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My 90th birthday

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My brother's death
Diana Athill Writer
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My poor old brother died not very long ago, and he… he didn't want to die at all. I don't think for a moment that he was frightened of dying, but he just loved his life. He had made himself, cleverly, really, exactly the life he liked. He was living on the edge of the North Sea, he was teaching people sailing. At one time, he was growing oysters. He was mucking about with boats to his heart's content, in this lovely place near Blakeney on the Norfolk coast. And he simply loved it. It's where he would have chosen to live, and so he lived there. And he'd found a wife who exactly liked his kind of life, too. And their children loved coming back to them, because they loved the place, too. He was really a very happy man. And so when he began to pack up, he resented it. He had begun to go off his food for quite a long time, and Mary had been… his wife had been worried about not being able to persuade him to eat. He would come in exhausted, and sit down and start eating and fall asleep. And she was getting worried about that, and it was an obvious sign that he was pretty old. He was in his 80s, coming into his 80s. And so there came a time when it was worse than that. He began to feel terribly cold. I remember going to see him, really, just before he died and he was ice cold. His circulation had gone, of course, and he was miserable. And we said to him to go up and have a hot bath, and then he felt better. But when I said goodbye to him that time, went upstairs and said goodbye to him, he gave me a look and we sort of nodded. We sort of recognised that this was probably… he knew that he was, in fact, dying, or going to be dying soon. And it then got… it was quite quick, but it got bad enough for Mary to feel that he had to go into hospital, and she's kicked herself ever since for putting him in hospital.

He was only in for five days, and I think that it wasn't really… it was quite a nice hospital and everything, but he bitterly hated being in hospital. He wanted to be home. He wanted to be home. He wanted to still be alive and kicking. He had… by that time, I suppose, they were putting him on drugs. He had, sort of, he said what he couldn't bear was he was losing control. He would have illusions. He didn't know where he was. He saw things that weren't there. But they were quite nice things. He saw ducks flying over everything. He saw a weasel on his bed once. But he was resenting the fact that he wasn't at home doing what he wanted to do, rather than that he was in hospital. And then, fortunately, when he did die, he died very simply. She was there, having… sitting there watching, helping him have his lunch. And I think she went out of the room for a moment, came back and looked at him, and thought, 'Oh, what's happened', and called the nurse, and he was dead. So that his actual dying was extremely simple and plain. But what he had resented was losing his life, because he loved his life so much.

Well, I think in a way, that is a very lucky thing. I mean, anyone who likes one's life so much, when one's in their 80s, is lucky, really. One has to pay for it by hating losing it, but… I mean, I would be glad to have a little bad time if I liked my life as much as Andrew was liking his.

When I think of death, it's not that I'm frightened of the death. It is that I am rather sad to think of losing life. I do like life, in spite of how awful it is, really, in so many ways. I mean, you know, in a general way, rather than individually.

[Q] Is it?

Oh, all this awful global warming and everything and the wars and cruelties and... I'm sure, if you really think about it, it's pretty dreadful. I mean, look, look at Iraq. Endless, endless… And look at Africa, look at the awful things people do to themselves and, you know, other people. I think it is pretty cruel and awful, but on the other hand, I can't help feeling that it's also very beautiful.

[Q] Do you have a sort of secret? I mean, you seem to have achieved, you know that [unclear], or being at peace with yourself, and let's say, for want of a better word, happy. Do you have a sort of secret for how you've done this?

No. I think it's purely genetic. I think that either you're a positive person or you're a negative person. I mean, optimistic or pessimistic. There was this wonderful old lady who's 103, who was interviewed not long ago in the Guardian, who'd had a most terrible life, really, in that she'd lost… she was Jewish, she'd lost her husband when they were in Theresienstadt, and he was taken out of that camp and murdered. She made it through to the end of the war. When she got home with her little boy, there was nobody there. Left. All her family had gone. And she went and brought up her little boy in Israel, and he grew up and became a doctor and brought her to England, and she lost him when he was 60-something. And there she was, a solitary old lady, living in North London after being through all this, and she still said, 'Life is very beautiful, and the older you get, the more you know how beautiful it is'. She still played… she'd been a very good pianist. She still plays the piano for three hours every day. And then she said something about how she had a sister, who was always very pessimistic. But you see, the sister was born pessimistic, she was born optimistic. She came through all these things and was still able to feel, not just to say, to feel, that life is very beautiful. And that she was grateful for it. And this is, I think, purely genetic. I mean, you just happened to be like that. And I think I, genetically, am a cheerful person, really. My father was, rather. My mother was. I mean, the family, on the whole, go in for cheerfulness.

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: Blakeney, Norfolk, Guardian

Duration: 7 minutes, 32 seconds

Date story recorded: January 2008

Date story went live: 23 December 2008