In this essay Nick Triani contemplates on living with a heightened sense of mortality. As he gets older, he has a growing awareness of his own mortality and of learning to live with the fragility of life.
Hold your breath for as long as you can, you’ll get some dizzy, fuzzy feelings after 30 seconds. If you’re calm, you can reach maximum relaxation without breathing… I used to try this a lot when I was in my early teens. It was bragging rights in the school playground to see who could hold out the longest. No one was willingly flirting with death, not knowingly at least. But in our youthful zeal, it was tempting.
In my 53rd year, death seems much closer. I don’t obsess about this, but on a rare occasion I contemplate on being well into the second half of my life’s journey. I love living, so of course I try not to dwell on this, despite the apprehension.
Just close your eyes and imagine how you’ll die. I have imagined my own demise and mostly contemplated the most pain-free version of death. I imagine myself on some heroic adventure, saving many and then falling asleep for one last time. If only real-life was so convenient and lacking in responsibilities – like in the movies. Reality reminds us everyday of life’s fragile nature.
I have imagined my own demise and mostly contemplated the most pain-free version of death. I imagine myself on some heroic adventure, saving many and then falling asleep for one last time
As I write this, a child in Syria has probably been violently killed. Or in Yemen. Or possibly in occupied Palestine. A youth’s life taken away by an un-breached tribalism in London. Famine/war/illness/mother-nature/bad luck/natural-causes can all participate in an unexpected death. But why am I thinking about death now and imaging the end of my own life? Death’s hanging in the air, realised, close, yet still far. I could just put it down to these heady times, but there is something more. Death as signifier, death as reminder of youth, death as family, the death of not being around anymore. The death of meaning anything to anyone else…
Celebrity in flux
I didn’t know Perttu Häkkinen very well, but I considered him a friendly acquaintance – our paths crossed on occasion and it was always rewarding. His sudden passing during this year’s Flow Festival was another reminder of that already fragile nature of existence. As I’m writing this article rapper Mac Millar, Nick Cave sidekick Conway Savage, actor Burt Reynolds and Carry-on film doyen Liz Fraser have all died within the last week.
Death rates are massive amongst the general population let alone amongst the the more well known. Over 150,000 of us die everyday worldwide on average. That’s a lot of pain and loss. We are surrounded by death, even when we don’t realise it. One gruesome habit I nonchalantly carry on online is to add a photo of the latest film star or director to shuffle along to the great beyond at this page. Did I really try to fool you that I’m not obsessing about this stuff?
Death as signifier, death as reminder of youth, death as family, the death of not being around anymore. The death of meaning anything to anyone else…
After a hazy Friday evening, I awoke very early a couple of Saturdays ago and watched the previous evening’s broadcast of Aretha Franklin’s funeral. A strange thing to do I guess, but I found the mixture of heartfelt tribute, gospel and Trump baiting weirdly comforting. It was also a beautiful example of black culture. Aretha has been eulogised much since her passing, and rightfully so. The many tributes were not based on some nostalgia driven old star tropes (as many are), but on the fact that Aretha represented the best of what she did and what many of us aspire to be. A rareness that really isn’t there anymore in many. I held back the tears (just) a few times.
Closer to home
Burt Reynolds’ death instantly brought back memories of my father. He was a big Reynolds fan, my father being of the generation that found a certain type of masculinity appealing. As my thoughts turn to dad, it brings back other memories. Yes, on the night my father died I was with my partner watching the then just released Apocalypse Now Redux (yes, the longer cut was a travesty and added nothing but minutes).
On exiting the cinema, many missed calls told me something was up. My father had been in hospital and I had visited him in England the previous week. He had cancer and I’d been told he had months to go. The call to London signalled the worst, he’d suddenly gone. I was very alone at that time; going through a messy divorce, living on people’s floors. Some people who had been close to me became distant and a lot of people had an opinion about my marriage break-up (bizarrely). Some people were even openly racist. It was winter in Helsinki and harsh. Now my father was gone.
I returned to England for the funeral. My father hadn’t been able to see his young grandaughter in the flesh. My mother was very lost. My divorce was a big annoyance to my Catholic family. I was struggling with the lack of closure I’d had with my father. Despite both having a shared love for football and Clint Eastwood westerns, the cultural and generational gap was big. We didn’t really get on as a I grew into an adult. But now he’d gone and I felt distraught. So much to say, so much unsaid, so little understanding. I was given some of my father’s possessions to bring back to Finland. A crucifix, an old watch (which I always coveted as a child), and his wedding band were amongst the collection of personal treasures. I hardly have any photographs of my father. In addition to memories, those few possessions have remained my only real connection to father. Reduced to a small cardboard box, I miss his presence as the years pass and I wonder what he’d make of me now.
