Helpers fail, comforts flee

Charles 1 Comment

I enjoyed this piece by David Nobbs, creator of Reginald Perrin, in yesterday’s Observer. Here are some extracts.

My mother died on 7 August 1995. I didn’t realise, that day, my life had changed … My mother died, as she had lived, unselfishly. After she’d died, my wife Susan and I were just in time for Sunday lunch at my aunt’s. That may sound frivolous, but it was so typical of her I actually believe that some unconscious influence was at work.

She had lived about as happily as it was possible to live in the 20th century, for almost 95 years. She had been ill and in hospital only for the last two weeks. At times, during those two weeks, she had been restless and disturbed, but that Sunday morning she became more and more peaceful. Her breathing began to get slower. She had worried for Wales, and I had no doubt this contributed heavily to her worry lines, but now all those lines disappeared – her face became smooth and she looked young again. Her breathing faded and slowed so imperceptibly it was hard to recognise the moment she actually died.

I can honestly say, on reflection, that witnessing her death took away from me all fear of my death. (Not of my wife’s death. I fear loss dreadfully.)

That doesn’t mean I welcome the ravages of old age. I fight against them. In my 70s I have taken on a fitness trainer and last month I began to tweet! I hope that I will not die in great pain or in an old people’s home. But I no longer fear the moment when I will cease to exist

But the most important thing that happened to me in the wake of my mother’s death wasn’t the strengthening of my feelings against religion. It was the strengthening of my feelings for disbelief. I believe that there are just as many of the “Christian virtues” to be found among the faithless as the faithful…

Loss of faith. It sounds so negative. I didn’t lose faith. I gained faith. Faith in people. I am proud to describe myself as a humanist.

This growing conviction has had quite an effect on my writing – on the novels, at least. I am sometimes described as a comic novelist, but I describe myself simply as a novelist. I write about life, and in life I see much humour and much tragedy, and that is what I write about.

An irony of all this is that if my mother could hear me, could read this, she would be very distressed and would be horrified to think that her death had led me down this road. Well, there it is, it’s what has happened and luckily I believe (know?) that she can’t.

Read the entire article here.

David Nobbs talks about how he is dealing with ‘the ravages of old age.’ I guess that, as we embark on an era when, for most of us, we’ve never had it so old, there will be more and more writers dealing with if and how ageing can be made endurable as physical debility advances and we are deserted by all interest in sex and shopping. A book which has been well reviewed is Jane Miller’s Crazy Age: Thoughts on Being Old. There’s article by her in the Guardian here. The social problems thrown up by an ageing population will become more and more apparent in the next 20 years and I suppose the answers to them are, for the time being, unthinkable. But not for very much longer.

Over on BBC Radio 4 tonight at 8pm there’s a challenging-sounding if uncheerful-sounding  programme, Exit Strategy, by Jenny Cuffe about assisted dying and self-deliverance. The debate over whether we should legalise assisted suicide is not going away. But whilst we flounder over the grey areas of the British legal system, a radical Australian doctor has found a loophole. Because physically helping someone to die is illegal, he is providing information to paying participants on how to die peacefully and painlessly kill themselves … Talking with geriatricians, psychologists, campaigners and elderly people she explores society’s last great taboo: death. She asks why so many people approaching old age are scared of dying. Are they being failed by our care system? Are advances in medicine extending quantity but not quality of life? Or is even discussing assisted suicide for the elderly symptomatic of an ageist society that undervalues the old? Should the ‘I want’ generation be able to make the choice of when we die and have the right to plan our own Exit Strategy?” If you miss it, you can always catch it on the Listen Again.

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13 years ago

Ageing humanists… hmm. I feel like Shel Silverstein in his song, ‘Blues Singer’s Blues’: “What do you do if you’re young and white and Jewish?” Who’d listen if I chipped in my penny-farthing’s worth about getting old? I’m only fifty-eight, I’ve got half a century before my fading voice can be strained to be heard on the matter. But there does seem to me to be a mindset that says ageing is bound to be a drag, just because wrinklies tend to find it so; that you will, not might, be ill, that it will be painful and distressing and… Read more »