We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they are never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place but who will in fact never see the light of day outnumber the sand grains of Sahara. Certainly those unborn ghosts include greater poets than Keats, scientists greater than Newton. We know this because the set of possible people allowed by our DNA so massively outnumbers the set of actual people. In the teeth of these stupefying odds it is you and I, in our ordinariness, that are here.
I lost a good man today. Lung cancer. He’d just turned 44. We’d been friends for half a dozen years, and in that time had bonded over coffee, smokes, music and conversation. His dourness was legendary among my circle of friends; a moaning negativity matched only by his unkempt appearance and slovenly demeanour. He always reminded me of Private Frazer from Dad’s Army. I don’t mean any of that as an insult. Despite his moroseness, I couldn’t help but like him. Being men we never spoke about it directly, but I knew he liked me too. The black cloud that followed him everywhere seemed to lift briefly following his diagnosis. But, of course, by then it was too late. His quality of life diminished with a chastening rapidity.
We found ourselves at odds during last year’s Scottish Referendum campaign, and often clashed furiously. Like several Scots I know, he had given himself over to the cause of Scottish independence with religious conviction. For a while he could speak of nothing else. He often seemed worried that being on opposite sides of this argument was damaging our relationship, but it never felt like that to me. I kept having to reassure him that I liked argument, that I needed to know what other people were thinking in order to know what I was thinking. (If I fell out with everyone I disagreed with politically, I would have no friends.) When I think of my friend, I will always remember the long, intense debates we had on this subject. Nothing could induce me to forget that. It was the fight of his life.
Waves of grief have been washing over me all morning. Relief too. It was the thought of him in pain that really stung. He’s free from that now, hard as it will be to let him go.
He went so quickly I don’t feel like I had a proper chance to say goodbye to him. But do we ever really get that? There is always so much left hanging at the end of every life.
I was having a conversation recently with some other friends, one of whom said he believed his “essence” would go on after he died. I’ve never been able to bring myself to believe that, even as a child. To speak of surviving one’s own death seems illogical to me. The clichés we utter in an attempt to give solace to the bereaved – “he’s gone to a better place” – have always sounded hollow to my ear. Such attempts to euphemise the fact of our mortality may be well intentioned, but they are ultimately futile. Science offers no comfort here, as it has found no ‘essence’ separate from the workings of the body.
The death of a loved one is distressing precisely because it is definitive. It is the full stop at the end of every life sentence. I won’t see my friend again. Ever. He is gone. That is why I tremble. That is why I weep.