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Grasping universal truths

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Thoughts on death
Diana Athill Writer
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I don't think a lot about it, but I have thought about it. Chiefly, my main thing that has contributed to me not being as worried about death as I might have been, was my mother's death, which I did dread for a long time, because she was very ill. She was 96 when she died, and she had been getting slowly, slowly, more and more obviously… well, I think I… the way I put it in the book was the feeling that death was up there in the attic waiting to come down to do something horrid to her.

And I used to… I spent more time with her in her last two years. I couldn't quite give up my job and go and live with her, but I spent every week, I spent four days with her, three days in London working, four days with her, three days in London working. And therefore, was… I wasn't frightened of her being dead, because she was 96 and she'd had a full life and that was all right, you know? I was pretty scared of the thought that we were soon going to have to go through the process of her dying, which I did dread.

And it turned out that she was amazingly lucky. She had two days that were bad. She was planting a tree… I mean she wasn't planting the tree herself, but her old boy who helped in the garden, she'd gone up to the end of the garden, was showing him where this eucalyptus tree was to be planted. And he looked up and thought there was something wrong, and said, 'Are you all right'? And she said, 'I'm feeling a bit odd. Perhaps I'd better go back to the house.' And he took her back and settled her in her chair and looked at her, and thought, 'Oh dear' and rang the wonderful home-help person who used to come in and see her every morning, who happened, thank God, to be at home. Came around at once, spotted at once that she was going into heart failure, got her to the hospital, little local hospital, rang me up that evening and said, 'I don't think you have to get into the car and come quick, quick, quick, but I think you should come tomorrow morning'.

                         So I got there very early the next morning, and by that time, she was in a bad way. My brother had come, one of her nieces had come, and she was purple in the face, unable to breathe. It was dreadful, dreadful, and one was longing for it be over, really. But this was amazing, because I put my hand on her hand and she opened her eyes and she looked up, and there was a moment where she was sort of groping for it, and her face absolutely lit up. It was as though this smile of recognition had come out. It was like a flame. It was so extraordinary. And it wasn't just me who thought it was, my brother said afterwards what an amazing smile she'd given me. And then a doctor came and gave her an injection, which I suppose was morphine, and she sort of settled down. And she… we found a proper bed for her. She was in the old men's ward, because they hadn't got any other bed to put her in, and all the poor old men were getting a bit agitated with this going on in the corner of the ward. Anyhow, she then was put into a room of her own. And she went to sleep and the nurse said, 'Look, I don't think anything's going to happen tonight, you'd better go and'… she wanted… anyway, her dog had to be fed and things, and so my cousin and I went back to the house and got there again the next morning early, and she was looking fine, sitting up. Pale and tired, but perfectly, sort of, alright, really. And she said, 'Oh darling, could you please brush my hair for me? It does feel so horrible.'

And so I brushed her hair and I went and said to the nurse, 'She's better'. And the nurse said, 'She's feeling much better, but she's very, very poorly, still'. And I knew what she meant. I thought, 'Well, she means that one's not got to expect her to get better'. And I spent that day sitting beside her. My cousin was there, too.

And she slept, and then she had a little talk about this or that, and then she slept. But she was herself, really. She told us where she'd left things on the desk and that sort of thing. She had two moments of being a little bit confused. She thought her dog had come into the room at one point, and… but she was perfectly alright. And then she went to sleep again, and then she woke up, and she said to me, 'Did I tell you that Jack drove me to the nursery to buy that eucalyptus tree last week'? And I said, 'You told me he was going to. Did you have fun?'

And she said, 'It was absolutely divine'. And then she shut her eyes and went to sleep again and she didn't wake up again. Which was such an extraordinary way to go, really, that one was able to think, I mean, that she'd gone away with, thinking in her head, a happy time about this lovely… he told me, too, the old boy who had driven her, that it had been a lovely, lovely drive. Very, very beautiful June day, and she'd chosen which way they would drive, because it was where she used to go riding when she was a girl, and she loved it. And he said, 'Oh yes, she did enjoy it. She had a lovely time on that drive.' And that was terribly encouraging, because it made me realise that you don't have to go through a hellish time when you die. I mean, you're not… I think the older you are, probably, the less likely it is, because I think your heart is more likely to give out quickly.

And then I thought of other deaths in the family, and most of them had been, you know, comparatively easy, I think, as deaths go. There's no terrible story of endless pain and misery. I know death can be perfectly awful for some people, but in our family, we seem to be lucky. So I say to myself, 'Well, with any luck, I'll be lucky'. And I hope for the best and try not to think about it otherwise.

[Q] Do you hope to live a lot longer?

No, I don't. I do not want to live until 100 and all that stuff. I don't want to die tomorrow, certainly not. But if I did, I wouldn't really think it was a terrible disaster, because I've had a goodish long life and I've had a good life. Oddly enough, I've ended up by thinking it was a happy and good life. A successful life, I would even go so far as to say now. So that I think, having got… You know, you can't think much about it, because there's not much to think.

[Q] And what about the idea of extinction itself?

That doesn't worry me, and never has, because if you're extinct, you don't know. So that's that. You're not there, you don't have to worry. That's not something that's ever frightened me. I can't understand why it should. After all, we go to sleep every night, during which time, most of it, one's extinct.

[Q] What sort of things, if anything, do frighten you, or did frighten you?

What sort of things frighten me? I'm not at all brave about any sort of physical pain. I don't like that at all. I don't think I spent much time being frightened, in theory, about anything, really. I have no doubt if the house was on fire or something I should be as frightened as anybody, if not more so.

Born in 1917, Diana Athill is a British literary editor whose publishing career began when she helped André Deutsch establish his company. She has worked with many notable writers, namely Philip Roth, Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Rhys and VS Naipaul. Following the publication of her memoirs, she is now hailed as an author in her own right.

Listeners: Christopher Sykes

Christopher Sykes is a London-based television producer and director who has made a number of documentary films for BBC TV, Channel 4 and PBS.

Tags: death, extinction, sleep, fear

Duration: 9 minutes, 17 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008