In addition to memories, those few possessions have remained my only real connection to father. Reduced to a small cardboard box, I miss his presence as the years pass and I wonder what he’d make of me now
The 100% stigma conundrum
It’s been four years now since my partner was diagnosed with breast cancer and around a year and half since her cancer returned and the diagnosis was updated to chronic and (initially) terminal. Those terminal fears have slightly abated as my partner has responded very well to treatment. She has dealt with these considerable set-backs with amazing resilience, a new-found openness to discussing difficult issues and an unbelievable will to get as much done as possible, as an artist, academic, partner and mother. It’s been astonishing to watch and despite all the other confused and distraught feelings I’ve been going through, my partner has been inspirational to me.
That positivity has brushed off on me and my small child, mostly. We do live with this always in the back of our minds. Although the situation is as positive as it can be, I do feel the illness lurking (even if it’s not right now).
Once you put a tick- tock scenario in place, it ups the stakes. If I’m honest, I’ve dealt with my partner’s illness by burying myself in work and trying to suppress anger about my partner’s fate. She is considerably younger than me and has been dealt these impossible cards. So, from one perspective, I haven’t dealt very well at all. I’m not sure what constitutes a good way of dealing with such a hand? I have of course considered my life without her and how me and our small child might cope with such a loss. It’s not a stable line of thinking, and unlike my earlier super hero scenario for my own demise, this one is rather more downbeat.
Illness to a nearest and dearest brings its own stigma, and changes how people generally see you. I have to some degree become defined in people’s eyes by my wife’s illness. A usual conversation over the last four years, with more casual acquaintances has gone (awkwardly) along these lines:
Friend (awkwardly): How is your wife doing?
Me (awkwardly): Yes, she’s coping – we’re coping.
Friend: Must be really hard for your small child. Please send my regards and love. She is so brave and so open about her illness and such an inspiration.
Me: Yes, I will do.
Friend: And, I’m not prying, but is she completely better now?
Me: (at this point I roll out my stock answer) Yes, she’s out of the woods right now, but the nature of this illness means we are living with it. My partner still receives a lot of treatment.
These conversations usually end after the latest status update. I appreciate that people care enough to ask. But after awhile you feel like the medical oracle. I can’t remember the last time anyone asked me how I’m coping with my partner’s illness. In an alternative universe I might imaging responding like this:
Friend (awkwardly): How is your wife doing?
Me (aggressively): Mind your own business runt.
Friend (nervously): Must be really hard for your small child. Please send my regards and love. She is so brave and so open about her illness and such an inspiration.
Me (openly angry now): Just fuck off now.
Friend (defensively): And, I’m not prying, but is she completely better now.
Me (at this point, frothing at the mouth): – Yes you are prying you nosey bastard (I then proceed to assault my questioner, causing serious GBH).
Illness to a nearest and dearest brings its own stigma, and changes how people generally see you. I have to some degree become defined in people’s eyes by my wife’s illness
The final countdown
So in recent years, most of my cultural kicks have been centered around death. The Leftovers I discussed before, a series discussing ‘the great departure’. I’ve increasingly been listening to a lot of music by dead people – over my usual preference for new music. Pat Mills and Joe Colquhoun’s First World War comic strip Charley’s War has consumed my reading with senseless death in the trenches. The residue of the Grenfell Tower Fire and ongoing fight for justice regarding the Hillsborough disaster is something I follow. These have quietly become small obsessions.
Perhaps I’m bitter, or just tired. My weariness towards death is also strangely thrilling. I am becoming fascinated by it like never before (and this doesn’t relate to my partner’s struggles). It’s more a new phase for me. What happens after we die? I’m warming to the idea of a cheap funeral a la Bowie and the direct cremation process. I’m also far more emotional and sensitive about our prospects for the planet, the environment, how we leave the world for my children. It’s not looking good. But what I leave behind has greater importance than ever. My usual concerns of cultural relevance, music etc. are fading in the face of my new found ‘end of times’ concerns. How does anything really matter in the face of annihilation? Live for today is also a new mantra. I embrace it (with a side order of fuck death and its shuddering finality). Both these outlooks are going concerns.
Nick Triani is an editor and contributor to One Quart Magazine