One night of extraordinary beauty up the Essequibo, I sat by the river’s edge with the forest trees entangled with stars at my back and watched a giant moon, shining through the smoke of wood-fires, rise fiery red across the great river. It was one of those occasions when the smallness and transience of an individual life becomes very real. For hours as the moon rose and slipped overhead towards the cliff of forest trees behind me, I thought of my father, whose life was long as lives go but brief as a dream as all lives are.
What I have written about my father, though important to me, is of no interest in a newspaper column. Still, we all have parents and what happens as they grow old is a universal experience which is worth writing about in public form. In thinking about my father I thought about life’s last passage, which brings such sadness but which we cannot avoid as we ourselves grow old.
When I was young, life’s last days seemed infinitely distant. It was more than that. The parents I loved so much, on whom I so routinely depended, also seemed eternal. Within some magic circle, they were as safe as I was for as long as I could contemplate and that seemed long indeed. That was just yesterday it seems. But my father grew old and died and I knew then I had entered the time of life’s last passages.
Seeing the very old you love grow frail and uncertain towards an end you know will soon come brings home like nothing else the sadness of time that passes so quickly we never seem quite to grasp it. It seems not so long ago they were your strong, young parents and now they are old and weak and that brings home with an insentient force the transience of life. It suddenly shakes the heart to realize with fearful certainty that what seems to be the permanence of our daily lives, our eternity of recurring routines, are a complete illusion. You suddenly know, if you never knew it well before, that on your own deathbed you will murmur, “It was all a dream.”
One sadness which comes with watching old, old age come to those we love is the realization that there comes a time when life, which seems so sweet, is not worth living and death is good. Guilt comes in thinking this of anyone we deeply love but the thought comes to most of us, sooner or later, and it brings the shadow of sadness to the rest of life. When my father was very old and dying, I was reading a memoir by the poet Blake Morrison, “And When Did You Last See Your Father?” in which he tells of the stages of his father’s dying and describes his incalculable grief. The telling brought me to tears. I was being told so clearly what in my own life I was feeling so confusedly. It is the art of great writing to do that. “I felt as if an iron plate had come down through the middle of me, as if I was locked inside the blackness of myself. I thought that to see my father dying might remove my fear of death and so it did. I hadn’t reckoned on it making death seem preferable to life.”
To see the very old you love slipping towards death brings vivid memories of their past strength, how much you depended on their strength and care, and how you took that certainty of their love and support for granted. When parents die, then, in a sense, however many others you love remain, you are alone in a way you have never been before. I know of a man, powerful head of a big company, who after his mother died would wake up at night wanting to call out to her. I know how he must have felt. Who does not still in the recesses of the mind’s memory recall how safe it seemed when your mother or father came at night when as a child you called out in fear. Nobody gives quite the same unconditional love as parents do.
In the Kaddish, the Jewish prayer for the dead, there is a passage which is one of the most clear-sighted, and saddest, in all the books I have read: “A final separation awaits every relationship, no matter how tender. Someday we shall have to drop every object to which our hands now cling.” As we embrace a beloved wife or husband, as we take our children or grandchildren in our arms, as the best of our friends meet with us, the bitter truth of the Kaddish is a distant companion. But for most of us the truth first becomes absolutely real when our parents die and leave us as if they had never been.