Death and the (erstwhile) maiden

I have been musing on mortality.

In the last month both Lemmy and Bowie and, today, Alan Rickman have died and the interwebz have gone into paroxysms of collective grief. On top of that, various people who matter to me, or who matter to the people who matter to me, have recently been diagnosed with either terminal conditions or ones that are incurable and debilitating. My own EDS, a so-called ‘invisible’ illness, is – as I was reminded the other day – only going to get worse as I get older. I’ve had messages and calls from friends who’re at the end of their tether either because of their physical ailments or because of psychological pressures – because let’s not overlook the crippling effects of depression, psychosis, and other forms of mental illness.

We’re all going to hell in a handcart. Life’s a bitch, they say, and then you die. Slowly, painfully, messily.

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I may have told you before that I used to be terrified of death – a fully paid-up member of Thanatophobes R US, in fact. I’d lie awake at night panicking about my forthcoming demise. I remember the first time my own mortality struck me: I was thirteen years old and crocheting an afghan (or ‘granny blanket’ as they were known back then) because I’d liked one I’d seen at a friend’s house. The friend’s afghan had been made by her late grandmother, and it suddenly occurred to me that that blanket I was making might also last longer than I did, a thought that filled me with awe and terror. (It didn’t, by the way – it survived about twenty years before being relegated to a dog blanket and chewed into oblivion.)

Ooh, perhaps I should write a horror story called ‘The Granny Blanket of Death’, because it was at much the same time that the afghan met its end that I got over my fear of dying. As I’ve definitely told you elsewhere, I was diagnosed, after years of torment, with a brain tumour. The pain came in bursts – ten minutes or so of extreme, all-consuming agony some six to ten times a day – and then slowly ebbed away. It was unbearable. I informed various people, including my husband that, if it got worse, I would have to kill myself. I was not suicidal as such – but living with more pain than that would have been untenable. Already by this time, my fear of death was abating, but any self-destruction I contemplated was predicated on an uncertain future and might never have been realized: a frog is said to allow itself to be boiled alive if the temperature of the water is increased gradually enough even though it could easily jump out of the pan before that. Obviously, as I’m writing this, we know I never did take the drastic and yet wholly pragmatic step of topping myself – the brain tumour diagnosis and subsequent excision came before the frog theory could be fully tested.

If I didn’t have the tumour removed, I was told, in addition to the horrendous pain, I could have looked forward to some combination of Blindness, Epilepsy, and Paralysis, followed ultimately by Death – the four horsemen of my own personal apocalypse. If I did have it removed, there was still a slight possibility that the outcome would be the same, but a fifth rider could now enter the race, and his name was Complete Recovery.

In the week leading up to the operation, I somehow eliminated Blindness, Epilepsy, and Paralysis’s mounts from the competition: they were non-starters. This would be a race between Death and the newcomer, Complete Recovery. The bookies were offering prices of 19-1 on Death, with Complete Recovery at odds-on favourite. It seemed like a bet worth placing, but favourites can sometimes be pipped at the post by a rank outsider.

So I came to terms with the possibility that I might not come out of that operating theatre alive. I ‘put my affairs in order’ and told the people who mattered that I loved them. And it was OK. The fear had gone. I really couldn’t see what all the fuss had been about.

When my aunt was 89 she told me that sometimes she, too, lay awake at night, scared to sleep lest she not wake up in the morning. She’s now 95. It is improbable that she will see 96. She knows this and is prepared for it. Her fear has gone too. She probably can’t see what all the fuss has been about, either.

So, as I said, I’ve been musing on mortality – and what I’d like to happen after I’m gone. I’ve always said I’d like to be chopped up and fed to polar bears. I like polar bears. Polar bears are carnivores and don’t get enough to eat. I would make a substantial meal for them. Seems sensible enough to me. OK, OK, it might cost more than my estate will be worth to give them this banquet, or there may be weird legal ramifications. If it’s not a viable idea, it’s not. Medical science can have me if they want me, and if not, get rid of me in the cheapest yet most ecologically friendly way possible. And I certainly don’t want a funeral service and all that standing around looking sombre and wearing black. If people want to have a party and use my death as an excuse for it, then that’s great – and by all means wear black if you enjoy wearing black (I know I do), but wear orange and purple stripes if that’s what you prefer. I have no belief in any afterlife – I’ll just be a lump of rotting meat – so let’s not get sentimental here.

But what about my ‘worldly goods’? It is, of course, perfectly possible the sum total of what I’ll have to leave to my loved ones will be £3.50, in which case – try not to spend it all at once, folks. But let’s say that by some fluke, I find myself a woman of means. What testamentary disposition should be made? I have no close family to leave things to and I don’t much like the idea of everything going to a bunch of distant cousins that I’ve probably never even clapped eyes on. If I were vastly, vastly rich, I’d like to found a university scholarship, preferably in perpetuum – to be eligible, students would have to have a slightly whacky idea and have asked for, and been refused, other funding at least five times. I suppose I could just leave everything to charity but, whilst worthy, that seems a bit… well… dull.

And then it came to me! I’m going to have a tombola!

This is how it’ll work. I will compile a list of people (OK, and charities) that I like. One unfortunate but trustworthy individual from this list will get the job of dividing my things into ten more ‘lots’ than there are people (and charities) on the list, and numbering them. These lots could be an original picture (I’m planning on living long enough for my artwork to be reasonably sought after) or half a dozen used watercolour pencils; a brand new car or a toaster that only works if you put the bread in the right way; a tea caddy containing £50,000 or a pill box containing 20p – all absolutely random. The other people on the list will be invited to come and draw a number out of a hat. Whatever lot that number corresponds to is what they inherit from me. The remaining lots, the left-overs, will go to the poor soul who got lumbered with the task of sorting and numbering everything. No preferential treatment; no dismay that I seem to have favoured X over Y. Everything totally arbitrary. But kinda fun, no?

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