The other night I met up with a busy professional now in his mid-fifties, who has worked with my family for many years, to discuss ‘stuff’. The subject of mortality came up and it led to a fascinating passage of conversation.
You know the sort of thing.
We began with the randomness of life and longevity. Some can smoke and drink like fish – well fish don’t smoke, but you know what I mean – and live to 100 whilst a non-smoker and/or non-drinker can succumb to either lung or liver cancer (or similar) way before whatever age one might have suggested was ‘their time’.
My companion had known a much-decorated WW2 hero who had lived to a ripe old age. The last time he had seen said gent, three months before he died, the poor chap was a fragile bag of bones in a nursing home and afterwards he (the speaker) had been left ruminating upon the theme that ‘it didn’t oughta end like this’.
Other issues came into it.
Humans tend to live day to day as they’re immortal even though they (intellectually) they know they’re not.
We all act as if we’re 18 inside – okay, well 38 if you’re as old as I am – and then marvel at, or more likely spend our time deriding, those in the public eye who seem to act as if they’re still youngsters when they’re older (or even sometimes younger) than we are.
I saw my accountant at the turn of the year in order to finalise my income tax return for the year before.
When I asked how he was keeping, he said he was fine, save for the fact, that whenever he posed for a group photo at family functions, when he was shown the results afterwards somehow there was always some fat, grey-haired, balding old geezer sitting in his place!
If everyone knew in advance the date of their demise there’d be many more being adventurous and living by the notion ‘carpe diem’. (Or would there – who knows?).
I’m setting off on my first WW2 battlefield tour this weekend. Any such expedition cannot fail to prompt poignant thoughts about the thousands of young men now lying in the well-kept cemeteries one visits whose lives never got beyond their early twenties or even teenage-hood.
How did they approach the occasions they went on active service? No doubt they confronted the possibility that they might never come back or, if they were lucky enough to return, that they might do so with life-changing disabilities. Apart from anything else, of course, they were obliged to write the ‘final letters’ to their families that would be opened in the event of their death.
[Here I should add the qualification that there’s an inevitable distinction between those men and women who join the military as a career choice and those that – whether in war or peace time – are conscripted and/or had to do national service. In making their choice, the former are accepting death and/or disability as an attendant occupational hazard.]
I’m not so sure about that.
Although even in wartime nobody sets out wishing to die there’s a fine line in theory between ‘accepting the possibility’ and actually expecting something to happen and my guess is that many operate somewhere within that gap.
Why else would young soldiers volunteer to join the WW2 commandos, or the SAS today? By definition they were – or are today – being sent on the most hazardous of operations. They must have confronted the realities of mortality and come to terms with it.
I’d guess that whenever a military person arrives in a theatre of war considerations such as taking the attitude that, for good or ill, ‘It’s them or us’ towards the enemy and perhaps ‘Better to live fast and die young is better than live into a far off old age ending in a semi-vegetative state, attached to drips and dressed in incontinency pads’.
Wing Commander Guy Gibson VC, DSO and bar, DFC and bar, was 24 when he led the Dam Busters raid and 26 when killed, having battled with the authorities to get back to active service after a period spent as a propaganda superstar touring the Allied countries which he hated.
If he could be asked, would he say he was perfectly happy at the way things turned out, or alternatively – if he could have his time again – would he do anything differently? These are perhaps non-questions, or indeed irrelevant. What happened, happened.
Back in the modern world, my companion has a thrusting, pressurised, job involving long hours and much travelling and loves it “because I’m that sort of person” but also acknowledged the stresses involved.
He also spoke of the ‘difficult’ ages between 47 and 55 between which the general lifestyle of his profession (and those like it) takes its toll. Three close colleagues had ‘departed’ in the last six months, two to heart attacks and one to a serious stroke.
Travelling home by bus after our drink, I contemplated my plans for yet another weekend of armchair sports-watching on television and decided that maybe it was time for a change.
Or maybe, perhaps, a time for a period of just thinking about it.