty of it all. But then none of us has any real idea of when our own “last insane phase” will be – or indeed whether we’ll have one at all or whether, like Gary Rhodes, we’ll come to our end unexpectedly and suddenly. With me, we do at least know that it’s highly improbable I’ll be here in ten years’ time, still banging on about my situation and, like Clive James, feeling embarrassed at having survived for so long.
If I am still around though, I’m sure no-one will mind too much.
On that note, Happy Christmas, everyone. Here’s to a 2020 filled with peace, love and adventures!
*I urge you to listen to the TEDx Talk by this palliative care doctor, on Living, dying and the problem with hope. Here’s the link: