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Now I've retired, my thoughts turn to death

Blog | By Anthony Lipmann | Sep 27, 2020

I retired last month, pushed out by my daughter, who decided two managing directors of the family business was one too many.

It happened from one day to the next and the first day I was practically in tears. But I have settled down a bit and am now contemplating death. Of course, by definition I am now a lot closer to the final curtain than when I was in work. But as a fully signed up oldie from my forties, I was always on my own personal death march.

It perhaps comes from living in a family that the rest of the world wanted to exterminate. My mother is a camp survivor, and my father was locked up on arrival to UK and then transported to Australia in 1940.

It makes me wonder how my mother feels – she is 96. Does she watch the clock ticking and count down the seconds, or does she feel just like me? We know the end is near, but the life force gets the better of us.

A week or two ago, mum had just hobbled into the living room on her wheelie-Zimmer and sat down in her chair opposite the telly. When the carer came back in with the coffee mum was rigid. The paramedics were called, and my sister rang me and told me through sniffs what had happened.

Frankly, we thought we’d lost her. But the paramedics gave it a go, tried to put her into some kind of recovery position, and complained how strong and resistant she was. In doing so, they bruised her through the paper-thin skin on her arms. My sister of course was not permitted to go to the hospital but followed anyway, although was not allowed in. Then began two days of telephoning to get wisps of information. Knowing no better, we assumed a stroke or haemorrhage, then finally when we got through to a doctor the news was positive. No issues, no brain damage other than normal atrophy for 96, and a slight pneumonia on one part of the lung which would be treated with anti-biotics. A day later she was dumped back at the house.

Sitting in her chair, trying to tell us what had happened was traumatic. She couldn’t remember anything about getting ill and had woken at hospital where she hallucinated that she was back in the camps and the nurses were vicious camp guards. At these recollections she would crumple and burst into tears. As the days went by, this receded and we have got mum fully back to her old self. She complains about carers, worries about gardeners, has trouble with the phone and is adamant about everything. I have often said that, at 63, I have still never won an argument with her – and time is running out.

But it made me reconsider death yet again. How it looks when the end is near. When young and stupid, I used to think erroneously that if I didn’t hope to win the lottery, then great tragedy would bypass me. Of course, that was an idiot’s theory, proven to be so when my son died of leukaemia at the age of seven and half. The tragedy was not mine but his lost life. It meant the subject of death came home to roost with me, where it has lurked ever since.

A few years after my son’s death in 1999, my Uncle Tig, responsible for the peace signs made out of ceramic for the first Aldermaston March in 1958, also got leukaemia and rang me from hospital, perhaps thinking I might have some insight and be able to provide comfort. At that point he told me he was being sick from both ends, and said to me, ‘I’m not afraid of dying. I just want to wake up dead,’ perhaps consciously echoing the Woody Allen quote ‘I’m not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens’.

Uncle Tig had always described himself as a nervous nelly and had contemplated death from as far back as the early 1950s when he first thought he was on the brink. From his hospital bed, he had decided that for as long as he should live, he would collect all the wisdom in the world via quotations from literature and place them in a book. He was a great lover of lists and for the rest of his life he plundered the great poets and authors bringing their quotations ironically to life in great tomes of 40 self-illustrated books which he called his Life Books or Survival Kit.

They are on my shelf staring at me as I write this – divided into the subjects of Birth, Nature and Man, Living, Love, Own Suffering, Time, Others Death, Own Death. For him, Death was something he prepared for all his life, but it still caught him out. I pick two quotations at random from one of the three ‘Own Death’ volumes:

‘The fear of death is more to be dreaded than death itself’ (Publilius Syrus, 1st Century BC)

I am a scribbled form, drawn with a pen/Upon a parchment, and against this fire /Do I shrink up…’ (Shakespeare, King John Act 5)

Or, to give you an idea of his wry and self-aware temperament, one of his quotes was taken from a London Traffic sign seen in 1970, which only he can have interpreted as an email message from the grim reaper:-

‘Do not enter box, unless your exit is clear’

The box was illustrated as a hand-drawn coffin. I imagine this heartless and tasteless piece might not be manna to compatriot Oldie readers but, as I enter my twilight years at pace, I can’t help thinking it might be uplifting to contemplate the exit and think of it, not so much as an end, but a comfort break.