My friend D, who had his eighty-second birthday recently, is apprehensive about a visit to see a hospital consultant next month. He thinks he has cancer. A suspicious spot was found on his tongue during a routine dental checkup, and he says it's where he used to have a pipe clenched between his teeth for years and years.
D isn't afraid of death, he says. He's not bothered about oblivion. It's the transition that worries him. He's afraid of suffering and indignity. If it turns out that he does have cancer, he's already imagining the worst case scenario - a horrible, drawn-out, painful illness. He'd like to die in his sleep, he says.
Woody Allen said that he wasn't afraid of death; he just didn't want to be there when it happens. I suppose most people think like that, if they think about it at all.
Another friend, Mary, who died a few years ago, had oral cancer. She contacted me when she'd had the diagnosis to arrange her own funeral and I befriended her. For the next five or six years, I visited her for lunch every couple of months. She was a retired teacher in her eighties, a passionate socialist, very interested in the world inhabited by her grandsons, who'd been travelling and gone to university. She bought herself a computer and taught herself to use it so she could keep in touch with them by email.
After her diagnosis, Mary remained fairly well for about five years. When things started to deteriorate, she travelled to hospital for palliative radiotherapy every weekday for several weeks. This involved a long bus journey, so it was very tiring. They didn't have a bed for her at the time. When she was admitted, Mary remained polite and cheerful, making friends with the staff and the other patients, as though she was a morale-boosting visitor, rather than another very sick patient.
It wasn't the cancer that killed Mary. She had to have a tube inserted in her stomach, to be fed, and the wound became infected. It was the infection that killed her. Never, throughout the whole ordeal, did she complain or express fear. She was dignified and determined to the last. When I conducted her funeral, it was the only time I wept as a celebrant.
D has lived a conventional, unadventurous life. For the last twenty-odd years, since I've known him, he has mostly kept himself to himself. He has no other friends. His family rarely visit him, and he hasn't see his grandchildren since they were babies. He worries so much about things going wrong that he avoids doing anything in the first place.
Mary lived life to the full. She went swimming regularly until a year or two before she died. She played bridge. She went to the local community centre. She had a live-in gentleman-friend (which shocked the Frinton blue-rinse brigade) for several years - she was widowed a long time. She was intensely curious about other people and their lives without being judgemental or intrusive.
As I have said many times, those who are afraid of life are generally more likely to be afraid to die. I hope that D hasn't got cancer, but if he has, that it won't be nearly as bad as he imagines it will be. He is terrified, which is very sad.