Paul Vallely: The present is a gift to unwrap every day

In modern society we are so little exposed to death that we rush headlong into the future, forgetting that it holds our demise


I watched three people die last week. In the long hours of visiting a relative in hospital you notice what is going on in the adjoining beds. You try not to intrude. But some things you cannot help but see. There was great drama on a couple of occasions, with a long continuous beep summoning a sprinting crash team of a dozen doctors and nurses. But it was not the Casualty-style melodrama that took them away.

Dot over in the corner was the first to go. She was already very ill when I first saw her, an old woman in her eighties, never rising from her bed, but constantly reaching out to press the button to summon the nurses. Yet when the final moment came Dot left the buzzer untouched. She emitted a gurgle and expired.

In the bed opposite was a woman in her nineties called Vera. Her bed was surrounded by visitors who moved through concern to alarm to distress as the days passed. On the last day they were distraught, weeping and sobbing, but Vera lay in her fluffy pink dressing gown on the bed, seemingly oblivious to their tears, as if she did not want to die so surrounded by sadness. Or perhaps it was something else.

Peggy gave the clue to that. For the fortnight before, she had seemed mainly only to sleep. But when the occasional visitor came, she sat up and answered their questions politely but without much engagement. When you get home, they said. But she did not want to go home. She was 94 and lived alone. There was no one to go home to. She liked the gruelly hospital food she said, but she ate less and less of it. Finally she began to refuse the medicine.

For the final days, Peggy lay curled with her head on a pillow resting on the side bars of the bed. She moaned constantly, a low mournful haunting sound, one hand slowly moving along her other arm, stroking herself, as if sound and action brought some small rocking comfort in her isolation. No one came to visit, and she did not respond to the ministrations of strangers.

You are never more alone than the moment you die. And that is true whether you are unattended or in the company of those who love you. You slip across that final bourn, a solitary lonely traveller. None can accompany you to the undiscovered country.

So it was odd at the end of this slightly numbing week to pick up The Guardian and read a spare but moving interview by Simon Hattenstone with Philip Gould, the one-time New Labour strategist who, at the age of 61, has just been told that his cancer of the oesophagus has come back for the third time, and that there is now no hope.

How long did he have, Gould asked the specialist. Three months, he was told. But then Gould said something completely at odds with what I had witnessed, or thought I had witnessed, in the hospital in the days before.

"You know, this period of death is astonishing," he told his interviewer. "The moment you enter the death phase it is a different place. It's more intense, more extraordinary, much more powerful."

Most of us, most of the time, prefer not to think about death. We think so little about it that perhaps we are not sure why it is a subject we avoid. Is it fear of pain? Fear of the unknown? Fear of ceasing to exist? Fear of the burden we leave those who survive us? Perhaps that varies from one person to another. Perhaps it differs according to whether you are young or old, in pain or in disbelief at how well you feel.

In the days that followed his diagnosis Philip Gould and his wife, Gail Rebuck, talked a lot about the past – what they had got right and all they had got wrong. It was a time of reckoning which Gould sees as a kind of privilege: a chance to make explicit and to accept. "I do really feel I know where I am now," he says, insisting he is not afraid of dying. "From the moment I resolved and reconciled things with Gail the fear went... I think acceptance is the key. If you accept death, fear disappears."

This is not, I suspect, anything to do with thinking of what comes next, oblivion or afterlife. When Gould was first diagnosed, he became religious, but his faith was knocked after seeing the suffering of others, and experiencing severe pain himself, in an intensive care unit when the cancer recurred. Yet since the cancer returned for the third time so has his faith. Perhaps that is what passing through the valley of the shadow of death does.

But what is most intriguing is that if Philip Gould has thought hard about the past – and, for all the highs and lows of New Labour, he has not concluded that he ought to have spent more time at the office – he is not much thinking about the future.

"I live by the day," he says. "Just sitting in the park, looking at the flowers thinking how beautiful they are. It's almost... not hallucinogenic, but it's a much stronger feeling than previously. For me, at the moment, going for a walk in the park with Gail is heaven." Hattenstone asks him an interesting question. If Gould could have another 10 years in return for sacrificing the intensity of the present, would he take it? The political strategist says he would not.

"This is where I should be. I think I should be here." Then he demurs, realising that this may be a selfish legacy to bequeath to his wife and adds he would take the extra time to be with Gail.

It is a conceit, of course, for he has accepted the unchangeable truth. His widow will, as the Anglo-Pakistani novelist Kamila Shamsie put it in Burnt Shadows, either be left alone with her grief or be borne up by the embrace of friends who are in Urdu called the ghum-khaur – the grief-eaters – the community of friends who gather to absorb the sorrow of the bereaved.

For those who die there is only the present, a tense in which things are both more trivial than ever before – and more important too. And the difference between the trivial and the important doesn't seem to matter. It is a time when, as the dying playwright Dennis Potter put it, "the nowness of everything is wondrous".

I thought back to the women I had watched die. I had projected on to them loneliness. Perhaps that is indeed what they were feeling. Or perhaps they too were just focused on the intensity of that final present.

Drink your tea slowly and reverently, as if it is the axis on which the world earth revolves – slowly, evenly, without rushing toward the future, said the Buddha. Live the actual moment. Only this moment is life.

As to the rest of us, we stand by and observe, feeling in our bones neither complete mindfulness of the present moment – nor its searing solitariness.

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